Imports at major US retail container ports in the first half of 2019 rose 2.1% year-on-year to 10.5m TEU

Imports at major US retail container ports in the first half of 2019 rose 2.1% year-on-year to 10.5m TEU

Imports at major US retail container ports are expected to continue at near-record levels this month and the rest of the year, despite a new round of tariffs on goods from China.

President Trump announced last week that new 10% tariffs on an additional US$300bn of Chinese goods will take effect on 1 September. Coupled with 25% tariffs imposed on $250bn worth of imports over the past year, the new round will tax almost all goods the United States imports from China – including textiles, apparel and footwear.

"Even with virtually everything America imports from China soon to be subject to tariffs, it isn't quick or easy for retailers to change their supply chains," explains Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy at the National Retail Federation (NRF). "And even if sourcing eventually shifts away from China, it will simply come from other countries." 

The latest Global Port Tracker report released by the NRF and Hackett Associates shows US ports handled 1.8m Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU) in June, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. That was down 2.9% from May and down 3% year-on-year. A TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.

July was estimated at 1.86m TEU, down 2.6% year-on-year. August is forecast at 1.91m TEU, up 0.6%, while September is at 1.85m, down 1.1%.

Looking further ahead, October is forecast at 1.91m TEU, down 6.2%; November at 1.84m TEU, up 1.8%, and December at 1.81m TEU, down 7.9%.

The August and October numbers would be the highest monthly volumes since 1.96m TEU last December, tying for the third-highest month on record behind that and the all-time record of 2bn TEU set last October.

While imports are set to decline year-on-year for most months during the remainder of this year, this is largely because of comparisons with high volumes seen last year as retailers rushed to bring in merchandise ahead of scheduled tariff increases. 

Imports in the first half of 2019 totalled 10.5m TEU, up 2.1% over the first half of 2018 – and 2019 is expected to total 21.7m TEU. That would come within 0.4% of last year's record 21.8m TEU, which was up an unusually high 6.2% over 2017.

"The uncertainties of the administration's tariff policies continue to vex the markets," adds Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett. "Our overall outlook is more pessimistic than last month, underlining that trade wars are not harbingers of good things to come."