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Despite tariffs, retail port imports remain at near record levels

Despite hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of Chinese goods now subject to tariffs, U.S. imports of retail goods are expected to remain at near monthly record levels into the fall, according to one monthly report.

In its Oct. 9 "Global Port Tracker" report, the industry group and maritime consulting firm Hackett Associates said that 1.89 million twenty-foot-equivalents units, or TEU, of retail goods were imported in August, a figure just off the monthly record of 1.90 million TEU set in July. The August figure is a 0.6% drop-off from the record-setting July, but a 3.4% year-over-year rise.

A TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.

"Retailers are continuing to import merchandise in order to meet consumer demand even though tariffs are now in place on roughly half the goods imported from China and the trade war is still escalating," Jonathan Gold, the National Retail Federation's, or NRF's, vice president for supply chain and customs policy, said in a news release. "Retailers are doing their best to mitigate the impact on their customers, but they are not able to quickly or easily change their sourcing."

The NRF and Hackett also forecast 1.84 million TEU of retail imports for September, as well as 1.87 million TEU for October, and 1.80 million TEU for November. Those fall months would all represent year-over-year increases of at least 2.3%, while December, projected at 1.79 million TEU, would mark a 4.0% annual rise.

Should imports hit those forecast levels, October would mark the fifth consecutive month dating back to June that retail port imports have broken the previous single month record that was set in August 2017.

The Trump administration has already imposed various tariffs on $250 billion of Chinese goods. In July, the U.S. imposed a 25% tariff on $34 billion worth of primarily industrial goods from China, followed by a 25% tariff imposed Aug. 23 on another $16 billion of Chinese imports that included some consumer electronics and chemical products. Most recently, the Trump administration imposed a 10% tariff on $200 billion of imported Chinese goods, including furniture, PCs, and electric cooking stove and microwave combos, a tariff rate that rises to 25% on Jan. 1, 2019.

Panjiva Research, a division of S&P Global Inc., has attributed a rise in imports to stockpiling to bring in targeted goods ahead of the tariff impositions.

Panjiva estimates that more than 81% of the 5,700 products included in the $200 billion U.S. tariff tranche saw increased shipments in May, June and July, increases that are expected to continue in the first three months of implementation while the tariff rate remains at 10%.

And waiting in the wings is another batch of tariffs on a further $267 billion of Chinese imports, one that was promised by President Donald Trump should China retaliate against the $200 billion batch.

China did retaliate, though Trump has not said if or when the next batch, which would presumably target a large swath of consumer goods imported by American companies, would go into effect.

Both Gold and Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett warned of the inevitable cost increases that American consumers will soon see, a sentiment that has been echoed by American importers who rely on China for the bulk of their products.

The "Global Port Tracker" report covers 14 U.S. ports, including Oakland, Seattle and Tacoma on the West Coast, and Miami and New York/New Jersey on the East Coast.