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Oakland figures points to import stockpiling

The current US import boom is due in part to importers trying to get ahead of new tariffs, Oakland advisory committee concludes.

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A press release from the port of Oakland amounts to a warning that its container throughput growth rate is likely to fall in 2019, or perhaps even go into reverse, as importers are getting ahead of demand.

Ahead of releasing its October numbers, Oakland put out a statement noting the port is on track for its third straight year of record box volume in 2018, but then asked “can it last?”. The port put the question to its “Efficiency Task Force”, a group of transportation executives that includes cargo owners. “Their consensus: cargo volume is spiking right now but could drop by January. “We’re peaking,” said a major U.S. West Coast freight forwarder, “but it may not go on much longer.””

In response to demand carriers have added extra sailings to some transpacific services in recent weeks, but the task force noted that “Warehouses are filling up as U.S. retailers import merchandise from Asia”. The pending tariffs on a wide range of imports from China are clearly a factor, but exactly how much of the spike in cargo volume can be attributed to stockpiling is unclear. “Imports are a good story, but the reason for the growth is still something of a mystery,” said Port of Oakland Maritime Director John Driscoll. “We suspect frontloading is part of the answer.”

As to how long this will continue, that too is uncertain. “More than one official predicted declining January imports as new U.S.-imposed tariffs take effect. Others said import volume should keep climbing until then,” the port noted.

Imports through Oakland are up 2.7% in 2018, with imports from China showing 5% growth. Exports, however, have tumbled 33% in the same period due to China’s stance on waste paper shipments. There is some evidence exports are finding new markets, with exports to Vietnam up 96% and to Taiwan rising 37%.

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