Port Tracker Forecasts Accelerating Imports

Port Tracker Forecasts Accelerating Imports

The monthly increases in imports that began at the nation’s major container ports in December are expected to climb at single digit rates through the spring and accelerate to double-digit rates through the summer as the economy improves, according to the latest Global Port Tracker forecast released Monday by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.

Retail imports are expected to grow by 13 percent in March compared with the same month a year ago, Port Tracker forecast.

“These numbers show that retailers continue to anticipate improvements in the U.S. economy,” NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said.

“This is very different from the past two years when merchants were continually cutting their imports in an effort to manage inventory,” Gold said.

Port Tracker said many ports experienced a stronger fourth quarter last year than would have been expected from the historical average and expect growth throughout the year, with some ports returning to 2008 volumes.

U.S. ports handled 1.08 million 20-foot container units in January, the latest month for which actual numbers are available. That was down just under 1 percent from December as imports wound down after the holiday season, but up 2 percent from January 2009.

It was also the second month in a row to show a year-over-year improvement after December broke a 28-month streak of year-over-year monthly declines.

The trans-Pacific trade performed more weakly than the trans-Atlantic in January, in part because of the weakness of the euro and the pound against the dollar, which fueled stronger growth at east Coast ports.

February volume was estimated at 1.08 million TEUs, the same as January but a 29 percent increase over unusually low numbers in February 2009, and March is forecast at 1.09 million TEUs, up 13 percent from the previous year.

Port Tracker forecast April volume at 1.17 million TEUs, up 19 percent as retailers begin to stock up for spring and summer, May at 1.21 million TEUs, up 17 percent, June at 1.26 million TEUs, up 25 percent, and July at 1.33 million TEUs, up 20 percent.

The first half of 2010 is expected to total 6.9 million TEUs, up 17 percent from last year’s 5.9 million TEUs. Imports for 2009 totaled 12.7 million TEUs, down 17 percent from 2008’s 15.2 million TEUs and the lowest since the 12.5 million TEUs reported in 2003. First-half growth is down from the 25 percent increase forecast a month ago, but reflects statistical issues at West Coast ports rather than a change in retailers’ import intentions.

Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett said the U.S. economy appears to be in true recovery rather than the mid-point upswing of a double-dip recession.

“We are in a cautious but sustained growth cycle,” Hackett said. “Trade will grow and as a result of statistical comparison with the trough in 2009, the growth rates will appear to be healthy.”

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