Home, Auto Sales Drove Container Import Growth

The ‘House Sold’ signs popping up in your neighborhood and shiny new cars parked in driveways are a reflection of containerized import growth on the docks in January.

A continuous recovery in home sales and a thriving auto industry drove import growth for the third straight month in January. Overall U.S. containerized imports surged 4.1 percent in January 2012 over January 2011 to a total of 1,475,608 20-foot equivalent units, following a rise of 3.8 percent in December. Imports from Asia advanced 2.9 percent in January, following a moderate increase of 0.6 percent in the preceding month. My most up-to-date forecast on U.S. imports from Asia calls for a rise of 2.5 percent for full year 2012.

On a commodity level, gains were led by furniture, up 6 percent, and auto parts, up 19 percent. Furniture imports rose for the third month running as the pace of home sales continues to recover. Solid gains were also seen in ‘empty containers, drums’ (+42 percent), ‘miscellaneous metal ware’ (+19 percent ), and ‘footwear’ (+4 percent.). This is the first increase in inbound shipments of footwear after declining for several consecutive months. On the downside, ‘miscellaneous fruits’ led the losses, down 26 percent, followed by ‘menswear’, down 10 percent. Imports of toys edged up 0.3 percent, following several successive monthly declines.

On a regional level, imports from Northeast Asia rose by the most, up 2 percent (or 18,734 TEUs) to a total of 898,599 TEUs. Northern Europe and Southeast Asia followed, climbing each 12 percent and 5 percent, respectively. On the downside, shipments from the west coast of South America declined 1 percent. Shipments from China showed the most gains, up 2 percent (or 14,510 TEUs) to a total of 709,410 TEUs.

Solid gains were also seen in India and Vietnam, each advancing by 22 percent and 15 percent, respectively. Imports from Mexico jumped 68 percent. Leading the losses, shipments from Thailand declined 9 percent. On a month-to-month basis, overall imports increased by 11 percent in January, following a decline of nearly 10 percent in the preceding month.

Sales of existing homes rose in 3 of the last 4 months through January, which bodes well for the short-term outlook of furniture imports. Meanwhile, a strong auto industry continues to bolster a more than 2 years long streak of gains in ‘parts’. The overall employment market is modestly improving but real consumer spending has remained flat in over the last 3 months through January. Higher gasoline prices is a major risk to the import trade as lower disposable income adversely affects spending on discretionary goods such as apparel, computers, and home goods.

Note: Trade with Canada is excluded. All percentage changes are expressed on a year-over-year basis, unless otherwise noted. A more detailed version of this entry can be found in JOC Insights, March 2012 issue.

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

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