US Retail Imports Level Off After Monthslong Hustle to Beat China Tariffs

Imports at major American ports are leveling off after a monthslong rush to bring in merchandise from China — including footwear — before higher tariffs hit, according to a new trade report by the National Retail Federation.

U.S. ports covered by the NRF and Hackett Associates’ Global Port Tracker handled 1.81 million 20-foot-equivalent units (TEU) in November, according to the latest available data. (A TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.) That was up 2.5 percent year over year but down 11.4 percent from the record of 2.04 million TEU set in October. December was estimated at 1.79 million TEU, a 3.7 percent year-over-year increase. That would bring 2018 to a total of 21.6 million TEU, an uptick of 5.3 percent over 2017’s record 20.5 million TEU.

“There have been record-high levels of imports over the past several months, primarily due to raised inventories ahead of expected tariff increases,” said Ben Hackett, founder of Hackett Associates. “But we are projecting declining volumes in the coming months and an overall weakness in imports for the first half of the year.”

The new data comes as the U.S. and China wrapped up three days of talks in Beijing aimed at squashing a tense trade war that has rattled financial markets and threatened global economic growth. U.S. President Donald Trump and China President Xi Jinping agreed in December to a 90-day truce on new tariffs to allow for negotiations.

Looking ahead, January imports are forecast at 1.75 million TEU, down 0.9 percent from January 2018; February at 1.67 million TEU, also down 0.9 percent; March at 1.55 million TEU, up 0.6 percent; April at 1.69 million TEU, up 3.7 percent; and May at 1.8 million TEU, down 1.3 percent. February and March are usually two of the year’s slowest months for imports, due in large part to the post-holiday plummet in demand and the Lunar New Year factory shutdowns in Asia.

While some of the pressure has lifted now that the all-important holiday season has passed, uncertainty surrounding the tariffs has the retail industry on edge. “Retailers remain concerned about tariffs and their impact on the nation’s economy,” said Jonathan Gold, NRF’s VP for supply chain and customs policy. “[They] have also brought in much of their spring merchandise early to protect consumers against higher prices that will eventually come with tariffs. Our industry is hoping the talks currently underway will bring an end to this ill-advised trade war and result in a more appropriate way of responding to China’s trade abuses that won’t force American consumers, workers and businesses to pay the price.”

With the completion of this week’s talks, all eyes are on the White House as it weighs its next move. The administration has set a March 2 deadline for raising tariffs on a staggering two-fifths of annual American imports from China if no deal is reached.

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