U.S. containerized imports are projected to increase 6 percent in 2014, up from 3.5 percent growth in 2013, according to Journal of Commerce economist Mario Moreno.
Moreno told a JOC webcast on the maritime industry Thursday that the strong growth in imports will be led by auto parts, footwear and apparel – all of which are high-volume cargoes that move by sea.
Containerized exports, however, are projected to grow only modestly as Europe contends with fiscal austerity measures and the economies of developing nations experience less robust growth. Exports are projected to increase 2 percent this year, up marginally from the estimated export growth of 1.9 percent in 2013.
Nevertheless, U.S. containerized imports and exports are expected to set new records in 2014, indicating that the worst effects of the 2008-09 global economic recession are finally over.
Jonathan Gold, vice president of supply chain and customs policy at the National Retail Federation, also sees strong import growth this year, although the retailers group is not quite as bullish as Moreno. Gold projects import growth of 3.7 percent in 2014.
Holiday sales helped retailers end 2013 on a happy note. Gold said holiday sales increased an estimated 3.9 percent over the holiday period of 2012, with online sales increasing 13 to 15 percent.
Retailers, though positive about growth prospects in 2014, will nevertheless face a number of economic and operational challenges. Consumer confidence and jobs creation remain a drag on growth, while legislative and regulatory uncertainties hang over the transportation industry.
The evolving chassis management regime could result in equipment dislocations and shortages, and regulatory changes including federal hours of service limitations for drivers and localized clean-truck requirements could result in truck capacity shortages.
Retailers are still waiting to see what impact the formation of the P3 Network involving Maersk Line, Mediterranean Shipping Co. and CMA CGM — the three largest container lines in the world — will have on rates and service, Gold said. The alliance will begin operations later this year if it receives regulatory approval in the U.S., Europe and China.
The U.S. housing industry was a driver of growth in 2013 as existing home sales reached 420,000 units, Moreno said. Increased home sales have a direct correlation to increased imports of furniture, which is the highest-volume containerized import.
After eight strong months of existing home sales in 2013, sales dropped in September, October and November. That led to a decline in furniture imports of 5 percent in November and 1 percent in December. Moreno expects home sales to grow more modestly in 2014, due to low inventory and rising mortgage rates.
On the other hand, the nation’s “resilient manufacturing sector” will add jobs and increase production in 2014, especially in the auto sector, Moreno said. The industry is forecasting total sales of 16.6 million autos and light trucks, which will result in increased imports of auto parts. Auto parts are the second largest import category, accounting for 4.5 percent total containerized imports.