Import cargo volume at the nation’s major container ports is expected to drop to nearly its lowest level since the beginning of the pandemic this month, according to a report from the National Retail Federation (NRF) and the consulting firm Hackett Associates.
“With the U.S. economy slowing and consumers worried by rising interest rates and still-high inflation, retailers are importing less merchandise,” NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said in a release. “February is traditionally a slow month, but these are the lowest numbers we’ve seen in almost three years. Retailers are being cautious as they wait to see how the economy responds to efforts to bring inflation under control.”
U.S. ports handled 1.73 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) in December, the latest month for which final numbers are available, NRF and Hackett said in their “Global Port Tracker” report. That was down 2.6% from November and down 17.1% from December 2021. That brought 2022 – which broke multiple monthly records in the first half of the year but saw significant drops in the second half – to an annual total of 25.5 million TEU, down 1.2% from the annual record of 25.8 million TEU set in 2021.
Looking into the future, the report projected that January totals will reach just 1.78 million TEU, down 17.6% year over year. And February is forecast at 1.57 million TEU, down 25.6% from the same month last year. That would make February 2023 the slowest month since 1.53 million TEU in May 2020, when many factories in Asia and most U.S. stores were closed by the pandemic.
“In some ways, 2023 is reminiscent of 2020, when the world’s economies shut down because of the pandemic and no one had a clue where we were headed,” Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett said in a release. “Cargo volumes are down, and the economy is in a contradiction of rising employment and wages that promise prosperity at the same time high inflation and rising interest rates threaten a recession. The economy is far from shut down, but the degree of uncertainty is very similar.”
The monthly report tracks data for the U.S. ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle, and Tacoma on the West Coast; New York/New Jersey, Port of Virginia, Charleston, Savannah, Port Everglades, Miami, and Jacksonville on the East Coast, and Houston on the Gulf Coast.
The report is the latest sign of a cooling global economy, following parallel reports covering air cargo, intermodal volumes, and freight trucking.
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