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US Apparel Imports Perked Up in November—Barely

U.S. apparel imports continued to recover in November, after dramatic declines throughout the year, with shipments up 9.5 percent in volume to 2 billion square meter equivalents (SME) compared to a year earlier, according to new data released Thursday by the Commerce Department’s Office of Textiles & Apparel (OTEXA).

The value of apparel imports into the U.S. was down 4.7 percent year over year in November to $5.28 billion, which was an improvement of October’s 6.9 percent year-over-year decline. There was also some pickup in the year-to-date imports in the first 11 months of 2020, with shipments down 24.03 percent to $59.24 billion compared to the same period in 2019, after notching a 25.56 percent year-to-date decline in October.

Still-top supplier China followed the pattern, with the U.S. importing 14.9 percent more goods to 778.7 SME in the month compared to November 2019, when the tariff-fueled U.S.-China trade was still in full force. The value of those imports fell 8.3 percent to $1.27 billion year over year in November–a slower rate of decline than the 11 percent drop the prior month.

But imports from China have still plummeted 40.27 percent in the 11-month period though November to $14.07 billion and its position as the go-to apparel supplier to American brands and retailers faces challenges.

President-elect Joe Biden has said he plans to keep the tariffs imposed by the Trump administration in place, at least in the short term, as leverage to get China back to negotiating fresh trade reforms. Biden’s pick of Katherine Tai as the next U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) seems to reinforce that, according to trade experts such as Dr. Sheng Lu, associate professor at the University of Delaware’s Department of Fashion and Apparel Studies.

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Lu told Sourcing Journal that the nomination of Tai, a former USTR chief counsel for China trade enforcement with responsibility for the development and litigation of U.S. disputes against China at the World Trade Organization, “signals [that] the new Biden administration attaches great importance to the U.S.-China commercial relationship, which is at its lowest point in decades but remains so consequential to the U.S. businesses and the world.”

Most of the Top 10 U.S. apparel suppliers saw their imports rise in November. Shipments from No. 2 Vietnam increased 13.5 percent in value to $1 billion but were still down 6.59 percent year to date to $11.71 billion.

Imports from Bangladesh fell 11 percent in value year over year to $372.87 million and were up 1.8 percent in volume to 143.74 SME. For the year to date, shipments from Bangladesh were down 11.6 percent to $4.87 billion.

Bangladesh exports missed “strategic targets” in the second half of the year based on the government’s Export Promotion Bureau, as production was curtailed by the pandemic and a decline in orders from key suppliers.

Bangladesh apparel exports in the July-to-December period were valued at $15.55 billion, missing its target by 4.12 percent and 2.99 percent below year-earlier levels. Exports of leather and leather goods, including footwear and accessories, were $446.13 million, surpassing the bureau’s target by 1.05 percent, but coming in 6.24 percent below 2019 shipments. Home textiles exports reached $547.48 million in the period, beating the strategic target by 18.83 percent and nearly doubling 2019’s shipments.

Cambodia continued to be the only top supplier to post a year-to-date increase, with imports up 4.78 percent to $2.61 billion in the 11 months. In November, shipments from the country rose 17.3 percent year over year to $235 million.

Asian suppliers Indonesia and India had mixed results in the month, with the volume of its imports up but their value down for the month. Imports from Indonesia rose 7.8 percent in volume to 72.21 SME and declined 19 percent in value to $59.5 million year over year. India’s shipments increased 11.1 percent to 80.57 SME but fell 7.5 percent to $235.26 million. Imports from Pakistan jumped in volume and value, up 24.1 percent to 65.34 SME and 24.3 percent to $131.47 million.

A trio of Western Hemisphere suppliers–Honduras, Mexico and El Salvador–saw the imports to the U.S. fall across both measurements. Shipments from Honduras were down 35 percent in volume to 55.41 SME and 32 percent to $160.14 million. Imports from Mexico dipped 1.1 percent in volume to 57.06 SME and fell 17 percent in value to $193.77 million, while shipments from El Salvador 12 percent to 44.93 SME and 1.9 percent to $128.74 million.

The U.S. Census Bureau and Bureau of Economic Analysis also reported Thursday that the U.S. trade deficit was $68.1 billion in November, up $5 billion from $63.1 billion in October.

November exports were $184.2 billion, $2.2 billion more than October exports, while imports were $252.3 billion, $7.2 billion more than the previous month. The November increase in the goods and services deficit reflected an increase in the goods deficit of $5 billion to $86.4 billion and a decrease in the services surplus of less than $100 million to $18.2 billion.