U.S. containerized imports in April fell 2 percent from a year earlier as slowing economic expansion reduced demand for consumer goods, but economists still project modest volume growth for 2012.
Journal of Commerce Economist Mario O. Moreno, who earlier this year forecast 4.5 percent growth in total containerized imports, now expects growth of 3.5 to 4 percent. In the eastbound trans-Pacific trade, where Asian-made consumer goods dominate, Moreno has lowered his growth forecast to 1.5 to 2 percent from the 2.5 percent he forecast earlier this year.
April import volume totaled 1,372,851 20-foot equivalent units, according to data from PIERS, a sister company of The Journal of Commerce. The decline followed a gain of 7.5 percent in March that was affected by an early Lunar New Year. Year-to-date volume through April was up 1 percent.
Imports from North Asia declined 2 percent from a year earlier to 825,000 TEUs, with shipments from China down 3 percent to 639,146 TEUs, mostly because of declines in footwear, furniture and toys. Imports from Hong Kong fell 11 percent. Shipments from Japan rose 17 percent from April 2011, when volumes were disrupted by the country’s earthquake and tsunami.
Imports from North Europe also fell 2 percent, to 133,534 TEUs, with imports from Belgium down 17 percent. Imports from the west coast of South America fell 14 percent to 33,797 TEUs. Shipments from the Caribbean rose 25 percent, while Southeast Asia shipments increased 1 percent.
Declines in April import volumes were recorded in several key categories of consumer goods. Footwear imports were down 20 percent year-over-year; menswear was down 19 percent; women’s and infant wear fell 11 percent; and miscellaneous apparel was down 11 percent.
“It appears retailers are keeping inventories of footwear and apparel ultra lean as the economy loses momentum and employers reduce hiring,” Moreno said.
The economy’s impact also is evident in imports of furniture, which accounts for about 10 percent of total containerized imports. Furniture sales and imports are closely related to the housing market. When people move into a new house or apartment, they often spend to furnish it.
Furniture imports rose 1.8 percent in April and during the year’s first four months. Those increases are in line with a housing market still recovering from the bursting of the real estate bubble four years ago.
The Mortgage Bankers Association said 6 million home mortgages, 11.8 percent of the total, were delinquent or in foreclosure at the end of the first quarter. Property data provider and analyst CoreLogic reports 22 percent of all mortgages total more than the property’s value.
Housing demand remains sluggish, despite mortgage rates averaging less then 4 percent. Seasonally adjusted sales of existing homes rose to an annual rate of 4.62 million units in April, up 3.4 percent from March but well below the 7.25 million peak in September 2005.
“Softness in the pace of home sales will constrain growth in imports of furniture and other home goods in the months ahead,” Moreno said.
Auto parts imports remain a bright spot for containerized imports. Imports of auto parts through U.S. seaports rose 12 percent in April and were up 13.7 percent through the year’s first four months, reflecting the auto industry’s continuing recovery.
Automakers have led a rebound in U.S. manufacturing. The Institute for Supply Management’s manufacturing index posted a 53.5 reading in May, the 34th consecutive monthly reading above 50, the level that indicates expansion.