Import volume at the nation’s major retail container ports is expected to increase 3.3 percent in May over the same month last year but growth could trickle to a standstill by the end of the summer, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report from the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.
“The weak cargo increases expected over the next few months are consistent with other signs that the economy is slowly improving but show that retailers remain cautious, especially when it comes to stocking their inventories,” NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said. “We’re looking at barely 1 percent of year-over-year growth through the early summer, and August and September are expected to be basically flat even though they’re supposed to be two of the busiest months of the years.”
“With consumer confidence low, employment struggling to recover, and less money in shoppers’ pockets because of the payroll tax hike, we need to see action from Washington that will provide some fiscal certainty for families and businesses alike,” Gold said.
Cargo import numbers do not correlate directly with retail sales or employment because they count only the number of cargo containers brought into the country, not the value of the merchandise inside them. But the amount of merchandise imported nonetheless provides a rough barometer of retailers’ expectations.
U.S. ports followed by Global Port Tracker handled 1.14 million Twenty-foot Equivalent Units in March, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. That was down 10.9 percent from February and 8.6 percent from March 2012. One TEU is one 20-foot cargo container or its equivalent.
April was estimated at 1.29 million TEU, down 1.4 percent from a year ago. May is forecast at 1.42 million TEU, up 3.3 percent from last year; June at 1.4 million TEU, up 1.4 percent; July at 1.43 million TEU, also up 1.4 percent; August at 1.43 million TEU, up 0.1 percent, and September at 1.41 million TEU, unchanged from last year.
The first six months of 2013 are expected to total 7.8 million TEU, up 2 percent from the first half of 2012. The total for 2012 was 15.8 million TEU, up 2.9 percent from 2011.
“Despite the Fed pumping liquidity into the market, consumer confidence still has not turned the corner,” Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett said. “We need to see the economy strengthen in the coming quarters before we can begin to see the threat of a further economic downturn dissipating. Trade will remain at low growth levels until we reach this stage.”