After a slow start to the year, it appears US retail ocean import cargo volume may be on the increase. According to the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates, estimated US retail import cargo volume for March was 1.19m TEUs, up almost 10% from last year. It is expected to increase 3.2% in April.
The forecasted increase is not surprising as the US economy continues to improve. Consumer confidence is on the increase due in part to gains in employment and income. This confidence has boosted retail sales in January and February, rising 0.6% in January and 1.1% in February. In fact, February’s 1.1% increase was the biggest increase in five months. This growing consumer confidence has led the National Retail Federation (NRF) to forecast 2012 retail sales to grow 3.4% to $2.53 trillion.
Monthly gains in US import cargo are forecasted through July with the first half of the year expected to total 7.3m TEUs, a 2.2% increase over last year.
The anticipated increase in imports will be welcomed for the west coast ports – Los Angeles, Long Beach, Tacoma and Seattle – all of which reported February declines in imports. This is not surprising as Asian manufacturing was just starting back up after being closed for the Chinese New Year festivities. However, east coast ports – Charleston, Savannah and New York/New Jersey – all reported increases in February imports – 12%, 2.2% and 6% respectively.
Although March data is not available, the NRF/Hackett projection of almost a 10% increase in retail imports appears to be a good estimate. According to a spokesperson from the Port of Charleston, “Looking at our preliminary results, March was definitely a strong month, showing double-digit import growth in the Port of Charleston. March saw about a 14% spike in loaded import boxes over the same month last year. Last month saw roughly a 12% gain in loaded imports over February as well”.
Although, many, if not all, include Asian countries among their top 10 import trade partners, the east coast ports may be experiencing increased growth from other regions to offset declines in Asian imports. For example, based on January imports by value of goods, the most current data available, the Port of Charleston reported a 27.8% increase from Europe and an 84.76% from Central/South America. The Port of Savannah also reported strong increases from Central/South America at 30.70% while the New York/New Jersey Port noted strong increases within the North America region at 44.04%.
Moving forward, although oil prices remain high, consumer spending is expected to continue to improve thanks to the improving economy. Asian manufacturing picked up slightly in March which should be beneficial for the west coast ports over the next couple of months. However, European manufacturing declined for the same month which may mean bad news for east coast ports. Even still, it appears trade with Central/South America may be increasing which could help offset declines in imports from Europe.