Port Tracker: March imports hit 5-year low

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Posted April 9, 2020

In-bound container traffic lowest since 2015 labor dispute at West Coast ports

WASHINGTON – Traffic at major U.S. container ports fell to its lowest level in five years during March, according to estimates from the monthly Global Port Tracker report from the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.

Imports are projected to remain significantly below normal levels through early summer as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

“Even as factories in China have begun to get back to work, we are seeing far fewer imports coming into the United States than previously expected,” NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said in a release. “Many stores are closed, and consumer demand has been impacted with millions of Americans out of work. However, there are still many essential items that are badly needed, and because of store closures, cargo may sit longer than usual and cause other supply chain impacts.”

U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.51 million twenty-foot equivalent units in February, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. That was down 17 % from January and down 6.8% year-over-year.

While February imports typically fall from January due annual factory shutdowns in China and Southeast Asia for Lunar New Year celebrations, the shutdowns lasted longer than usual and continued into March because of the coronavirus outbreak. While actual numbers for March are not yet available, estimates show that imports plunged to 1.27 million TEUs, down 21.3% year-over-year and the lowest level seen since 1.21 million TEUs in February 2015 during a labor dispute that caused slowdowns at West Coast ports that winter.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is unraveling the economy nationally and globally as most of the world moves toward a lockdown that entails the closure of significant portions of both the service and manufacturing industries,” Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett said. “The largest drop is forecast for the first half of this year, but with uncertainty about the length of the lockdown and extent of the pandemic, the second half may not be in better shape.”

Before the coronavirus began to have an effect on imports, February through May had been forecast at a total of 6.9 million TEUs but is now expected to total 5.7 million TEUs, a drop of 17.3%. As recently as last month, monthly numbers had been expected to hit the 2 million TEU mark beginning in May. The last time monthly totals fell below 1.5 million TEUs was in February 2017.

April is forecast at 1.44 million TEUs, down 17.6% year-over-year; May at 1.48 million TEUs, down 20.1%; June at 1.41 million TEUs, down 21.4%; July at 1.61 million TEUs, down 18.2%; and August at 1.72 million TEUs, down 12.5%.

The first half of 2020 is forecast to total 8.93 million TEUs, down 15.1% from the same period last year. Before the extent of the pandemic was known, the first half of the year was forecast at 10.47 million TEUs.

Imports during 2019 totaled 21.6 million TEUs, a 0.8% decrease from 2018 amid the trade war with China but still the second-highest year on record.

Global Port Tracker, which is produced for NRF by the consulting firm Hackett Associates, 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.

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