Volumes at the nation’s major container ports fell below 2 million TEU in November for the first time since February 2021 and are expected remain there through most of this spring, according to January’s Global Port Tracker report

By Will Waters

With the pandemic-driven surge in US container imports finally over, monthly import cargo volumes at the nation’s major container ports have fallen below 2 million TEU for the first time since February 2021 and are expected remain there through most of this spring, according to the January Global Port Tracker report from the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.

“Ports have been stretched to their limits and beyond but are getting a break as consumer demand moderates amid continued inflation and high interest rates,” NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said. “Consumers are still spending and volumes remain high, but we’re not seeing the congestion at the docks and ships waiting to unload that were widespread this time a year ago. It’s good to escape some of the pressure, but it’s important to use this time to address supply chain challenges that still need to be resolved like finalizing the West Coast port labor contract.”

Imports plummeted to a four-year low of 1.37 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units – one 20-foot container or its equivalent – in March 2020 as COVID-19 prompted the temporary shutdown of much of the nation’s economy. But cargo soared after the shutdowns ended and pent-up consumer demand was unleashed that summer, topping 2 million TEU by that August and staying there all but one month until this winter.

“After nearly three years of COVID-19’s impact on global trade and consumer demand, import patterns appear to be returning to what was normal prior to 2020,” Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett said. “Nonetheless, as inflation eases and consumer spending returns, we project that growth will slowly return going into the second half of the year.”

US ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.78 million TEU this November, the latest month for which final numbers are available. That was down 11.3% from October and down 15.8% from November 2021. It was the lowest total since 1.87 million TEU in February 2021, which had been the only month in over two years to fall below 2 million TEU.

Ports have not yet reported December numbers, but Global Port Tracker projected the month at 1.88 million TEU, down 10.1% year over year. That would bring 2022 – which repeatedly broke monthly records in the first half of the year but saw significant drops in the second half – to an annual total of 25.7 million TEU, down 0.7% from the annual record of 25.8 million TEU set in 2021.

Despite the slowdown in cargo, retail sales are on track to meet NRF’s forecast of 6% to 8% growth over 2021 for both the full year and the holiday season when December’s sales numbers are released next week.

January is forecast at 1.91 million TEU, down 11.5% year over year. February is forecast at 1.63 million TEU, the lowest since 1.61 million TEU in June 2020 and a 23% drop from last year, when backed-up cargo kept congested ports busy. March is forecast at 1.75 million TEU, down 25.5% year over year; April at 1.94 million, down 14.5%, and May at 2 million TEU, down 16.2%.

Global Port Tracker, which is produced for NRF by Hackett Associates, provides historical data and forecasts for the US 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 National Retail Federation is the world’s largest retail trade association and advocates for the the largest private-sector employer sector in the US, where retail contributes $3.9 trillion to annual GDP and supports an estimated one in four US jobs.

Source: will waters