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Import Cargo Increases in 2017, but a Nixed NAFTA Could Curb That Spike

Imports at the nation’s major retail container ports are expected to increase 1.5% this month over the same time last year, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released today by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.

Cargo imports for the year, which included five of the seven busiest months on record, should end with a substantial 6.4% increase over 2016.

The total for 2017 is expected to come to 20 million TEU, topping last year’s previous record of 18.8 million TEU by 6.4% and compares with 2016’s 3.1% increase over 2015.

This year saw an all-time monthly record of 1.8 million TEU set in August, and included five of only seven months when imports have hit 1.7 million TEU or higher.

“Retailers are doing last-minute restocking as consumers head toward the finish line of the shopping season, but the majority of holiday merchandise is already in the country and ports are beginning to quiet down,” said Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy at NRF.

Gold noted, however, that retailers’ ability to provide consumers with quality products at affordable prices could be threatened if the U.S. pulls out of the North American Free Trade Agreement or engages in other anti-trade policy measures that fail to recognize the increased employment and other contributions imports make to the nation’s economy.

[Read more about NAFTA talks: NAFTA Prospects Grow Increasingly Grim as US Blames Canada, Mexico for Holding up the Deal]

Ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.77 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units in October, a 0.3% gain over September and a 5.9% hike year-over-year. A TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.

November cargo shipments into the ports were estimated at 1.64 million TEU, down 0.3% from last year, and December is forecast at 1.6 million TEU, which would be a 1.5% increase.

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January imports are forecast at 1.67 million TEU, 0.5% less than a year earlier; February is projected at 1.6 million TEU, up 11.6% from last year; March at 1.5 million TEU, down 2 percent, and April at 1.66 million TEU, a 3.6% gain. The February and March percentages are skewed because of changes in when Asian factories close for Lunar New Year each year.

The import numbers come as NRF is forecasting that 2017 retail sales will grow between 3.2% and 3.8% over 2016 and that this year’s holiday sales will grow between 3.6% and 4 percent. Cargo volume does not correlate directly with sales because only the number of containers is counted, not the value of the cargo inside, nor does it include domestically made good, but still provides a barometer of retailers’ expectations.

“We expect the coming six months to continue to grow, although at a reduced rate on a year-on-year basis,” said Ben Hackett, founder of maritime industry consultancy Hackett Associates. “The second half of 2018 will be weaker than the first half, but recession is not on the horizon.”

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.