August US container imports could set record

| Aug 11, 2014 4:38PM EDT

U.S. container imports could hit an all-time record in August, as July data shows container numbers soared year-over-year, according to the National Retail Federation.

The NRF released a statement today in conjunction with the latest Global Port Tracker report, noting that retailers have been stocking up on holiday merchandise early in order to sidestep any potential slowdowns as U.S. West Coast labor negotiations continue without a new contract in place. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association have been negotiating since May, but have gone without a contract since the last one expired on July 1.

“Retailers are making sure they are stocked up so shoppers won’t be affected regardless of what happens at the ports,” NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said in a press release. “The negotiations appear to be going well but each week that goes by makes the situation more critical as the holiday season approaches.”

July’s total containerized imports were 1.7 million TEUs, 5.8 percent higher than June’s total and nearly 5 percent higher year-over-year.July’s total containerized imports were 1.7 million TEUs, 5.8 percent higher than June’s total and nearly 5 percent higher year-over-year.

The NRF said import volumes for retail merchandise are on pace to total 1.54 million containers in August, higher than July’s merchandise total of 1.53 million containers. Preliminary data from PIERS, the data division of JOC Group, showed July’s total containerized imports at 1.7 million TEUs, 5.8 percent higher than June’s total and nearly 5 percent higher year-over-year.

Peak season is hard to pinpoint while it is happening, simply because data comes out weeks and months after the fact. However, JOC Economist Mario Moreno predicted the peak of this year’s import season in the U.S. would come in July. Volume surges to both U.S. East Coast and West Coast ports have supported higher spot rates in recent weeks.

Track container traffic through U.S., European and Chinese ports on the Port Volumes Market Data Dashboard.

Preliminary PIERS data shows the Port of Los Angeles’ traffic was down 1 percent year-over-year in July at 360,564 TEUs. Most other major U.S. ports saw volume jump year-over-year. Imports through Long Beach rose 7 percent in July to 325,203, while NY-NJ saw 6 percent growth to 269,494 TEUs. The Port of Savannah experienced the largest year-over-year increase, with containerized imports of 122,601 TEUs, 30 percent higher than July 2013.

The PMA and the ILWU have been at the table since mid-May, but have recently taken several breaks from negotiations so the ILWU can negotiate with grain handlers in the Pacific Northwest. While there is still no contract in place, there have been no major disruptions at West Coast ports so far, only minor disruptions tied to the Teamsters, a brief skirmish at the Trapac terminal in Los Angeles and a local jurisdictional dispute in Portland, Oregon.

The NRF said it is forecasting a total of of 17.1 million 20-foot containers of retail merchandise for the year, 5.2 percent higher than the federation’s 2013 totals. Import volume at ports covered by the Global Port Tracker report, produced together with Hackett Associates, totaled 8.3 million TEUs in the first half of 2014, up 6.9 percent over last year. Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett said the increases in volume reflect both improvements in the economy and retailers importing merchandise early because of the contract negotiations.

“U.S. GDP has increased in 11 out of the last 12 quarters, confirming that we are in a sustained period of expansion,” Hackett said. “A significant portion of the strong upswing in imports has been due to the labor negotiations, with importers moving up shipments just in case.”

The Global Port Tracker report covers containerized imports at the U.S. ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle,Tacoma, New York/New Jersey, Hampton Roads, Charleston, Savannah, Port Everglades, Miami, and Houston.

Contact Corianne Egan at cegan@joc.com and follow her on Twitter: @CEgan_JOC.