Cruise and container ships

The CMA CGM Libra container ship passes the Carnival Ecstasy cruise ship in Charleston Harbor as it makes its way to Wando Welch Terminal in Mount Pleasant. Provided/State Ports Authority

The Port of Charleston marked its third consecutive record year for cargo in 2018, with 2.3 million containers moving through its terminals as bigger ships and tariff concerns kept the port's docks busy.

While last year's total represents a 6.4 percent increase over 2017, and January figures remain strong, it's anyone's guess how long the good times will continue.

A manufacturing slowdown and the looming threat of more tariffs have created global uncertainty, while recent imports to East Coast ports have been — at least in part — artificially inflated by a glut of overseas shippers trying to their goods to the U.S. ahead of President Donald Trump's trade deadlines. 

"There's a lot of anecdotal evidence of what they call front-loading, which essentially means you ship early to try to avoid the tariffs" said Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the State Ports Authority.

One company, for example, moved 20 percent of its cargo ahead of schedule, he said.

With the tariffs on Chinese-made goods — originally slated for Jan. 1 — now delayed by 90 days, the front-loading might continue if trade talks seem to be going nowhere.

But tariffs — which Newsome said have been simplistically "blamed for every malady in the world" — are creating unease, they're not the only factor keeping trade forecasters awake at night.

The Chinese New Year is on Feb. 5, kicking off a typically weeks-long factory shutdown in which trade grinds to a crawl. And while a manufacturing survey by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond ticked up a bit in January, it "continued to indicate weak growth" in a region that includes South Carolina, the bank said.

The Southeast manufacturing slowdown shows up in the Charleston port's export figures, which are down 3.4 percent through the first six months of the authority's fiscal year, which started July 1.

Front-loading from overseas can be seen in the import totals — up 10.5 percent for the period.

The imbalance between imports and exports has left a bevy of empty containers at Wando Welch Terminal. Empties are up nearly 41 percent through the six-month fiscal year period, and currently about 18,000 are stacked at the Mount Pleasant cargo hub.

Those empties eventually will have to go back overseas and, since the authority counts cargo boxes the same whether or not they're full, they provide yet another intangible in future cargo tallies.

"From February through April, I would say we're either in uncharted waters or we're starting to fly into the clouds," Newsome said. "I think we're going to see a dip (in cargo). Hopefully it's not too much."

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One certainty, Newsome said, is the need to keep trade lines open with China, South Carolina's biggest trading partner with about $13 billion in goods moving between the two.

"If you ruin the Chinese economy, all you've done is take 500 million people who are the most logical buyers of U.S. rising standard of living products out of the game," he said.

Other Southeast ports saw the same trends that helped lead to record cargo growth in 2018.

The Port of Savannah handled 4.35 million containers during the year for a 7.5 percent year-over-year increase. The port recorded nine of its 10 busiest months on record in 2018, including 51,366 containers in December.

Griff Lynch, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority, credited the Savannah port's growth to its connections with inland hubs such as Atlanta and Memphis, saying they have helped "port customers to reach new and growing markets."

The Port of Virginia also set a record with 2.85 million containers last year.

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_