Import Container Volumes Hit 7-Year Low

Import cargo volumes dropped below the 1-million-container mark, according to the National Retail Federation (NRF) and IHS Global Insight. Though the monthly report suggests volumes are climbing in March and April, they won't top 1 million again until May 2009.

Imports will continue to see declines through the summer, when compared with 2008 volumes.

“These numbers come during the slowest part of the annual shipping cycle, so they’re expected to be low, but they nonetheless show the severity of the current recession and its impact on the retail industry,” said Jonathan Gold, NRF vice president for Supply Chain and Customs Policy. “The good news is that we’ve already seen the bottom for the year, and month-to-month numbers are already starting to climb. We’re still going to see double-digit declines compared with last year, but the size of the gap is starting to narrow.”

US ports surveyed handled only 847,832 twenty-foot-equivalent units (TEUs) in February, the most recent month for which actual numbers are available. That was down 20.6% from January’s 1.07 million TEUs and 31.3% from February 2008’s 1.23 million TEUs.

February is traditionally the slowest month of the year, and this year registered the lowest volume since the 818,342 TEUs in March 2002. It was also the first time the total has fallen below the 1 million mark since February 2004, when ports in the survey handled 901,497 TEUs. Further, it marked the 20th month in a row to see a year-over-year decline. The last year-over-year increase was in July 2007, when the 1.44 million TEUs handled was up 3.4% from July 2006.

Volume estimates for March 2009 were 930,142 TEUs, down 19.7% from a year earlier, and April is forecast at 987,371 TEUs, down 22%. The numbers are expected to rise above the 1 million mark again in May, but will remain below last year’s levels.

The first half of 2009 is now forecast at 5.9 million TEUs, down 21% from the 7.5 million TEUs seen in the first half of 2008. Total volume for 2008 was 15.2 million TEUs, down 7.9% from 2007.

“The weak port cargo volumes have left port trucking with excess capacity, and cargo is moving without congestion either at the ports or through the inland system,” said Paul Bingham, IHS Global Insight Economist. “Rail operations were affected by flooding in the northern states in March and April but disruptions were not sustained enough to cause significant delays.”

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