Import cargo volume at the nation’s major container ports is climbing back from a nearly three-year low in February, but is expected to remain well below last year’s levels heading into this fall, according to a report from the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.
“With economic uncertainty continuing, the impact on trade is clear,” Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett said in a release, noting continued high inflation, Federal Reserve interest rate hikes, and recent bank failures. “Year-over-year import volumes have been on the decline at most ports since late last year and declining exports out of China highlight the slowdown in demand for consumer goods. Our forecast now projects a larger decline in imports in the first half of this year than we forecast last month. Our view is that imports will remain below recent levels until inflation rates and inventory surpluses are reduced.”
By the numbers, NRF and Hackett’s “Global Port Tracker” found that U.S. ports covered by the report handled 1.62 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) in March, the latest month for which final numbers are available. That was up 5% from February – which saw the lowest levels since May 2020 – but down 30.6% year over year.
The study noted that the large year-over-year declines are skewed by unusually high volumes last year, but they are persistent. Ports have not yet reported April numbers, but Global Port Tracker projected the month at 1.73 million TEU, down 23.4% year over year. May is forecast at 1.83 million TEU, down 23.5% from last year’s 2.4 million TEU, the all-time record for the number of containers imported during a single month. June is forecast at 1.9 million TEU, down 15.9%; July at 2.01 million TEU, down 7.9%; August at 2.04 million TEU, down 9.9%, and September at 1.96 million TEU, down 3.4%.
Overall, the first half of 2023 – previously forecast at 10.8 million TEU – is now forecast at 10.4 million TEU, down 22.8% from the first half of 2022.
“Consumers are still spending and retail sales are expected to increase this year, but we’re not seeing the explosive demand we saw the past two years,” NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said in a release. “Congestion at the ports has largely gone away as import levels have fallen, but other supply chain challenges remain, ranging from trucker shortages to getting empty containers back to terminals. We were pleased by recent reports of progress related to the West Coast port labor negotiations but will continue to monitor the situation closely until there is a new agreement ratified by both parties.”
Global Port Tracker provides historical data and forecasts 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.