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No Signs Of American Import Super-Cycle Slowing, Yet

No Signs Of American Import Super-Cycle Slowing, Yet

  • By Christopher Rogers
  • · March 13, 2018

U.S. seaborne imports surged 13% higher on a year earlier in February, the fastest rate in two years. The timing of the lunar new year is part of the reason and will be corrected in March. Shipments from China climbed 24% on a year earlier, though imports grew across the board with the exception of Singapore (down 13%). Products where Chinese suppliers lead grew fastest including furnishings (25%) and toys (28%). Over the slightly longer term an 8% rise in imports in the past three months has been driven by increased consumer and business spending. That will likely continue with consumer confidence at its highest since November 2000 and ISM business optimism at is best for 11 years – no matter the effect of near-term protectionist policies.

U.S. seaborne imports surged 13.0% higher vs. a year earlier in February, Panjiva data shows, making for the fastest rate of expansion since February 2016. That’s partly explained by the later-than-usual timing of the lunar new year, and is likely to result in a correction in March.

The optics of surging imports make a difference nonetheless, particularly with the Trump administration considering a broad range of tariffs on Chinese imports as part of the section 301 review of its IP policies, outlined in Panjiva research of March 8.


Chart shows U.S. seaborne imports of all products to all ports. Source: Panjiva

That timing effect partly led to a 23.7% surge in imports from China, including Hong Kong, putting it well ahead of other markets except Vietnam (30.1%). Notably Taiwan saw a – possibly temporary – recovery back to growth with a 1.9% increase in shipments after nine straight months of decline. The only major country tracked by Panjiva that saw a decline was Singapore, which fell 12.7%.


Chart segments U.S. seaborne imports by country of origin. Source: Panjiva

Products that have a high proportion of production in China also saw a more rapid growth including furnishings (24.7%) and toys (27.6%) as a potential pre-emption of tariffs. There is also likely a similar effect seen in imports of iron and steel which increased 19.0% (the fastest expansion since March 2015) and of the launch of section 232 tariffs. Even perennial underperformer apparel rose 12.3%. All the major product groups tracked by Panjiva experienced an increase, with the slowest being energy (including coal, oil and gas) which rose by a more modest 4.2%.


Chart segments U.S. seaborne imports by product category (HS-2). Source: Panjiva

The acceleration in imports on a quarterly trailing basis, at 8.1%, was the fastest rate since February 2013. That’s been supported by a mixture of robust consumer confidence (at its highest since November 2000 S&P Global Capital IQ data shows), business confidence (at an 11 year high according to the ISM survey), as well as potential attempts to “beat the tariff”. The latter may continue in March even as tariffs in metals begin assuming no short-term announcement of section 301 tariffs (or concerns about backdating).


Chart compares growth in U.S. seaborne imports on a quarter (bar) and monthly (dot) basis. Source: Panjiva


  • Written by Christopher Rogers
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