January 10, 2020

Container volumes expected to return to seasonal patterns in 2020 after tariff surges

Facing trade war uncertainty in 2019, traders had rushed imports and exports in recent months, NRF and Hackett report finds.

By DC Velocity Staff

The volume of imports and exports at the nation's major retail container ports is expected to return to its usual seasonal patterns during the first few months of 2020, following a year of fluctuations driven by the uncertainty of the trade war with China, according to the latest forecast from the the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.

That return to more predictable trading patterns would be a welcome change for businesses that have been forced to stay light on their feet during chaotic conditions in recent months, according to the NRF. President Trump is currently scheduled to sign a "Phase One" partial trade deal with China on Jan. 15. In announcing the deal, the administration said it would lower tariffs that took effect in September and cancel another round that was set to take effect Dec. 15, but others still remain in effect, the study said.

"We'll be more confident after we see the Phase One agreement signed, but right now 2020 looks like it should be back to what used to be normal," NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said in a release. "We've been through a cycle of imports surging ahead of expected tariff increases - some of which got delayed, reduced or canceled - and falling off again afterward. That's not good for retailers trying to manage their inventory levels or trying to make long-term business plans. And tariffs are never good for consumers, businesses or the economy."

According to the "Global Port Tracker" report released by the NRF and Hackett, U.S. ports covered in the study handled 1.67 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU) in November, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. That was down 11.2% from October and down 7.5% year-over-year. With on-again, off-again progress on trade negotiations reported throughout the fall and other factors affecting shipping, an expected surge ahead of the canceled December tariff increase did not materialize.

December was estimated at 1.7 million TEU, down 13.4% from unusually high numbers seen in December 2018, when retailers had front-loaded imports ahead of a scheduled January 1, 2019, tariff increase that was ultimately postponed. Taken together, those figures would put preliminary estimates for the full year of 2019 at 21.6 million TEU, a 0.9% decrease from 2018 but still the second-highest year on record. Imports during 2018 hit a record 21.8 million TEU, partly due to front-loading ahead of anticipated 2019 tariffs.

Looking into 2020, January is forecast at 1.8 million TEU, down 5% from January 2019. February is forecast to be down 4.9% year-over-year at 1.54 million TEU but March is expected to be up 5.2% at 1.7 million TEU, with both swings tied to fluctuations in the Lunar New Year calendar and related factory shutdowns in Asia. April is forecast at 1.78 million TEU, up 2.1% year-over-year, and May is forecast at 1.87 million TEU as summer merchandise arrives, up 1% year-over-year. 

The Global Port Tracker report covers the U.S. ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle, and Tacoma on the West Coast; New York/New Jersey, Port of Virginia, Charleston, Savannah, Port Everglades, Miami, and Jacksonville on the East Coast, and Houston on the Gulf Coast. 

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