Container Import Slowdown Eases

Container Import Slowdown Eases

Import cargo volume at the nation's major retail container ports is now expected to drop to a total 12.5 million 20-foot containers for all of 2009, according to the monthly Port Tracker report released today by the National Retail Federation and IHS Global Insight.

The number is 17.7 percent below last year’s total of 15.2 million TEUs, but shows improvement from the 12.3 million TEUs forecast a month ago.

“We’re starting to see a pattern where import levels are still below last year but they're not as far below as they were just a few months ago,” said Jonathan Gold, NRF’s vice president for supply chain and customs policy. “This matches up with other economic indicators that show the recession may be coming to an end.”

The 12.5 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units now forecast for 2009 would be the lowest since the 12.47 million TEUs recorded in 2003. The number was revised upward to reflect higher projected imports for each of the remaining months of the year as retailers anticipate that economic conditions will begin to ease.

U.S. ports surveyed handled 1.1 million TEUs in July, the most recent month for which actual numbers are available. That was up 8 percent from June but down 17 percent from July 2008, marking the 25th month in a row to see a year-over-year decline.

Volume for August was estimated at 1.13 million TEUs, down 17 percent from last year, while September is forecast at 1.11 million TEUs, down 18 percent.

The volume for October, traditionally the peak month of the year, is forecast at 1.14 million TEUs, down 17 percent from last October. November is forecast at 1.07 million TEU, down 13 percent, and December is forecast at 1.04 million TEUs, down 2 percent from 2008.

The 2 percent decline in December is significant because it would improve by being the first single-digit decline of the year and compares with drops that have ranged from 15 percent to 32 percent.

But January 2010 is forecast at 1.01 million TEU, down 18 percent from January 2009.

“Import container traffic is projected to be weak through January because of the slow pace of recovery from the recession and the slow period that follows the holiday season,” said IHS Global Insight Economist Paul Bingham. “We are seeing the annual cycle of month-to-month growth that will peak in October, but volume is still below last year's levels.”

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.

Port Tracker, which is produced by the economic research, forecasting and analysis firm IHS Global Insight for NRF, looks at inbound container volume, the availability of trucks and railroad cars to move cargo out of the ports, labor conditions and other factors that affect cargo movement and congestion.

Contact Peter T. Leach at pleach@joc.com.