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Retailers step up shipments as US-China trade war enters crucial phase

Javier E. David
Editor focused on markets and the economy

Retailers are front-loading shipments from abroad, as they brace for the possibility that contentious U.S.-China talks may fail to stave off new tariffs scheduled to be implemented ahead of the crucial holiday shopping season. 

According to new data from the National Retail Federation released on Friday, imports at major U.S. retail container ports are expected to soar as the Thanksgiving to Christmas shopping rush shifts into high gear. 

The NRF’s global port tracker estimated October shipments would drop 5.2% from last year’s record of 2 million cargo containers. While November is expected to rise by 8.3% year over year to 1.96 million, December shipments are seen falling by more than 9% ahead of the new round of tariffs, the federation said. 

The shadow of the trade war has ratcheted up uncertainty in the already beleaguered retail sector, which the NRF says needs “concrete evidence that the trade war is coming to an end with a final deal that removes all tariffs.”

That prospect was thrown into doubt on Friday, after President Donald Trump downplayed the idea of rolling back import surcharges on $360 billion worth of Chinese goods ahead of a “phase one” preliminary deal between the world’s two largest economies. 

The president’s remarks weighed on markets, which have been rallying on expectations of a cease-fire, and injected new uncertainty in a retail season already complicated by this year’s shortened retail calendar

“Retailers are highly competitive, but the ability to compete has been challenging this year because of the uncertainty of the trade war and continued tariff escalation,” said Jonathan Gold, the NRF’s vice president for supply chain and customs policy, in a statement.

‘Significant impact’ 

Shipping containers (R) are stacked at the Port of Los Angeles, the nation's busiest container port, on November 7, 2019 in San Pedro, California. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Thus far, the U.S. economy has shown surprising resilience in the face of the Sino-American trade dispute, which is unlikely to be resolved in the near-term.

A major reason why pertains to the American consumer, who has continued to spend despite the costs of tariffs being passed along to their favorite goods. 

Ben Hackett, who collaborated with the NRF on its latest report, said in a statement that “as long as consumer spending remains relatively stable, economic growth — despite being weaker — will keep the country on track for the next year.”

Still, given that a so-called “mini-deal” between the U.S. and China is unlikely to resolve increasingly intractable issues between the two sides, economy watchers are worried that consumers may start feeling the pinch of higher tariffs sooner rather than later.

Aside from retail, U.S manufacturing has also been hard hit by the trade conflict. October’s Institute for Supply Management report showed the sector contracted for the third consecutive month, with ISM chair Timothy Fiore citing global trade “as the most significant cross-industry issue.” 

California’s vast economy is undergirded by trans-Pacific trade flows. The Golden State has already seen diminishing returns from U.S-China trade flows impacted by tariffs, according to Mario Cordero, executive director of the Port of Long Beach — the country’s second busiest container port behind Los Angeles.

The trade war has had “significant impact” on cargo imports, Cordero told Yahoo Finance in an interview last month. Even as growth holds up, Cordero said Long Beach has seen a 9% drop in shipments from China and a staggering 30% fall-off in U.S. exports headed to the Middle Kingdom.

“The best case scenario for 2020 is that we stay flat…[but] the worst case scenario is we see a negative impact,” Cordero said, adding that consumer spending is “very much impacted by trade that comes through the ports.”

With uncertainty surrounding the next schedule of tariffs — which are likely to be further-reaching than the subsequent rounds — “we’re now approaching the point where [the trade war] will impact every consumer item that people will buy,” Cordero told Yahoo Finance. 

Long Beach processes a broad array of durables and electronics, including machinery, television equipment, vehicles, and apparel. The breadth of those goods makes Cordero believe another round of tariffs could seriously jeopardize consumer spending. 

 “You’re now talking about significant products that will be impacted,” he added.

Javier David is an editor for Yahoo Finance. Follow Javier on Twitter: @TeflonGeek

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