An annual lull between seasons and previously planned tariff increases on hold represent two main reasons for United States retail container port import volumes to fall to their lowest level in nearly a year, according to the Port Tracker report, which was issued today by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and maritime consultancy Hackett Associates.
The ports surveyed in the report include: Los Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland, Tacoma, Seattle, Houston, New York/New Jersey, Hampton Roads, Charleston, and Savannah, Miami, Jacksonville, and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Port Everglades.
Authors of the report explained that cargo import numbers do not correlate directly with retail sales or employment because they count only the number of cargo containers brought into the country, not the value of the merchandise inside them, adding that the amount of merchandise imported provides a rough barometer of retailers’ expectations.
“Now that the holiday season is over and summer has yet to crank up, this is the quiet time of year for retail supply chains,” NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said in a statement. “Retailers are also taking a break from the rush to bring merchandise in ahead of tariff hikes now that the increase that was scheduled for March has been delayed. We are hoping that the delay is permanent and, better yet, that tariffs of the past year will be removed entirely. But either way, imports will start to build up again soon as retailers prepare for the summer.”
Port Tracker noted that U.S. tariffs of 10% on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods that took effect last September were scheduled to increase to 25% on March 2 but the increase was postponed by President Trump, citing progress in talks between Washington and Beijing. The tariff increase is on hold until further notice as the United States and China try to conclude negotiations for a signing summit between Trump and President Xi later this month or in April, it added.
For January, the most recent month for which data is available, U.S. ports handled 1.89 million TEU (twenty-foot equivalent units), which was off 3.7% compared to December, at the end of the holiday season, and up 7.4% annually. February was pegged at 1.79 million for a 6.2% annual gain, and March is estimated at 1.59 million TEU for a 3.2% annual gain. Should the March number come to fruition, the report said that it would represent the lowest monthly tally going back to April 2018, when it came in at 1.63 million TEU. The report also highlighted how February and March are, on a historical basis, the two slowest months of the year, due to retailers being between major shipping seasons, as well as the Lunar New Year in Asia, which sees myriad factory shutdowns.
April, May and June are forecasted to hit 1.75 million TEU (a 7% increase), 1.88 million TEU (a 3.3% increase), and 1.88 million TEU (a 1.7% increase), respectively. Total volume for the first half of 2018 is estimated to hit 10.8 million TEU for a 4.8% annual gain.
“The trade war with China is turning out not to have the dramatic results President Trump expected,” Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett wrote in the report. “The probable outcome is the withdrawal of tariffs by both sides and some assurances from China that they will buy more agricultural goods. The losers have been American families who paid higher prices for consumer goods, U.S. manufacturers who paid more for imported parts, and U.S. agricultural exporters who lost their Chinese markets and had to be paid off with subsidies. Imports from China did not decline – in fact, they soared to record levels – and exports decreased with the exception of crude oil. There is limited public support for an inward-looking policy on trade. Damage has been done to the nation’s reputation and it has lost the trust of allies. The global economy has also been impacted as traders have had a problem working out what U.S. policy on trade really is. “
Hackett continued to pull no punches, adding that the impact on his firm’s short-term trade projections are clear, in that the bump in volumes coming into 2019 was solely related to tariff expectations, with volume growth rates for the remainder of the year below 2018 growth levels.