Source: adapted from Journal of Commerce.
American containerized trade is characterized by an asymmetry between the nature of its imports and exports. North American retailers account for a substantial share of containerized imports, mostly involving finished consumption goods bound to major inland freight distribution centers. The largest importers, such as Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Target, Sears, Costco, Ikea and Lowe’s, are all mass (Big Box) retailers relying on high volume and low margin goods, which are dominantly produced in China. It is worth mentioning that about 60% of all Chinese trade surplus with the United States is the outcome of American owned firms operating in China and importing their output to the United States.
Exporters show a completely different profile. A major category of containerized exports concerns recycles with exporters such as America Chung Nam, Potential Industries or Cedarwood-Young. Other major exporters include diversified resource-based (Koch Industries) forest and paper products (e.g. Weyerhaeuser, International Paper), agribusiness (e.g. Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland) or chemicals (e.g. Dow, DuPont). Yet, a significant containerized trade imbalance remains. For the major transpacific and transatlantic trade routes, while in 2008 18.9 million TEU were imported in the United States, only 8.5 million TEU of laden containers were exported. Thus, above 10 million TEU needed to be repositioned empty.
The trade asymmetry being depicted is reflected in the relative value of imports and exports. While the average value of American imports is at about $4.75 per kilogram, the value of exports stands at $2.50 per kilogram. This has also significant impacts on North American logistics. The import driven segment involves a series of stages to reach a multitude of outlets with a freight density correlated with population density. Since the retail trade is essentially unidirectional, many retail goods are transloaded at gateways into domestic containers while the maritime (ISO) containers are re-exported empty. The export-driven segment relies on the massification of shipments at major gateways and inland ports. Since many resources (chemicals, forest products, food) are extracted inland at locations that rarely correspond to significant population centers, the reconciliation of containerized import and export logistics is a challenging task. While millions of TEUs will leave American ports empty, many inland locations are facing container shortages. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that China is increasingly regulating the imports of waste materials. In 2018, China started to introduce bans on the import of solid waste such as paper, plastic, and steel, which accounted for the most important category of containerized exports from the United States to China.