Port Volumes Could Rise in 2010

Nov. 24, 2009
Import cargo volume at the major U.S. retail container ports could increase beginning in early 2010

Import cargo volume at the nation’s major retail container ports could see its first year-over-year increases in more than two years beginning in early 2010, according to the monthly Port Tracker report from the National Retail Federation and IHS Global Insight.

“This could be the turnaround we’ve been waiting to see for a long time,” says Jonathan Gold, NRF’s vice president for supply chain and customs policy. “There’s not enough data yet to establish a clear trend, but we’re hopeful that this is a sign of recovery.”

U.S. ports surveyed handled 1.14 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) in September, the most recent month for which actual numbers are available. That was down 3% from August and 16% from September 2008, marking the 27th month in a row to see a year-over-year decline. Volume for October, traditionally the peak month of the year, was estimated at 1.17 million TEU, down 15% from last year. November is forecast at 1.09 million TEU, down 11% from last year, December at 1.06 million TEU, flat compared with last year, and January 2010 is forecast at 1.03 million TEU, down 3%.

The January figure would mark the 31st month of year-over-year declines, but the trend is forecast to be broken in February, when cargo is expected to total 973,872 TEU. The figure is below the 1 million mark because February is the slowest month of the year, but would be a 16% increase over February 2009. March 2010 is forecast at 1.02 million, a 5% increase over March 2009.

The report now expects 2009 to end with a total volume of 12.7 million TEU, a drop of 16.8% from last year’s 15.2 million TEU and the lowest since the 12.47 million TEU imported in 2003. One TEU is one 20-foot container or its equivalent.

“The second half of 2009 has continued to see declines from 2008’s levels, but not as large as we saw during the first half of this year,” say Paul Bingham, economist with IHS Global Insight. “These ‘less bad’ numbers are evidence that the industry is seeing early signs of recovery.”

All U.S. ports covered by Port Tracker—Los Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle and Tacoma on the West Coast; New York/New Jersey, Hampton Roads, Charleston and Savannah on the East Coast, and Houston on the Gulf Coast—are rated “low” for congestion, the same as last month.