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Cargo Imports Level Off After Rush to Beat Tariffs

Retail cargo imports at major U.S. container ports have slowed after a fall rush to beat increased tariffs on goods from China, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released Tuesday by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.

U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.81 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU) in November, a 2.5 percent year over year increase, but an 11.4 percent decline from the record 2.04 million TEU set in October. A TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.

“With the holiday season behind us, the immediate pressure to stock up on merchandise has passed, but retailers remain concerned about tariffs and their impact on the nation’s economy,” said Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy at the NRF. “Retailers have also brought in much of their spring merchandise early to protect consumers against higher prices that will eventually come with tariffs.”

Still on the table is President Trump’s threat of 25 percent tariffs on apparel and footwear imports from China. Negotiators from the two countries are meeting in Beijing this week to try to iron out a compromise.

“Our industry is hoping the talks currently under way will bring an end to this ill-advised trade war and result in a more appropriate way of responding to China’s trade abuses that won’t force American consumers, workers and businesses to pay the price,” Gold said.

December retail cargo imports were estimated at 1.79 million TEU, a 3.7 percent year-over-year increase. That would bring 2018 to a total of 21.6 million TEU, an increase of 5.3 percent over 2017’s record 20.5 million TEU.

But January shipments are forecast at 1.75 million TEU, down 0.9 percent from a year earlier, and February imports are seen falling 0.9 percent year-over-year to 1.67 million TEU. Looking further ahead, cargo imports are projected to be up 0.6 percent in March to 1.55 million TEU, increase 3.7 percent in April to 1.69 million TEU and then drop 1.3 percent in May to 1.8 million TEU. February and March are typically two of the slowest months of the year for imports because of the post-holiday drop in demand and the Lunar New Year factory shutdowns in Asia.

“There have been record-high levels of imports over the past several months, primarily due to raised inventories ahead of expected tariff increases,” Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett said. “But we are projecting declining volumes in the coming months and an overall weakness in imports for the first half of the year.”