Strong December performance finishes a strong 2018 for shipments, says Panjiva

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United States-bound waterborne shipments in December capped a record-breaking year for global trade, according to data issued this week by global trade intelligence firm Panjiva.December shipments, at 1,053,009, marked an 8.8% annual increase, and full-year 2018 shipments, at 12,346,524, were up 6.4% annually, setting single-month and full-year records in the process.Panjiva Research Director Chris Rogers wrote in the report that a key driver for the strong run-up in volume to end the year was attributed to how a long-awaited slowdown in U.S. imports failed to materialize in December. And he added that containerized freight in December was up 13.4% annually, while rising 7.7% for all of 2018.What’s more, the report explained that December’s shipment surge was largely paced by imports from China, which saw a 14.6% annual gain and was up compared to an average growth rate of 10% over September, October, and November, and “defied expectations of a slowdown.” This was due, to a significant degree, to an early December agreement between the U.S. and China to hold off on an increase in U.S. shipments that was initially expected to take effect on December 1. U.S.-bound waterborne shipments from the EU were up 0.7% annually in December, with Japan shipments up 1.4%, and South Korea and India up 20.1% and 19.7%, respectively.December shipment growth varied, based on commodity. Furniture imports were up 23.4% annually, and apparel (up 7.1%) and toys (up 6.7%) grew, even though not being subject to tariffs, and representing ongoing strength in consumer spending, the report said.  Growth was slower for industrial supply chains, with automotive down 1.2%. Chemicals were up 2.3%, and iron and steel up 9.3%, despite 25% tariffs being imposed in March and June.“I was really surprised by how strong December was,” Rogers said in an interview. “In hindsight, the whole kind of ‘pause’ in the tariff wars took place early in the month, at which point all U.S.-inbound goods were already on the water. This put pressure on the ports, in terms of congestion, which was apparent at the Port of Los Angeles and Port of Long Beach, with warehouses likely very full as well. In theory, there should be a lot less stuff coming into ports in January and February, but, on the other hand, the Lunar New Year is earlier than normal and it is far from a given that the U.S. and China will reach an agreement on a new trade deal by March 1.”But, given the ongoing Federal Government shutdown, Rogers said could provide an impetus for a new trade deal to be reached.The reason for this, he said, is that President Trump needs a political “win,” striking some sort of deal, even, if only a cursory one, is a better alternative than simply putting higher tariffs in place.But the U.S.-China dynamic is not the sole story, when it comes to shipment data, said Rogers, explaining that collective state of the global economy, at the moment, comes with a fair amount of concerns, as evidenced by the aforementioned low shipment volumes coming out of the EU and Japan in December.Regarding its 2019 outlook, Panjiva said that the beginning of the year “faces strong forces in both the negative and positive directions,” as, on the negative side, industrial inventories are likely replete following the strong end to imports of 2018, coupled with tariff implementation delay in early December, maybe having led to a scaling back in shipments. On the positive side, it said that even with tariff uncertainty until March and in tandem with the timing of the Lunar New Year, industrial and consumer sentiment are still strong despite recent declines.“It really is difficult to say what may happen in the first quarter, as it is may be somewhat volatile, but it seems, in the second quarter, once we get past these U.S.-China negotiations, could see things slow down more,” said Rogers.