Imports at the nation's top 12 container ports during the first half of 2017 are expected to increase 4.6 percent from the same period in 2016 as a stronger U.S. economy triggers greater demand for products made overseas, according to a monthly report published today by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and consultancy Hackett Associates.
According to the "Global Port Tracker" survey, 9.4 million twenty-foot boxes will enter U.S. ports between January and June. The strongest year-over-year growth will occur during the traditionally strong months of March and April. The only down month will be February, which this year will be affected by the historically late start to the Lunar New Year, a three-week holiday period when most Chinese factories are closed. The 2017 Lunar New Year began on Jan. 28.
Not surprisingly, the report said January import traffic was expected to rise by 6.6 percent, as production that might have occurred in February was pulled forward into the prior month because of the holiday. Final figures for January are not yet available. The 2017 projections, if accurate, would be nearly three times the 1.6-percent growth rate recorded from the first half of 2016 over the same period in 2015.
The numbers came the day after NRF forecast that 2017 retail sales—excluding automobiles, gasoline, and restaurants—would increase between 3.7 and 4.2 percent over 2016. The 2017 projections are "very much in line with what we are forecasting for retail sales and consumer spending this year," NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said in a statement. "Retailers try to balance inventories very carefully with demand. So, when retailers import more merchandise, that's a pretty good indicator of what they are expecting to happen with sales."
The projected volumes do not directly correlate to sales because the port tracker counts the number of containers, not the value of the cargo inside them.
"The United States is well placed in 2017, and is likely to outperform most of the rest of the developed economies," said Ben Hackett, founder of the firm that bears his name. "If the infrastructure investments promised by the new administration come about, we can expect stronger growth than in 2016, but that assumes good relationships with U.S. trading partners and no recourse to trade barriers that would result in a tit-for-tat response."
In December, the latest month of available firm data, the 12 ports handled 1.58 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU). That was down 3.8 percent from November, a normal occurrence as most holiday goods entered U.S. commerce long before December. However, units in December rose 10.2 percent from December 2015 levels.
All told, 2016 import cargo volume hit 18.8 million TEU, up 3.2 percent from 2016. TEU volume in 2015 had increased by 5.4 percent over 2014. One TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.
The Port Tracker covers activity at Los Angeles/Long Beach; Oakland, Calif.; Seattle and Tacoma, Wash.; New York/New Jersey; Hampton Roads, Va.; Charleston, S.C.; Savannah, Ga.; Port Everglades and Miami, Fla.; and Houston.