Growth in imports at the busiest US container ports for retail goods is expected to tick up slightly this month before rocketing in February and then easing in March and April, the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates said in their monthly Global Port Tracker report.
The Global Port Tracker forecast January volume through the ports will be 1.68 million TEU, up 0.2 percent year over year; February at 1.62 million TEU, up 12.6 percent; March at 1.5 million TEU, down 2.3 percent; April at 1.66 million TEU, up 3.3 percent; and May at 1.73 million TEU, up 0.4 percent. The February and March volumes are skewed by the annual shutdown of Asian factories for Lunar New Year, which this year falls on Feb. 16. Companies typically accelerate shipments before the holiday in order to maintain inventories.
The Global Port Tracker said US containerized imports rose 7 percent in 2017 from 2016. The strong import numbers reflect economic expansion. IHS Markit forecasts US GDP growth of 2.8 percent this year, compared with 2.3 percent in 2017 and 1.5 percent in 2016. After starting 2017 with a 1.2 percent growth rate in the first quarter, the US economy expanded at a nearly 3 percent clip the rest of the year.
December volumes at the ports of Los Angeles-Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle-Tacoma, New York-New Jersey, Virginia, Charleston, Savannah, Miami, Port Everglades, and Houston handled an estimated 1.6 million TEU in December, a 2.6 percent increase from a year earlier, the report said.
That pushed the 2017 total for the ports to 20.1 million TEU, compared with 18.8 million TEU in 2016, and representing a 7 percent increase that more than doubled 2016’s 3.1 percent increase over 2015. The just-finished year included a record monthly total of 1.8 million TEU in August, and five of the seven months that the Global Port Tracker has recorded with volumes of more than 1.7 million TEU.
Ports covered by the report handled 1.74 million TEU in November, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. With most holiday merchandise already in the country by that point, the number was down 1.7 percent from October but up 5.8 percent year over year.
Total US imports, including ports not followed by the report, were up 5 percent year over year to 22.7 million TEU, according to PIERS, a sister product of JOC.com that tracks imports and exports at all US ports. That growth was led by furniture, which rose 10.5 percent to 3 million TEU, and aluminum and aluminum articles, which rose 12 percent to 303,213 TEU. The fastest growing ports were Houston, up 19.4 percent, to 1.1 million laden TEU; Philadelphia, up 19.2 percent, to 274,238 TEU; Mobile, up 16.9 percent, to 117,579 TEU; and Savannah, up 10.6 percent, to 1.8 million TEU.
“On a percentage basis, 2017 was one of the strongest increases we’ve seen since the end of the Great Recession,” said Ben Hackett, founder of Hackett Associates. “That’s no minor achievement at a time when many are trying to talk down the economy. The rate is expected to slow down some, but with 2017’s performance and continuing high consumer confidence, our models show continued growth in the coming year.”
The Global Port Tracker forecast January volume at 1.68 million TEU, up 0.2 percent year over year; February at 1.62 million TEU, up 12.6 percent March at 1.5 million TEU, down 2.3 percent; April at 1.66 million TEU, up 3.3 percent, and May at 1.73 million TEU, up 0.4 percent. The February and March percentages are skewed by the annual shutdown of Asian factories for Lunar New Year.
The NRF forecast that 2017 retail sales would increase by 3.2 and 3.8 percent from 2016 and that holiday sales would grow by 3.6 to 4 percent, but year-end numbers will not be released by the Census Bureau until Friday. Cargo volume does not correlate directly with sales because only the number of containers is counted, not the value of the cargo inside, but the NRF said volume provides a barometer of retailers’ expectations.