Record Imports at Port of Oakland, Partly Due to Companies Trying to Beat Trump's Tariff Increase

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An aerial view of container ships docked at the Port of Oakland on March 6, 2019. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The Port of Oakland experienced record import volume for April, with more than 80,000 containers coming in — the highest number in its 92-year history, the port said.

The surge in imports came ahead of a decision by the Trump administration on Friday to boost tariffs on $200 billion worth of goods coming from China — Oakland’s largest trading partner — to 25% from 10%.

Some experts attributed the increase in the Oakland port’s imports to tense trade talks between the U.S. and China, in which President Trump’s threat to raise tariffs — unless they reached a deal that would address U.S. concerns about Chinese business practices — loomed.

“If you’re going to be shipping something to the United States, you may as well get a little bit ahead of the potential tariffs rather than behind them,” Andrew Rose, a professor at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business, said Thursday.

The port said its trade numbers predated U.S. warnings of increased tariffs on Chinese goods and attributed the gains mostly to strong consumer demand. Import volume has increased 5.8% in the first four months of 2019, while overall total cargo volume – imports, exports and empty containers – is up 4.6%.


Still, a tariff hike could dampen import demand, said John Driscoll, the port’s maritime director.

“When you see things like this that could impact your business, yeah it’s not a positive sign for us,” Driscoll said.

Trump had threatened to increase tariffs in January and March, but the administration held off to give negotiators more time to make a deal. Financial markets have fallen this week in response to the escalation of the trade dispute and the prospect of higher tariffs, NPR reported looming.

The tariffs would be "paid for mostly by China," Trump has said, but economists disagree.

“The evidence so far is very strongly that businesses pass it completely on to consumers,” Rose said. “Consumers are just going to pay more.”

Previous rounds of tariffs are already making life more expensive, increasing consumer costs by $1.4 billion a month, according to experts from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and Princeton and Columbia University. To date, tariffs have largely affected raw materials used to make other products, so the cost increases appear incremental to the consumer. But additional new tariffs would boost prices on a broader number of finished goods that consumers buy, like bikes, NPR reported.

The latest tariffs will add $500 a year in costs for the average American household, Katheryn Russ, an economics professor at UC Davis, told NPR. The tariffs will be applied only to goods shipped after Friday.

NPR and KQED News' Kate Wolffe and Miranda Leitsinger contributed to this report.