Strong consumer spending drives another import upgrade from US retailers

Retailers have yet again upgraded their forecast for imports landing on US docks this year, saying they expect monthly volumes consistently above 2 million TEUs well into the 2024 peak shipping season.

The latest Global Port Tracker (GPT) from the National Retail Federation (NRF) belies many forecasts suggesting a tepid outlook for the US economy.

“We haven’t seen numbers this high for this many months in almost two years,” the NRF’s vice president for supply chain and customs policy said in a statement. “Regardless of what headlines about the economy might say, consumers are shopping and retailers are making sure they have merchandise on hand to meet demand.”

The GPT now expects May imports to come in at 2.06 million TEUs, 6.8% higher than in May 2023. In last month’s report, NRF forecast that the year-over-year gain for May would be 5.5%.

Expected June imports of 2.03 million TEUs would be 10.7% higher than a year ago, up from the 8.9% growth projected last month. July imports are forecast at 2.02 million TEUs, up 5.5% year over year but down from GPT’s last forecast of a 6.6% increase.

The upgraded resume for August’s forecast, with expected imports of 2.1 million TEUs, is up 7.1% from August 2023, higher than the GPT’s 6.9% increase projected last month. In GPT’s initial forecast for September, imports are projected at 2.04 million TEUs, up 0.5% from September 2023.

Strong import forecast despite uncertainties
A major question mark that hung over negotiations this spring between ocean carriers and their customers hammering out 2024–25 service contracts was what the strength of the US economy and consumer spending would be in the second half of the year.

Imports from Asia were exceptionally strong early this year, increasing almost 30% in the first quarter over the same period last year, according to PIERS, a sister product of the Journal of Commerce within S&P Global. But doubts persisted whether imports would remain strong through the August-October peak shipping season.

Retailers say their forecast for strong year-over-year import growth well into the peak shipping season comes despite geopolitical and economic uncertainties.

“We are still seeing a strong volume of goods flowing into ports despite global geopolitical turmoil, high interest rates and a slowdown in economic growth,” the founder of Hackett Associates which compiles the GPT with the NRF, said in the statement.

Import volumes cratered in the first half of 2023 as retailers focused on reducing their pandemic-era inventory overhang, though picked up later in the year. Although import volumes are not forecasted to grow at the same torrid rate recorded in the first quarter, continued year-over-year increases in the second half of 2024 will likely indicate that imports have returned to normal seasonal growth patterns.

Source: Journal of Commerce

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