Ongoing Tariff Battles Drive Surge in Seaport Cargo Volume

Shipments through the ports of Seattle and Tacoma hit record level

By Bill Conroy May 20, 2019

Stacks of colorful containers and a container crane at the Port of Seattle, Washington

The Northwest Seaport Alliance turned in a record April in terms of international cargo, with container volumes up by double digits, both year over year and year to date, NWSA officials announced.

The robust international cargo traffic recorded by NWSA played out during a booming economy that also is enduring turbulent trade winds with the U.S. administration essentially playing a game of chicken with China and other trading partners by imposing tariffs, or the threat thereof, to gain an advantage in trade negotiations.

Stephanie Bowman, president of the Port of Seattle Commission, says the record levels of container-volume traffic recorded by NWSA are reflective, in part, of a type of hoarding sparked by tariff fears. She explains that many companies are bumping up shipments to try to stay ahead of potential tariff increases, which is inflating cargo volumes in the short-term. Earlier this month, President Donald Trump announced that the U.S. would hike tariffs on some $200 billion worth of Chinese imports, and China responded with tariff hikes of its own on some $60 billion worth of goods.

They [companies] were essentially buying ahead because they’re worried about the [China-related] tariffs that were supposed to come into effect, she says. Its essentially surging, or another word I use is hoarding, and its not actually a great thing because when a lot of cargo comes in at one time, it starts to stress the system.

Were not the only port experiencing this, but we still have had good organic growth regardless.

Port cargo volume is measured in 20-foot equivalent units, or TEUs. On the international cargo front, the NWSA handled 265,781 TEUs year to date through April of this year, up 18.4%; and 1.04 million TEUs year over year as of this past April, up 13.6%. The NWSA is the marine-cargo operating partnership of the ports of Seattle and Tacoma,

Total domestic cargo volumes were up in April by 5.4% year over year, the fourth consecutive month of domestic cargo growth.

Alaskas year-to-date volumes were up 7.1 percent following an unusually robust January, NWSA reports. Hawaii volumes through the Pacific Northwest were up 2.9 percent for this year.

On a year to date basis through April, total container volumes jumped 12.2 percent, compared with the prior-year period, while import and export volumes grew by 12.8% and 14.3%, respectively. The jump in auto volume was particularly steep year to date through April, at 50,156 units, up 22.5% compared to the prior-year period, NWSA data show.

The ports of Seattle and Tacoma together represent the fourth-largest container gateway in North America.

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