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Retail Cargo Import Patterns Disrupted by Trade War

Year-to-year comparisons of cargo imports at major U.S. retail container ports are expected to fluctuate in the second half of 2019, as the U.S.-China trade war has disrupted normal patterns.

“While imports will decline year-over-year most months during the remainder of this year, that is largely because of high volumes seen last year as retailers rushed to bring in merchandise ahead of scheduled tariff increases,” according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released Thursday by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.

Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett said the threatened new 10 percent tariffs on goods from China, including apparel and footwear, which President Trump said he would impose on Sept. 1, would not likely have an immediate impact on import volumes. But an increase to 25 percent “would have a significant impact and would cause us to lower our trade projections further,” Hackett said.

“Even with virtually everything America imports from China soon to be subject to tariffs, it isn’t quick or easy for retailers to change their supply chains,” Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy at NRF, said. “And even if sourcing eventually shifts away from China, it will simply come from other countries.”

U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.8 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units in June, down 2.9 percent from May and 3 percent below year-ago levels. A TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.

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July cargo imports were estimated to have fallen 2.6 percent year-over-year to 1.86 million TEU. August shipments are forecast to rise 0.6 percent to 1.91 million TEU, while decline are seen in September of 1.1 percent to 1.85 million TEU, and October of 6.2 percent to 1.91 million. Finishing the year, November cargo hitting U.S. ports is seen rising 1.8 percent to 1.84 million TEU, while December shipments at forecast to decline 7.9 percent to 1.81 million TEU.

The August and October numbers would be the highest monthly volumes since 1.96 million TEU last December, tying for the third-highest month on record behind that and the all-time record of 2 billion TEU set last October, Global Port Tracker noted.

The first half of 2019 totaled 10.5 million TEU, up 2.1 percent over the first half of 2018, and 2019 is expected to reach 21.7 million TEU. That would come within 0.4 percent of last year’s record 21.8 million TEU, which was up an unusually high 6.2 percent over 2017.

Global Port Tracker covers the U.S. ports of Los Angeles-Long Beach and Oakland, Calif., and Seattle and Tacoma, Wash., on the West Coast; New York-New Jersey; Port of Virginia; Charleston, S.C.; Savannah, Ga,; and Port Everglades, Miami and Jacksonville, Fla., on the East Coast, and Houston on the Gulf Coast.