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Exports from California Ports Surged in April on Trade Unease

Outbound container volumes at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach reached a 13-month high, a sign shippers want to move goods “before the gates close”

Exports from the Port of Long Beach soared 22% in April, part of a surge in shipping volume that has come amid growing tension in trans-Pacific trade. Photo: Tim Rue/Bloomberg News

LOS ANGELES—Shipments from the biggest U.S. West Coast ports to Asia are picking up steam in a sign that companies are stepping up orders ahead of anticipated new trade restrictions.

Loaded container exports from the neighboring ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach jumped 12% year-over-year in April from a year ago to 306,503 20-foot equivalent units, or TEUs, a shipping-industry measure of shipment volume. That made April the biggest month for exports at the largest seaport complex in North America since March 2017.

“Anxiety is driving the export trade,” said Jock O’Connell, an international trade economist based in California. China represents roughly half of the exports that move through Southern California’s ports, Mr. O’Connell said.

‘“Shippers want to get their goods on the high seas and to their final destinations before the gates close on U.S. exports,” he said.

Sharp rhetoric and threats of tariffs and other restrictions have been flying between the U.S. and China for several months, raising uncertainty for both Chinese buyers and American exporters about future demand.

Representatives from Beijing and Washington have been talking about potential solutions to avert a full trade war, with new discussions focused on a plan that would have China hold back tariffs and other restrictions on a variety of U.S. agricultural products while the U.S. gives Chinese telecommunications equipment supplier ZTE Corp. a reprieve from previously-announced sanctions.

Shipments from the biggest U.S. trade gateways to Asia have been growing at a rapid pace this year. Volumes from the Southern California ports jumped 6.6% from January to February and then another 6.1% in March, before reaching the 13-month high last month.

“Nobody’s quite sure what will happen in the next few days,” Mr. O’Connell said. “It seems like the rules are being changed on an hourly basis.”

Exports out of the Port of Oakland rose just 0.5% from a year ago to 77,995 TEUs. But Oakland port officials said strong exports of agricultural goods such as meat, fruit and vegetables, have offset a decline in the export of scrap materials—a high-volume business that China restricted earlier this year.

In China, exports rose 13% in April as imports surged 21.5% compared with a year earlier. As both inbound and outbound shipments accelerated, China’s trade surplus with the U.S. reached over $22 billion in April, up 44% from March.

The monthly Global Port Tracker report, released last week by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates, projected that imports into the U.S. would keep growing until the negotiations reach a conclusion and any new restrictions go into effect. The report estimated that U.S. retail imports reached 1.73 million TEUs in April, an increase of 6.4% over the same month last year.

Write to Erica E. Phillips at


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