It should be the busiest time of year for truck drivers like Gerald Rogers at the Los Angeles docks. Instead they’re scrapping over leaner cargoes thanks to the trade war.

Last year, the 35-year-old says, he was shuttling as many as four loads a day between the port and its storage facilities. Now it’s down to two -- if he’s lucky. “The tariffs have changed the landscape,” he says. “China isn’t shipping as much, it’s cutting back on manufacturing. And when the loads don’t come, there’s not enough work for all of us.”

The U.S.-China pact announced last week has taken tensions in the 20-month trade conflict down a notch, but its effects are still rippling through the economies of the main protagonists -- and the rest of the world, too. For drivers at the Port of Los Angeles, America’s top gateway for Chinese trade by sea, it’s meant smaller and less predictable paychecks -- and the normal seasonal patterns turned upside-down.

Container traffic has been slowing since about mid-year, just when it would usually be strongest to meet back-to-school and holiday-shopping demand. And the latest deal keeps tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars of Chinese goods, leaving port truckers uncertain if flows will return to normal.

Rogers says the past year has taught him that business can turn on a dime. In 2018, the twin harbors of L.A. and Long Beach were breaking records for cargo -- and that was down to the trade war, too.

“There was a big boom because the shippers were getting everything in before the tariffs,” says Rogers.

This year, they didn’t repeat the move -- wisely, as it turned out, because President Donald Trump canceled tariffs that were due to kick in Dec. 15 as part of the phase-one trade deal. So the port’s truckers have gone from overstretched to in some cases feeling under-employed. There’s not enough work to go around, and competition between drivers is “cut-throat,” Rogers says.

Spot markets for truck freight -- where customers move loads at short notice -– reinforce his view. Since August, West Coast volumes have been “considerably lower” than in the rest of America relative to their normal levels, according to Avery Vise, vice president of trucking at industry research firm FTR.

“A lot of drivers have come to expect a certain seasonality and they budget by that,” Vise says. “Before, you could see bad things coming because it had more to do with how the rest of the global economy was doing -- and there was a warning. But now there are shifts occurring because of trade policies that are unpredictable.”

The Cass Freight Shipment Index -- a monthly measure of trucking, rail and air freight volume, recorded a 3.3% year-over-year decline in November, marking a year of negative readings. Volumes may begin to level off, “but not surge much” from next year, Cass said in a statement on Thursday.

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