Total container volume in and out of the United States slipped 1.1 percent in 2020, but the year-over-year drop belies the intensity of import growth during the second half of the year that has only accelerated in early 2021 along with a rally in agricultural and chemical exports.
Still, a review of which goods and commodities saw the sharpest decreases and increases speaks to how Americans spent their money while socially distanced and which sectors will continue to see heightened demand heading into the traditional peak season before the winter holidays. It also shows the opportunity for a rebound in agricultural exports and the resilience of chemical exports. But because of tightening foreign environmental restrictions, the multiyear decline in exports of recyclables and paper products is likely to continue despite increasing domestic consumption of paper packaging products.
US consumers may have been buying more yoga and sweatpants, but that could not lift total clothing imports. With fewer people commuting and traveling, imports and exports of automobiles and parts dropped, but increased vaccinations will likely change that as Americans spend more time behind the wheel. Booming development of solar energy farms explains the jump in imports of solar cells, and a clean energy–friendly Biden administration should keep those imports shining for years.
Backed by COVID-19 stimulus dollars and the fastest-growing economy since 1984, Americans’ appetite for new household goods and tablets may abate, but likely will not plunge. Consumers also may have been drinking more alcohol at home last year, but that was not enough to make up for sagging demand for beer, wine, and liquor from bars and restaurants. That is changing quickly, however, as weather warms and seating restrictions for on-premises dining and other entertainment venues ease. And, sadly, skyrocketing imports of personal protective equipment (PPE) remind us of the human costs of the last 15 months, and expectations of continued strong demand for surgical gloves this year show we are not completely through this pandemic.