US import cargo rebounds but falls short of 2022 levels

Aerial image of containers in the Port of Long Beach, California.

Import cargo volume at the US major container ports is climbing back from a nearly three-year low in February, but is expected to remain below 2022 levels heading into this fall.

According to the latest Global Port Tracker report released by the National Retail Federation (NFR) and Hackett Associates, tracked US ports handled 1.62 million TEU in March.

The figure reflects a 5 per cent increase from February, which saw the lowest levels since May 2020.

Despite this, March’s throughput was yet down 30.6 per cent from March 2022.

READ: Long Beach imports take a hit as eastward shift drags on

US Ports have not yet reported April numbers, but the Global Port Tracker projected the month at 1.73 million TEU, down 23.4 per cent year-on-year.

May is forecast at 1.83 million TEU, down 23.5 per cent from last year’s 2.4 million TEU, the record for the number of containers imported during a single month.

June is additionally forecast at 1.9 million TEU, down 15.9 per cent; July at 2.01 million TEU, down 7.9 per cent; August at 2.04 million TEU, down 9.9 per cent, and September at 1.96 million TEU, down 3.4 per cent.

The large year-on-year drops are caused by extremely and unusually high volumes last year, according to the report.

READ: US West Coast ports show resilience to labour negotiations

“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,” said NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold.

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 labour negotiations but will continue to monitor the situation closely until there is a new agreement ratified by both parties.”

Volumes for the first half of 2023 – previously forecast at 10.8 million TEU – are now forecast at 10.4 million TEU, down 22.8 per cent from the first half of 2022.

The Global Port Tracker has not yet forecast the full year, but the third quarter is expected to total 6 million TEU, down 7.2 per cent from the same time last year, and the first nine months of the year would total 16.5 million TEU, down 17.8 per cent year-on-year.

A recent analysis from Sea-Intelligence showed that the rate of contraction for laden imports across major North America West Coast ports slowed down in March 2023.

While this could be a temporary change, it may also indicate the normalisation of market conditions.

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