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February's US trade surprises; winning the steel tariff relief race

The Supply Chain Daily provides a curated overview of Panjiva's research and insights covering global trade policy, the logistics sector and industrial supply chains.

China, tariffs are not only surprise in February's US import data
U.S. seaborne imports snapped their 23-month growth streak after falling 4.5% year over year in February. That followed a 5.5% rise on average in the prior three months. The main driver was a 9.9% slump in shipments from China after optimism about a trade deal led importers to end a previously rapid process of inventory buildup.

Yet, imports from other regions also declined including the EU — which fell 4.6% — Japan and South Korea, suggesting a wider decline in global trade. At the industry level, the biggest reversal in fortunes was seen in the consumer sector, with a 10.2% year-over-year drop in furniture imports and a 3.4% slip in apparel shipments. Industrial supply chains also saw a slowdown with chemicals and steel imports down 11.1% and 10.1%, respectively.

(Panjiva Research - Logistics)

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Slow, steady wins race for steel tariff relief
Nearly one year after the implementation of U.S. section 232 steel and aluminum tariffs, there are still new applications for exemptions being made to the government. As of March 5, 112,802 filings had been made with 74.8% of cases still awaiting a decision. At the current rate of review, it could take 20 months to complete the backlog.

The wait is worth it though, with 72.7% of all steel decisions and 86.5% of aluminum rulings resulting in reduced duties for applicants. Importers face an uncertain outlook, given that Canada and Mexico have called for removal of the duties as a precursor to ratification of the U.S–Mexico–Canada Agreement trade deal.

The leniency on tariffs has not led to continued import growth. U.S. seaborne imports of steel and aluminum fell 2.4% year over year in the first two months of 2019 after an 8.6% rise in the fourth quarter of 2018. Most major suppliers, including thyssenkrupp AG, Schaeffler AG and Voestalpine AG, have seen a similar pattern in their shipments with underlying demand rather than tariffs likely being the more important driver.

(Panjiva Research - Metals & Mining)

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Blame consumers, holidays for China's export downturn
China's worse-than-expected 20.7% year-over-year decline in exports in February can be explained in large part by the timing of the lunar new year, which fell 10 days earlier than in 2018. In 2014 and 2016, when there was a similar shift, there were year-over-year drops of 18.1% and 28.2%, respectively.

Taking January and February together, there was a 4.6% decline in exports. The reduction has been particularly pronounced in consumer goods rather than supply chain products. Indeed, three broad categories — apparel, agriculture and telecoms — between them accounted for 84.1% of the dollar value of the decline in exports over the two months combined, compared to a year earlier.

(Panjiva Research - Economics)

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Brazil sours on Indian sugar subsidies after shipments slump
The Brazilian and Australian governments launched a World Trade Organization dispute against Indian sugar subsidies. That is not a surprise given Brazil filed a similar case against the Chinese government in 2018. There has been a marked decline in Indian imports of sugar, with a 35.3% year-over-year drop in the 12 months ended Nov. 30, 2018. Brazilian exporters saw a 75.5% slump in their shipments to India over the same period. Leading Indian importers, including Shree Renuka Sugars Ltd., are unlikely to have to change their supply chain strategies in the short term, given World Trade Organization cases can take more than a year to resolve.

(Panjiva Research - Consumer Staples)

Stevedores win with employment growth as ports cure congestion
Employment in the U.S. logistics industry continued to expand in February, though the 3.6% year-over-year increase represented a third month of slowing growth. The consumer-exposed sectors have seen the fastest slowdown in growth, with warehousing employment rising 7.0%, down from the monthly average of 12.3% in the fourth quarter of 2018. The only sector to see an acceleration in growth was marine employment, which rose 2.0%. That was the fastest rate of growth since August 2016 and likely reflects increased employment by port operators to clear the congestion that dogged the sector at the end of 2018.

(Panjiva Research - Logistics)

Christopher Rogers is a senior researcher at Panjiva, which is part of S&P Global Market Intelligence. 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.

The Supply Chain Daily has an editorial deadline of 7:30 a.m. ET. Some external links may require a subscription. Links are current at the time of publication. S&P Global Market Intelligence is not responsible if those links are unavailable later.