Port of Oakland on track for record cargo volume despite tariff battle

The Port of Oakland is on track in 2018 for its third straight year of record container cargo volume despite a tit-for-tat tariff spat between the U.S. and China, port officials said today.

However, the consensus of experts at the quarterly meeting of the port's Efficiency Task Force this week is that cargo volume is spiking now but could drop by January, according to port officials.

The task force consists of 40 trade and transportation executives ranging from longshore labor representatives to cargo owners.

Among the trends that task force members noted are that 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 and ports up and down the West Coast have reported unprecedented cargo volume growth since mid-summer.

The shipping experts said the reasons for the cargo spike vary, including the possibility that it could be the result of a continued strong U.S. economy and that this is also peak season when importers order heavily for holiday merchandising.

But task force members also said the spike could be the result of "frontloading," with shippers accelerating 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," Port of Oakland maritime director John Driscoll said in a statement.

Driscoll said, "We suspect frontloading is part of the answer."

Port officials said their import volume is up 2.7 percent over 2017, which was a record year for containerized cargo at the port.

They said imports from China have increased 5 percent this year despite the tariff skirmish.

However, Oakland exports to China have declined 33 percent in 2018, according to port officials.

The officials attributed the decline to tough new Chinese restrictions on wastepaper shipments, which are an Oakland export staple. 

However, as Oakland's exports to China decline, other Asian nations are picking up the slack, the officials said.

Export shipments to Vietnam soared 96 percent in September and exports to Taiwan increased 37 percent.

Port officials said they expect to release its October cargo volume results next week.