Volume at the nation's major container ports surged in November as retailers imported more goods ahead of tariffs set to take effect later this month, according to the latest Global Port Tracker report, released Monday.
Ports processed an estimated 1.95 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) in November, an 8% increase over the year-ago period and the highest rate since August, when retailers sped imports head of tariffs that took effect in September. December imports are expected to drop to 1.79 million TEU because of the new tariffs and the "usual falloff in imports as the holiday season winds down," according to the report, which was issued by the National Retail Federation and industry researcher Hackett Associates. The December projection is down nearly 9% from a year ago during a similar pattern of bringing in merchandise ahead of new tariffs, the researchers said.
The Trump administration announced a tentative agreement on a partial trade deal with China in October, but it has yet to be finalized and tariffs on a new round of consumer goods from China are still scheduled to take effect December 15. NRF said the impact of new tariffs won't be known until after the holiday rush.
"At this point, holiday merchandise is already in the country, so the direct impact of new tariffs won't be seen until the season is over," NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said in a statement announcing the Global Port Tracker results. "Nonetheless, tariffs are bad for both consumer and business confidence, and we hope that the December tariffs will be canceled or postponed as a sign of good faith."
Consumers seem unfazed in the short term, however.
"The U.S. consumer has shrugged off the slowdown in the economy," Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett said in the same statement. "Even though growth has slowed, low unemployment and higher wages have helped bolster purchases and, thereby, imports for consumer goods."
Hackett added that the trade war is affecting his firm's forward-looking models "as we continue to show slower long-term growth in import volumes."
October imports were up slightly, as U.S. ports handled 1.88 million TEUs, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. That was a 0.6% increase from September but down 7.5 percent from the all-time monthly record of 2 million TEU in October 2018, according to the report.
Looking ahead, the January 2020 forecast projects 1.87 million TEU, down 1.2% compared to January 2019. February, traditionally the slowest month of the year due to Lunar New Year factory shutdowns in Asia, is expected to be down 0.3% and March is forecast to increase an "unusually high 9.2%," the researchers said. The anticipated March increase is due to fluctuations in the Lunar New Year calendar, according to NRF and Hackett Associates. April is forecast to rise 5.6%.
Global Port Tracker covers the U.S. 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.