Container Imports Roared Back in March

U.S. imports in March rebounded sharply, driven by a shipment surge of furniture and auto parts, after falling in February on tough year-over-year comparisons caused by early closings of factories in China.

Overall U.S. containerized imports expanded 7.3 percent year-over-year in March to 1,373,301 20-foot equivalent units, following a 5.9 percent decline in the prior month. Quarterly, overall imports advanced 2 percent year-over-year in the first quarter, to 4,032,857 TEUs. This growth compares favorably to my forecast of 1.5 percent as presented in the March 2012 issue of JOC Container Shipping Outlook. Imports from Asia barely rose 0.5 percent in the quarter versus my forecast of 1 percent.

Latest quarterly TEU data supports my view of very modest imports growth through the second half of the year. Although the U.S. economy is showing signs of deceleration, I do think will be momentarily as the Federal Reserve has made it clear it is prepared to do more if conditions worsen. Imports growth should regain speed in the second half of the year.

Leading the gains in the month of March were furniture, up 15 percent (or 18,377 TEUs); empty containers & drums, up 178 percent (or 16,873 TEUs), and auto parts, up 15 percent (or 8,052 TEUs). Sales of existing homes declined for the second straight month in March, which is a concern for the short-term imports outlook of furniture and other home goods.

Solid gains were also seen in miscellaneous plastic products (+17 percent), bananas (+12 percent), and miscellaneous metal ware (+18 percent). On the downside, miscellaneous fruits lost 17 percent of TEU volume, while imports of footwear and menswear were down by 9 percent and 10 percent, respectively.

On a regional level, imports from Northeast Asia rose by the most, up 11 percent (or 74,534 TEUs) to a total of 765,501TEUs. North Europe followed, advancing 6 percent to a total of 158,444 TEUs, while shipments from the Mediterranean surged 12 pecent to a total of 77,946 TEUs. Leading the losses were the Indian Subcontinent and east coast of South America, down 7 percent and 8 percent respectively.

On a country level, shipments from China showed the most gains, up 13 percent (or 66,681 TEUs) to a total of 579,181 TEUs. This sharp jump in shipments from China is mostly owed to an easier year-over-year comparison with March 2011 base as the 2012 Lunar New Year came early. Vietnam followed with a remarkable gain of 32 percent (or 8,950 TEUs), while imports from Germany jumped 11 percent (or 5,146 TEUs). Leading the losses, shipments from Brazil shrank 16 percent TEU volume in the month.

On a month-to-month basis, overall imports climbed 15.2 percent in March, following a contraction of 19 percent in the prior month.
Note: Data is refreshed frequently. Trade with Canada and Puerto Rico is excluded. All percentage changes are expressed on a year-over-year basis, unless otherwise noted.

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