As the contagious coronavirus continues to rage across Asia, China has taken steps to curtail new infections by imposing quarantines on certain cities and factories, a move that could trigger a drop in imports by U.S. retailers.
February is already a slow month for imports every year, since many factories and warehouses close their doors during Lunar New Year celebrations. But that effect could be magnified in 2020, since the Chinese government has extended those factory shutdowns, according to the Global Port Tracker report released today by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and consulting firm Hackett Associates.
In response, imports at major U.S. retail container ports are expected to see a sharper-than-usual drop this month, the report found. "February is historically a slow month for imports because of Lunar New Year and the lull between retailers' holiday season and summer, but this is an unusual situation," NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said in a release. "Many Chinese factories have already stayed closed longer than usual, and we don't know how soon they will reopen. U.S. retailers were already beginning to shift some sourcing to other countries because of the trade war, but if shutdowns continue, we could see an impact on supply chains."
That turmoil would exacerbate an already tumultuous trade environment that has been roiled by the U.S.-China trade war, the group said. For example, U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.72 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) in December, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. That was up 1.8 percent from November but down 12.4 percent from unusually high numbers at the end of 2018 ahead of a scheduled tariff increase that was ultimately postponed.
"Projecting container volume for the next year has become even more challenging with the outbreak of the coronavirus in China and its spread," Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett said in the release. "It's questionable how soon manufacturing will return to normal, and following the extension of the Lunar New Year break all eyes are on what further decisions China will make to control the outbreak."
December's numbers brought 2019 to a total of 21.6 million TEU, a 0.8 percent decrease from 2018 amid the ongoing trade war but still the second-highest year on record. Imports during 2018 hit a record of 21.8 million TEU, partly due to frontloading ahead of anticipated 2019 tariffs.
January was estimated at 1.82 million TEU, down 3.8 percent from January 2019. February is forecast to be down 12.9 percent year-over-year at 1.41 million TEU and March is expected to down 9.5 percent year-over-year at 1.46 million TEU. Before the coronavirus outbreak, Global Port Tracker had forecast February at 1.54 million TEU and March at 1.7 million TEU.
While the duration of the coronavirus impact remains unknown, April is currently forecast at 1.82 million TEU, up 4.5 percent year-over-year; May at 2 million TEU, up 8.3 percent, and June at 1.95 million TEU, up 8.5 percent. Those numbers would bring the first half of 2020 to 10.47 million TEU, down 0.4 percent year-over-year.
Global Port Tracker, which is produced for NRF by Hackett Associates, 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.