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U.S.-bound retail container volume set new record, says Port Tracker

United States-bound retail container imports hit a new record in October, according to the Port Tracker report issued by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and maritime consultancy Hackett Associates this week.

The ports surveyed in the report include Los Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland, Tacoma, Seattle, Houston, New York/New Jersey, Hampton Roads, Charleston, and Savannah, Miami, Jacksonville, and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Port Everglades. Authors of the report explained that cargo import numbers do not correlate directly with retail sales or employment because they count only the number of cargo containers brought into the country, not the value of the merchandise inside them, adding that the amount of merchandise imported provides a rough barometer of retailers’ expectations.

Volumes have been coming in at higher-than-usual levels in recent month, with retailers importing merchandise in advance of what was expected to be coming tariff increase in January. But that January increase was recently put on hold in the form of a 90-day “trade truce” between the U.S. and China that will leave tariffs on more than $200 billion worth of goods imported to the U.S. from China at 10%, rather than the planned increase to 25%.

“President Trump has declared a temporary truce in the trade war, but these imports came in before that announcement was made,” NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said in a statement. “We hope that the temporary stand-down becomes permanent, but in the meantime there has been a rush to bring merchandise in before existing tariffs go up or new ones can be imposed. China’s abuses of trade policy need to be addressed, but tariffs that drive up prices for American families and costs for U.S. businesses are not the answer.”

Port Tracker reported that U.S.-based retail container ports handled 2.04 million TEU (Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units), in October, the most recent month for which data is available, which was up 9% compared to September and up 13.6% annually. This marks the single highest volume month since the Port Tracker report began tracking retail container import volume in 2000. The previous record was July’s 1.9 million TEU, which had topped August 2017’s 1.83 million TEU.

November volumes were forecasted at 2.01 million TEU for a 14% annual gain, and December was pegged at 1.83 million TEU for a 6.1% annual gain. Should these numbers come to fruition, total 2018 volume would be 21.8 million TEU for an 8.5% increase over 2017.

This run of growth, though is expected to see a decline early next year, with January expected to be down 2.1% to 1.72 million TEU, February down 1% to 1.67 million TEU, and March up 1.7% to 1.57 million TEU.

Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett wrote in the report that 2019 is not expected to yield the same volume levels as 2018.

“When taking into account economic activity overseas that impacts the United States, we see a significant slowdown in import growth in 2019 as the market adjusts to higher prices due to the Trump tariffs and the impact on consumer and industry confidence going forward,” he wrote in the report. “We project that imports at our monitored ports will have grown significantly in 2018, but that there will be no import growth in the first half of 2019 compared with the same period of 2018.”

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