Skip to main content

Retailers Hedged Their Bets on December Tariffs with Cargo Imports Last Month

Cargo volume at major U.S. container ports increased significantly in November as retailers brought in merchandise ahead of new tariffs set to take effect this month, according to the Global Port Tracker report released Monday by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.

U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled an estimated 1.95 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU) in November, up 8 percent year-over-year, as merchants front-loaded imports ahead of this month’s scheduled tariffs. That was the highest number since 1.97 million TEU in August, when retailers did the same ahead of tariffs that took effect Sept. 1. A TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.

“At this point, holiday merchandise is already in the country, so the direct impact of new tariffs won’t be seen until the season is over,” Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy at NRF, said.

President Trump announced a tentative agreement on a partial trade deal with China in October, but the measure has yet to be finalized and a new round of tariffs on consumer goods is still scheduled to take effect Dec. 15.

Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett said the trade war is “one of the factors that is impacting our forward-looking models, as we continue to show slower long-term growth in import volumes.”

October shipments were up 0.6 percent from September, but down 7.5 percent from the all-time monthly record of 2 million TEU in October 2018. December shipments are expected to drop 8.9 percent to 1.79 million TEU because of the new tariffs and the usual falloff in imports as the holiday season winds down.

Related Stories

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 see a new annual record of 21.9 million TEU. That would be up 0.8 percent from last year’s previous record of 21.8 million TEU.

January shipments are forecast to be down 1.2 percent to 1.87 million TEU compared to a year earlier, while February–traditionally the slowest month of the year because of Lunar New Year factory shutdowns in Asia–is forecast at 1.62 million TEU, down 0.3 percent from a year ago.

Looking further ahead, March cargo shipments are forecast at 1.76 million TEU, up an unusually high 9.2 percent due to fluctuations in the Lunar New Year calendar, while April is forecast to increase 5.6 percent to 1.84 million TEU.

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.