U.S. Imports at All Time High, Expected to Slow in January

For the first time, U.S. ports reached 2 million containers in a single month as retailers bolster their inventories ahead of the now-postponed tariff increases on Chinese goods. The announcement came from the monthly Global Port Tracker report released by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.

“President Trump has declared a temporary truce in the trade war, but these imports came in before that announcement was made,” said Jonathan Gold of the NRF.

U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 2.04 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units 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. A TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.

The October number was the highest for a single month since Global Port Tracker began counting cargo in 2000. November was 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.

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. 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.

Year-over-year growth rates and total volume are expected to slow in January, when 10 percent tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese products that took effect in September had been scheduled to increase to 25 percent.

Trump announced after a meeting with Chinese President Xi that the increase – and a threat to impose tariffs on all Chinese products – would be put on hold while the two countries conduct 90 days of negotiations. Official action to delay the tariff increase has yet to be announced, however.

January 2019 is forecast at 1.72 million TEU, down 2.1 percent from January 2018; February at 1.67 million TEU, down 1 percent year-over-year; March at 1.57 million TEU, up 1.7 percent, and April at 1.7 million TEU, up 3.7 percent.

“We see a significant slowdown in import growth in 2019 as the market adjusts to higher prices due to the Trump tariffs,” Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett said. “We project that imports at our monitored ports will have grown significantly in 2018 but that there will be no import growth in the first half of 2019 compared with the same period in 2018.”

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