U.S. containerized imports rose 5 percent in November, led by a spurt in furniture shipments, in their fastest year-over-year increase since May.
Furniture imports rose 7 percent to 144,823 twenty-foot-equivalent units, PIERS data show The increase in furniture imports, the largest category of container imports, followed eight straight months of year-over-year declines.
Housing starts and permits remain at historically low levels but inched up in recent months, led by growth in apartment construction. Shippers have responded by stocking more furniture and home goods, Journal of Commerce Economist Mario O. Moreno said.
“November’s import data supports the view I have been preaching for quite some time now: a healthy housing market is key to the revival of U.S. box imports growth as many of the goods consumers purchase to furnish a home are imported,” Moreno said.
Imports of cooking and heat appliances rose 13 percent, lamps and parts increased 4 percent and kitchenware was up 1 percent. Demand for sheets, towels and blankets was down 12 percent year-over-year but the decrease was smaller than in previous months.
Solid gains were also seen in auto parts, up 16 percent; miscellaneous electronic products, up 17 percent; miscellaneous plastic products, up 9 percent, and metalware, up 19 percent.
Although the housing market has begun to recover, consumer spending overall remains constrained, Moreno said. Growth in real consumer spending decelerated in the third quarter of 2011 to 2 percent from 2.2 percent in the second quarter and 2.8 percent in the first quarter.
Shippers remain cautious, trimming orders for major consumer goods such as apparel and footwear. Imports of women’s and infant wear declined 15 percent in November, menswear was down 19 percent, footwear was off 8 percent and miscellaneous apparel fell 7 percent. Toy shipments, weak through much of 2011, fell 9 percent.
On a regional level, imports from Northeast Asia showed the biggest gains, up 4 percent to 907,606 TEUs in November. Imports from China rose 4.1 percent to 706,399 TEUs, driven by gains in furniture and cooking and heat appliances. The increase in China volume followed eight consecutive months of year-over-year declines.
Imports rose 8 percent from Northern Europe, to 139,170 TEUs, and from the Mediterranean, to 66,339 TEUs. Shipments declined 5 percent from the Indian Subcontinent and 2 percent from Southeast Asia.
Moreno said the sustainability of the increase in furniture shipments hinges on the housing market, which is heavily influenced by employment trends. He said the U.S. economy added an average of 132,000 jobs a month in the 12 months through November but that at least 150,000 are needed for a modest, sustainable recovery in housing. “We are not there yet, but getting closer,” he said.