One of the major headaches U.S. ports encounter in managing container trade flows is the imbalance in demand for loaded imports and exports. Ports handling more loaded imports than exports wind up with a lot of empties sitting around, taking up precious container yard space. Ports that focus on exports may have to scramble to find enough empties to load.
The gap between imports and exports at U.S. ports is a barometer of trends in the global container trade. When the world economy is booming, U.S. exports are up and the imbalances at import-oriented ports in Southern California, the Northeast and mid-Atlantic go down. If the world economy slows, as it did last year, U.S. exports slow and the imbalances at export-oriented ports, like Oakland or those in the Southeast, go up.
At the biggest U.S. import ports — Los Angeles/Long Beach and New York/New Jersey — the continuing recovery of U.S. demand for imports combined with weak export demand to increase the gap between imports and exports in the year to date through September, according to data compiled by PIERS, the JOC’s data division.
At the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the gap between imports and exports expanded to 39.7 percent, compared with 38.2 percent in the same period last year and 36.9 percent in the first nine months of 2012. The gap is measured by the difference between imports and exports as a percentage of total throughput.
Carriers have been deploying their biggest ships on the trans-Pacific trade with these two ports, so their import volumes have been growing faster than at other West Coast ports. In the import-oriented Pacific Northwest ports of Seattle and Tacoma, for example, the growth in the gap of imports over exports fell to 14.8 percent in the first three quarters from 16.7 percent in the same period last year.
The gap of imports over exports also expanded at ports in the Northeast, including Boston, but especially at New York/New Jersey. In the first three quarters of 2013, it grew to 32.7 percent, from 30.6 percent last year and 27.4 percent in 2011.
Both regions have seen their gaps expand year-over-year recently, Southern California for the past year and the Northeast for the past seven quarters.
At export-oriented ports, such as Oakland and the southeastern ports of Charleston, Savannah and Miami, exports outnumber imports, but the resulting gaps are not expanding as fast. In Oakland, where the big ships from Asia call after dropping import cargos at Southern California ports, the gap of exports over imports increased to 2.7 percent in the first three quarters of this year, from 1.9 percent in the same period last year, when export growth was hampered by the so-called “green fence” erected by China, which slowed the growth of imports and caused a lot of smaller U.S. exporters to quit the trade.
In the Southeast, as the global recovery sputtered, the gap of exports over imports declined to 1.1 percent in the first three quarters from 1.8 percent last year and a much larger 9.1 percent in 2011.