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Cargo Imports Could Hit New Record as Merchants Stock Up

As retailers enter the back-to-school season and begin to stock up for holiday selling, July and August are shaping up to be two of the busiest months ever seen for imports at the nation’s major container ports, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released Monday by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.

“We’re expecting retailers to import some of the largest volumes of merchandise ever,” said Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy at NRF. “That’s a good indicator of what could be ahead for consumer demand and retail sales, and it’s a sign that retail is going strong despite what you might read in the headlines.”

Ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.72 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units in May. That was up 7.3% from April and 6.2% from May 2016. One TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.

June was estimated at 1.66 million TEU, up 5.3% from the same time last year, while July is forecast at 1.71 million TEU, which would be a 5.1% increase from last year, and August is projected at 1.75 million TEU, which would be a 2.2% gain. Global Port Tracker estimates September imports to hit at 1.66 million TEU, up 4.3% year-to-year, with October increasing 2.2% to 1.71 million TEU, and November at 1.6 million TEU, which would be down 2.7% from last year.

The August figure would be the highest monthly volume recorded since NRF began tracking imports in 2000, topping the 1.73 million TEU seen in March 2015. The 1.7 million-plus numbers seen in May, July, August and October represent four of the six busiest months in the report’s history.

[Read more on the state of the shipping sector: Supply Chain Foundation Stable, But Uncertainty Lurks]

The first half of 2017 is expected to total 9.63 million TEU, up 7.1% from the first half of 2016. Cargo volume for 2016 totaled 18.8 million TEU, up 3.1% from 2015, which had grown 5.4% from 2014.

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NRF has forecast that 2017 retail sales, excluding automobiles, gasoline and restaurants, will increase between 3.7% and 4.2% over 2016, driven by job and income growth coupled with low debt.

Cargo volume does not correlate directly with sales because only the number of containers is counted, not the value of the cargo inside, but still provides a barometer of retailers’ expectations.

Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett, an economist who prepares Global Port Tracker for NRF, said the increases in imports have come despite threats by the Trump administration to impose new limits on international trade.

“Some actions to date appear to have alienated traditional allies and are causing them to work more closely together, leaving the United States on the sidelines,” Hackett wrote in his monthly editorial comment in the report. “‘America First’ may well result in protectionist actions that will cut the United States off from the benefits of the global value chain and economic growth for U.S. importers and exporters.”

Global Port Tracker covers the U.S. ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach and Oakland, California; Seattle and Tacoma, Washington, on the West Coast; New York/New Jersey; Hampton Roads, Virginia; Charleston, South Carolina; Savannah, Georgia, and Port Everglades and Miami, Florida, on the East Coast, and Houston on the Gulf Coast.