Is This the Downturn?

There’s usually a monthly rundown here of the different trends in hard-surface imports. Let’s take a break and address the big question: Is the U.S. market slowing down? Looking at September import data, the answer is yes to a very ambiguous question. The value of shipments dropped from August by 7.7% … just like the number drops nearly every September on record (save one, and we’ll note that shortly.) The real question may be: Are U.S. hard-surface imports dropping off the pace? That answer is more of a squishy not really. Consider the past five years, where the ups-and-downs tend to balance out. The August-September decline in hard-surface-import values, from 2017-2021, is 7.4%, so this year’s 7.7% is close enough to be average. Cut that down to comparing the previous four years (2017-2020), and the average decline is 5.9%. Surely that indicates a downturn, right? The problem here, like many other things in the world, is 2020; as the pandemic slowdown created an atypical year for statistics (and everything else). Hard-surface import values gained 3.2% from August-September last year as shipments flooded U.S. ports-of-entry, so maybe it’s a joker to be thrown out of any comparisons. The average import-value August-September decline for 2017-2019 is 10.9% and, in comparison, 7.7% looks downright rosy. Toss out 2018 as being somewhat of a hot mess due to the extraordinary hits of massive tariffs on Chinese quartz surfaces and ceramic tiles, and the decline rate is 7.9%. This year’s 7.7% looks, well, average. Again, it’s a squishy not really. Maybe, after the bust and boom, we’re getting back to normal – and, for some reason, that doesn’t sound reassuring.