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Slow and Steady Climb in Imports at US Container Ports

April 12, 2016
Slow-and-steady import growth in 2016 will replace the roller-coaster ride of 2015.

Import cargo volumes at the nation’s major retail container ports have begun their annual climb toward summer levels but volumes are expected to be largely flat when compared with last year’s record high numbers, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report produced by the National Retail Federation and consulting firm Hackett Associates.

“Last year was a roller coaster but this year we’re expecting a nice, steady climb right through the summer,” says Jonathan Gold, NRF’s vice president for supply chain and customs policy. “We’re finally getting back to normal patterns as cargo builds up toward the back-to-school season and eventually the holiday season. Despite the year-over-year comparisons, these are still strong numbers.”

Ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.54 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) in February 2016, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. That was up 3.7% from January and a dramatic 28.9% from unusually low figures in February 2015, when a new contract with dockworkers ended a near-shutdown at West Coast ports. One TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.

March was estimated at 1.35 million TEUs, down 22.1% from the flood of traffic seen last year as the new contract released a backlog of cargo. April is forecast at 1.5 million TEUs, down 0.8% from last year; May at 1.58 million TEUs, down 2.1%; June at 1.56 million TEUs, down 0.6%; July at 1.61 million TEUs, down 0.5%, and August also at 1.61 million TEUs, down 3.9%.

The first half of 2016 is expected to total 9 million TEUs, up 1.8% from the same period in 2015. Total volume for 2015 was 18.2 million TEUs, up 5.4% from 2014.

Despite high retail inventory levels and other mixed economic indicators, Hackett Associates’ founder Ben Hackett notes that overall retail sales were up 0.2% in February over January and 0.6% when gasoline, automobiles and restaurants are excluded.

“That was not spectacular but still up, suggesting that there is still some steam left in U.S. consumers,” Hackett says. “They are shrugging off the gloomy global outlook.”

Global Port Tracker covers the U.S. ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle and Tacoma on the West Coast; New York/New Jersey, Hampton Roads, Charleston, Savannah, Port Everglades and Miami on the East Coast, and Houston on the Gulf Coast.

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