February Imports Fell for First Time in Four Months

Steep declines in imports of furniture, toys and footwear in February helped pushed U.S. containerized imports down 5.8 percent year-over-year, the first decline in four months.

An early Lunar New Year shutdown of factories in China exacerbated the year-over-year import loss, but the 18.6 percent month-to-month decrease still suggests weakening volume. Overall U.S. containerized imports in February reached 1,193,157 20-foot equivalent units, following a rise of 4.1 percent in January.

On a commodity level, losses were led by furniture, down 14 percent; toys, down 20 percent; and footwear, down 15 percent. Significant losses were also seen in women’s and infant wear, down 16 percent; lamps and parts, down 24 percent; and miscellaneous hardware, down 19 percent. On the upside, empty containers and auto parts led the gains, up by 40 percent and 10 percent, respectively.

On a regional level, imports from Northeast Asia declined by the most, down 13 percent (or 101,345 TEUs) to a total of 672,511 TEUs. Imports from Southeast Asia declined just 1 percent to a total of 117,321 TEUs. On the upside, shipments from Northern Europe rose 10 percent, while from the Indian subcontinent shipments jumped 14 percent. On a country level, shipments from China showed the biggest decline, down 15.8 percent (or 95,335 TEUs) to a total of 508,477 TEUs. Losses were also seen in shipments from Hong Kong and Italy, down by 25 and 20 percent, respectively. Offsetting part of the losses, shipments from Germany and India rose 18 and 22 percent, respectively.

An early Lunar New Year in China (Jan. 23) severely disrupted year-over-year comparisons of TEU volume in February. Imports from Asia tumbled 10 percent in February 2012 over February 2011, following an increase of 3 percent in the prior month. March’s import growth is expected to be positive on a much easier year-over-year comparison with March 2011 base. For the first two months of the year, imports from Asia were down 3.3 percent versus the first two months of 2011. My latest forecast on the trans-Pacific eastbound trade called for a 1 percent rise in the first quarter of the year.

Import prices from China continued rising this quarter while labor shortages issues rose again after the reopening of factories following the two-week Lunar New Year celebration. Overall, demand for imported home goods remains relatively modest as the pace of home sales recovers at a stubbornly slow manner. Meanwhile, consumer spending rose faster than incomes in February, mainly at the expense of savings, which raises a concern for the sustainability of spending in the long run. Higher gasoline prices remain a concern, at least in the short run.

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.

Mario Moreno is the economist for The Journal of Commerce and PIERS. Contact him at mmoreno@joc.com. Follow him on Twitter @MarioMoreno_JOC.

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