Import cargo volume at the busiest U.S. container ports is beginning to ramp up after a flat summer, the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates said in their monthly Global Port Tracker report.
The 10 ports the report tracks handled 1.32 million 20-foot-equivalent units in July, up 6 percent from June but down 4 percent from July 2010. August was expected to be flat with last year at an estimated 1.42 million TEUs.
The report said year-over-year comparisons were skewed by higher-than-normal shipments in the summer of 2010, when fears of tight shipping capacity caused many retailers to accelerate imports of holiday merchandise.
“This year, retailers have the luxury of importing holiday goods later than last year, which better ensures their inventory levels will accurately meet consumer demand,” said Jonathan Gold, the retail federation’s vice president for supply chain and customs policy.
Year-over-year growth is beginning to resume in September, which the report predicts will rise 11.8 percent to 1.5 million TEUs. October is forecast at 1.48 million TEUs, up 9.5 percent; November, 1.33 million TEUs, up 8 percent; and December at 1.2 million TEUs, up 4.5 percent. January 2012 is forecast at 1.19 million TEUs, down 1 percent from January 2011.
The total for 2011 is forecast at 15.4 million TEUs, up 4.3 percent from 2010. Last year’s 14.7 million TEUs was a 16 percent increase over the unusually low numbers in the recession year of 2009.
Ben Hackett, founder of Hackett associates, expressed caution about future cargo flows. He cited the seasonal nature of cargo volume and continuing uncertainties about the economy.
“We should not be lulled into too much confidence by the relatively strong import volumes of August and September,” Hackett said. “These are linked to the low levels of inventory that needed to be raised to meet the return-to-school and post-Thanksgiving sales. The third quarter will be positive for the ocean carriers and retailers but that will turn into negative growth for the next two to three quarters thereafter.”
Journal of Commerce Economist Mario O. Moreno cited difficult economic conditions this month when he slashed his full-year forecast for U.S. containerized imports to 2.7 percent from 4.7 percent. Moreno’s forecast encompasses all U.S. ports.
Global Port Tracker covers the ports of Long Angeles, Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle and Tacoma on the West Coast; New York and New Jersey, Virginia, Charleston and Savannah on the East Coast, and Houston on the Gulf Coast.
Moreno forecasts that volumes in the eastbound trans-Pacific, the highest-volume U.S. trade lane, will post a year-over-year decline of 2.4 percent in the third quarter and rise just 0.9 percent in the fourth quarter.