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US ports enjoy unexpected spike as economy reopens

Aerial view of a cargo ship loaded in the Seattle harbor container terminal
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Imports at US ports rose unexpectedly in the summer months as the economy reopened and retailers prepared for the holiday season, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.

In a statement, NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said: “It’s important to be careful how much to read into these numbers after all we’ve seen this year, but retailers are importing far more merchandise for the holidays than we expected even a month ago.

“Some of these imports are helping replenish inventories that started to run low after consumers unleashed pent-up demand when stores reopened. But this is the clearest sign yet that we could be in for a much happier holiday season than many had thought.”

Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett also commented: “The economy has come into sharp focus, and for good cause.

“The previous yo-yo pattern of import levels reached a peak in July that appears to have extended into August. Nonetheless, data from around the globe is a mix, with a weak recovery as Europe struggles with rising COVID-19 numbers but China’s exports remain solid. Will this last? A lot of uncertainty is in play.”

US ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.92 million TEU in July, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. That was down 2.3% year-over-year (YoY) but up 19.3% from June and significantly higher than the 1.76 million TEU forecast a month ago.

August was estimated at 2.06 million TEU, a 6% year-over-year increase. Actual August numbers won’t be known until next month, but that would be an all-time high, beating the previous record of 2.04 million TEU set in October 2018.

September is forecast at 1.89 million TEU, up 1.1% YoY. October at 1.71 million TEU, down 9.2%November at 1.58 million TEU, down 6.8% and December at 1.53 million TEU, down 11%.

Those numbers would bring 2020 to a total of 20.1 million TEU, a drop of 6.7% from last year, still the lowest annual total since 19.1 million TEU in 2016. The first half of 2020 totaled 9.5 million TEU, down 10.6% from last year.

The forecast numbers call for 7.58 million TEU during the July-October “peak season” when retailers rush to bring in merchandise for the winter holidays, making 2020 the third-busiest peak season on record following 7.7 million TEU in 2018 and 7.66 million TEU last year.

January 2021 is forecast at 1.6 million TEU, down 12 percent from January 2020.

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