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What pandemic? US imports in 2020 beat 2019 on sustained consumer surge

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What pandemic? US imports in 2020 beat 2019 on sustained consumer surge

The COVID-19 pandemic led to a series of disruptions to global supply chains in 2020 including manufacturing interruptions, demand destruction and shipping equipment imbalances. At their worst, U.S. seaborne imports of containerized freight fell 19.6% year over year in May, Panjiva's data shows. Growth returned in August with the reopening of the economy while shipping surged in the 2020 third and fourth quarters in response to increased consumer spending on stay-at-home products.

As of December, U.S. seaborne imports rose by 20.4% year over year, the fastest rate of expansion since August 2010, to reach a record high of 2.76 million 20-foot equivalent units. In aggregate brought the year-to-date total to 29.25 million TEUs, up by 1.7% year over year compared to 2019 as a whole and a new record.

The acceleration in trade volumes has been widespread and led, as before, by a 34.5% jump in imports from China including Hong Kong, marking the third consecutive month of growth over 30%. Similarly, growth in shipments from Asia excluding China extended its rate of expansion with growth of 16.9% compared to 16.4% a month earlier. There has also been an acceleration in shipping from the EU and U.K., which climbed 12.7% after accelerating from just 1.0% in October.

The extended and accelerating rate of growth has been a major driver of congestion at ports. Indeed, that congestion has likely meant that deliveries scheduled for earlier in the peak season have arrived later. There is little sign of an easy return to normal before the Lunar New Year in mid-February, as discussed in Panjiva's research of Jan. 5.

As in prior months the surge in shipments in absolute terms has been led by growth in imports of consumer discretionary products, which increased by 34.3% year over year after a 30.7% increase in November and represent the single largest sector. Shipments of household appliances jumped 89.6%, though they are below their seasonal peak from October, while leisure products climbed 46.2% despite entering the late part of the toy import season.

The impact of the pandemic could still be seen in the import of healthcare products, which climbed 38.9% year over year, and consumer staples which rose by 31.2% on a 64.2% jump in household and personal care imports. The outlier has been apparel where growth slowed to 5.4% from 9.1%.

The industrials sector grew at slower, but still historically high, rates with an 18.3% expansion including a 48.0% jump in agricultural machinery while building products expanded by 23.4%.

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Christopher Rogers is a senior researcher at Panjiva, which is a business line of S&P Global Market Intelligence, a division of S&P Global Inc. This content does not constitute investment advice, and the views and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of S&P Global Market Intelligence. Links are current at the time of publication. S&P Global Market Intelligence is not responsible if those links are unavailable later.