By Paul Page

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U.S. retailers are heading into 2017 stocked up on confidence and imports. New figures from ports and trade analysts show inbound container cargo shipments surged during the last weeks of 2016, the WSJ Logistics Report's Erica E. Phillips writes, amid strong consumer spending to close the year. California's neighboring ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach saw a combined 7.8% gain in container imports in December, and overall growth on the east and west coasts was far ahead of expectations. The strong holiday sales season likely helped boost the outlook for retailers, but importers are facing other pressures to keep goods moving. The Lunar New Year, which typically idles factories in Asia, is coming in just two weeks, marking an early end to what's known as the "slack season." The upswing in demand is welcome in the shipping business, where prices have been firming following a year of excess capacity and tumbling rates.

Swift Transportation Co. faces a potential of millions of dollars in claims for back wages under a judge's ruling on its classification of truck drivers, but the impact on the trucking giant's operating model may be the bigger concern. A federal judge in Arizona ruled the country's largest truckload operator improperly treated some of its drivers as contractors rather than employees, WSJ Logistics Report's Brian Baskin writes. The case, whichSwift is appealing, involves only five drivers but could open up Swift to similar claims from thousands of truckers who drove for the Phoenix-based company over the last decade. Owner-operators, as independent drivers are called, make up about a quarter of Swift's drivers, and figure prominently in operations at many big fleets. Swift's legal battle comes as Uber Technologies Inc., FedEx Corp. and other companies face similar questions over contract workers.

Amazon.com Inc. is planning big new hiring in a growth outlook that comes enveloped in politics. The e-commerce giant says it plans to add more than 100,000 full-time jobs in the U.S. within the next 18 months, the WSJ's Laura Stevens reports, under a strategy that would swell Amazon's U.S. workforce to 280,000. Much of that employment will come in warehouses as part of expansion that's already been announced, including distribution centers handling goods the company imports into the country. The hiring plans also come as the retailers Amazon competes with are stumbling and laying off workers, including 3.000 new job cuts moving forward at home-improvement giant Lowe's Corp., the WSJ's Sarah Nassauer and Paul Ziobro report. Still, Amazon is trying to patch up its contentious relationship with President-elect Donald Trump, which may mean pointing to its own hiring and leveraging plans it already has in the works.

ECONOMY & TRADE

Trade disputes between the U.S. and China are heating up even before Donald Trump assumes the presidency with promises to overhaul U.S. trade relationships. The Obama administration is formally complaining to the World Trade Organization over subsidies the U.S. says Beijing is providing to the country's vast aluminum industry, the WSJ's Scott Patterson and William Mauldin report. The complaint accuses China of funneling artificially cheap loans from state-run banks to Chinese aluminum producers, fueling production that has depressed prices world-wide and harmed the ability of American companies to compete. China is pressing its own trade complaints: the country this week increased punitive tariffs on imports of the U.S. animal feed ingredient known as distillers' dried grains, a business that China claims is illegally subsidized, Reuters reports. That leaves the new administration with no shortage of flashpoints between the U.S. and China to address as it takes office.

U.S. farmers are preparing to put the brakes on production as they cope with a global grain glut and a multiyear dive in prices. Farmers sowed the fewest acres of winter wheat in more than a century, the WSJ's Jesse Newman reports, marking the fourth straight year of declines in a drastic response to the world's unsettled commodity markets. Along with lackluster export demand for U.S. grain, the glut has spurred financial stress in the heartland, and it got worse after a bumper U.S. crop last year added to a record supply of wheat and drove futures prices to their lowest level in a decade. Globally, wheat production is on the rise, and U.S. corn and soybean stockpiles are expected to grow next year as well. The bulging inventories have helped push stronger grain shipments on railroads, but the financial strain at farms means demand for agriculture equipment will likely remain as fallow as the farmland.

QUOTABLE

IN OTHER NEWS

China's exports declined sharply in December but exports to the U.S. increased 5%. (WSJ)

U.S. environmental regulators accused Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV of cheating on measuring emissions from diesel-powered vehicles. (WSJ)

Automotive supplier Takata Corp. is expected to plead guilty to criminal wrongdoing and pay roughly $1 billion to resolve a U.S. probe of the company's handling of rupture-prone air bags. (WSJ)

British industrial production surged 2.1% in November, pushed by strong oil and gas production. (WSJ)

Kinder Morgan Inc. won approval to expand its Trans Mountain pipeline to carry crude oil to British Columbia's Pacific coast for export. (WSJ)

Car sales in China rose at their fastest pace in three years in 2016 but are likely to slow this year as tax incentives expire. (WSJ)

South Korea struck an agreement to buy large quantities of fresh U.S. eggs as the country copes with the impact of bird-flu outbreak. (WSJ)

Delta Air Lines Inc.'s fourth-quarter net profit dived 37% as cargo revenue declined 10% in the quarter and 18% over the full year. (WSJ)

Bankrupt retailer American Apparel LLC agreed to sell one of its Southern California manufacturing plants to Broncs Inc. (WSJ)

Sales at luxury retailer Cie. Financière Richemont SA rose 6% during the last three months of 2016. (WSJ)

China's ministry of Commerce issued a grim trade outlook, saying the country faces a "complicated and severe" global situation and weak overseas demand. (South China Morning Post)

State-run China Cosco Shipping Corp. struck a $26 billion, five-year financing agreement with the China Development Bank. (Seatrade Maritime)

Kansas City Southern, Watco Cos. LLC and WTC Industrial will run a joint venture to expand U.S. exports of liquid fuels to Mexico. (Progressive Railroading)

J.M. Smucker Co. is raising prices of packaged coffee products, including Folgers and Dunkin' Donuts brands, amid rising prices on global coffee markets. (MarketWatch)

Target Corp. invested in the seed funding round of tech startup Inspectorio, which helps retailers monitor their supply chains. (Minneapolis Star-Tribune)

Procter & Gamble Co. says it will eliminate all manufacturing waste from its global network of more than 100 production sites by 2020. (Industry Week)

U.S. Customs and BorderProtection indefinitely postponed implementation of new functions in its updated version of customs-filing technology. (American Shipper)

MetroGistics, an automotive logistics firm recently acquired by Tailwind Capital, bought Alpharetta, Ga.-based Amerifleet. (Automotive Logistics)

ABOUT US

Paul Page is deputy editor of WSJ Logistics Report. Follow him at @PaulPage, and follow the entire WSJ Logistics Report team: @brianjbaskin, @jensmithWSJ and @EEPhillips_WSJ and follow the WSJ Logistics Report on Twitter at @WSJLogistics.

Subscribe to this email newsletter by clicking here: http://on.wsj.com/Logisticsnewsletter .

Write to Paul Page at paul.page@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 13, 2017 06:33 ET (11:33 GMT)

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