CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly
February 22, 2020
Forward Thinking

Imports break new records under pressure of holiday peak, tariff threats

Container trade could slump in 2019 as political uncertainty boosts prices, dampens consumer sentiment, NRF-Hackett report says.

As U.S. companies scramble to import elevated amounts of goods to stock up for holiday shoppers and a potential trade war with China, ports across the country are recording record container volumes, including an announcement Thursday that the Port of Los Angeles has recorded the sixth busiest month in its history.

At 832,331 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs), November's combined imports and exports at the port were actually down 9.9 percent compared to the same month last year, port officials said.

But volumes throughout 2018 have been so extraordinarily high that the period was still the fifth consecutive month that volumes exceeded 800,000 TEUs, and keep the port on track to surpass 9 million TEUs once again this year. As a measure of those record volumes, November 2017 set an all-time record at the port, until it was surpassed just 11 months later.

At the nearby Port of Oakland, container volumes followed a similar pattern, triggering the facility's busiest November ever for imports, and breaking an 11-year-old record by handling 83,364 TEUs. Like their neighboring Californian port, Oakland officials said the hot business climate was fueled by strong U.S. consumer spending and by importers' rush to get cargo into the U.S. in case new tariffs are imposed next year in the ongoing trade war with China.

However, the outlook for 2019 is murky. While Oakland's November mark was up 15 percent over the same period in 2017, port officials also noted that they were "cautious" about future shipping trends. "We're encouraged by our latest cargo statistics," Port of Oakland Maritime Director John Driscoll said in a release.  "At the same time, we remain cautious as we approach the new year with uncertainty."

Those results at California ports also mirror nationwide trends, according to the latest monthly cargo data from the National Retail Federation (NRF) and consultancy Hackett Associates, which showed that imports at the nation's major retail container ports have set another new record, reaching 2 million containers in a single month for the first time.

U.S. ports covered by the groups' Global Port Tracker handled 2.04 million TEUs in October, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. That was up 9 percent from September and up 13.6 percent year-over-year, the NRF said today.

Nationwide November container volume is estimated at 2.01 million TEU, a 14 percent year-over-year increase that would have been a new record if not for the October number, NRF said. December - normally a slow month with holiday merchandise already on the shelves - is forecast at 1.83 million TEU, up 6.1 percent year-over year. Added up, those numbers would bring 2018 to a total of 21.8 million TEU, an increase of 6.5 percent over last year's record 20.5 million TEU.

Despite those robust figures, NRF calculations echo the California ports' stormy forecast for the new year. "We see a significant slowdown in import growth in 2019 as the market adjusts to higher prices due to the Trump tariffs and the impact on consumer and industry confidence going forward," Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett said in a release.

Political changes can influence freight trends because businesses struggle to cope with unknown conditions, the NRF said. "President Trump has declared a temporary truce in the trade war, but these imports came in before that announcement was made," NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said in a release. "We hope that the temporary stand-down becomes permanent, but in the meantime there has been a rush to bring merchandise in before existing tariffs go up or new ones can be imposed. China's abuses of trade policy need to be addressed, but tariffs that drive up prices for American families and costs for U.S. businesses are not the answer."

The Global Port Tracker report 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.

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