Imports at the nation's major retail container ports have dipped from last fall's frantic peaks, but still remain at higher-than-usual levels because retailers are stockpiling inventory as they brace for the impact of potential March tariff hikes on goods from China, according to the latest monthly cargo data from the National Retail Federation (NRF) and maritime consultants Hackett Associates.
Current U.S. tariff rates of 10 percent on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods that first took effect last September are scheduled to jump to 25 percent on March 1 unless ongoing negotiations are successful, NRF said.
A tariff hike of that magnitude would trigger higher prices for consumers at the checkout counter, and put a dent in global trade, the group said. In preparation, retailers are scurrying to squirrel away goods, but warehouses and storage facilities are running out of space to store that flood of last-minute imports, according to Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett.
"With trade talks with China still unresolved, retailers appear to be bringing spring merchandise into the country early in case tariffs go up in March," NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said in a release. "We are hopeful that the talks will succeed, but until the trade war is behind us, retailers need to do what they can to mitigate the higher prices that will inevitably come with tariffs."
The latest figures are higher than NRF and Hackett had forecast in their January report, when they projected declining volumes in the coming months and an overall weakness in imports for the first half of 2019.
The statistics shows that U.S. ports covered by Hackett's Global Port Tracker handled 1.97 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU) in December, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. That was up 8.8 percent from November and 13.9 percent year-over-year.
For the full year, that result brought 2018 to a record 21.8 million TEU, an increase of 6.2 percent over 2017's previous record of 20.5 million TEU.
Looking forward into 2019, January was estimated at 1.83 million TEU, up 4.1 percent from January 2018. February is forecast at 1.78 million TEU, up 5.7 percent year-over-year; March at 1.6 million TEU, up 3.8 percent; April at 1.76 million TEU, up 7.7 percent; May at 1.89 million TEU, up 3.4 percent, and June at 1.86 million TEU, up 0.3 percent. That would bring the first half of 2019 to 10.7 million TEU, up 4.1 percent over the first half of 2018.
The Global Port Tracker report, which is produced for NRF by Hackett, covers the ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle and Tacoma on the West Coast; New York/New Jersey, Port of Virginia, Charleston, Savannah, Port Everglades, Miami and Jacksonville on the East Coast, and Houston on the Gulf Coast.