Freight News, Sea

Port of Oakland cargo volume up in trade war, but can it last?

[ November 15, 2018   //   ]

A U.S.-China tit-for-tat over tariffs hasn’t dampened cargo volume growth at the Port of Oakland. In fact, the Port is on track for its third straight year of record container volume in 2018.

But can it last? That’s the question supply chain experts pondered this week at the quarterly meeting of the Port’s Efficiency Task Force. Forty trade and transportation executives ranging from longshore labor representatives to cargo owners gathered to discuss trade dynamics. Their consensus: cargo volume is spiking right now but could drop by January.

“We’re peaking,” said a major U.S. West Coast freight forwarder, “but it may not go on much longer.”

Here were the trends noted by Task Force members assembled in Oakland:
• Warehouses are filling up as U.S. retailers import merchandise from Asia.
• Shipping lines have added more than 30 extra voyages to regularly scheduled Transpacific services to transport larger container volumes.
• Ports up and down the West Coast have reported unprecedented cargo volume growth since mid-summer.

Reasons for the cargo spike vary, according to shipping experts. It could be the result of a continued strong U.S. economy. This is also peak season when importers order heavily for holiday merchandising.

A third explanation loomed large for Oakland’s Efficiency Task Force – frontloading. Experts said that shippers have accelerated orders to beat the imposition of new tariffs on Chinese imports.

“Imports are a good story, but the reason for the growth is still something of a mystery,” said Port of Oakland Maritime Director John Driscoll. “We suspect frontloading is part of the answer.”

More than one official predicted declining January imports as new U.S.-imposed tariffs take effect. Others said import volume should keep climbing until then.

Oakland said its import volume is up 2.7% over 2017 which was a record year for containerized cargo at the Port. Imports from China have increased 5% this year, the port said, despite the tariff skirmish.

Oakland exports to China have declined 33% in 2018, the Port said. It attributed the decline to tough new Chinese restrictions on wastepaper shipments, an Oakland export staple.
As Oakland’s China exports decline, other Asian nations are picking up the slack, the Port said. Export shipments to Vietnam soared 96% in September, the Port said. Exports to Taiwan increased 37%.