Cargo Volumes Will Rise in March

The climb towards the 2009 annual peak season will start with March cargo volumes rising, but slowly.

Cargo volumes at major US retail container ports will be up in March as traffic begins its annual climb toward peak season, but volumes for the first half of 2009 are expected to remain well below last year’s levels, according to the monthly Port Tracker report released by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and IHS Global Insight.

“February is traditionally the slowest month of the year, so we’re now at the point where we’ll see a gradual increase in volume as retailers bring in spring and summer merchandise and build up toward the holiday season,” said Jonathan Gold, NRF vice president for Supply Chain and Customs Policy. “But this year’s numbers are going to remain well below last year because sales are still slow and most economists aren’t seeing a recovery before the second half of the year at the earliest. Careful inventory management is a key to survival for retailers in the economic times we’re going through.”

US ports surveyed handled 1.05 million twenty-foot-equivalent units (TEUs) in January, the most recent month for which actual numbers are available. That was down half a percent from December and off 14.6% from January 2008, making January the 19th month in a row to see a year-over-year decline. The last year-over-year increase was July 2007, when the 1.44 million TEUs was up 3.4% from July 2006.

February was estimated at 1 million TEUs, down 17.7% from 2008. March is forecast at 1.07 million TEUs, up 5.3% from February but down 7.4% from a year earlier. April is forecast at 1.14 million TEUs, down 10.3% from a year ago; May at 1.16 million TEUs, down 11.4%; June at 1.19 million TEUs, down 8.6%; and July at 1.21 million TEU, down 7.5%.

The forecast for the first half of 2009 remains at 6.6 million TEUs, down 11.7% from the 7.5 million TEUs seen in 2008. Total volume for 2008 was 15.2 million TEUs, down 7.9% from 2007’s 16.5 million TEUs and the lowest level since 2004’s 14 million TEUs.

“The good news is that low volume has left the ports with an excess of capacity that means the cargo coming through is moving without congestion from the harbor to the gate,” said Paul Bingham, IHS Global Insight Economist. “Dockside labor, trucks and intermodal rail are all readily available.”

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