Container volume flat in lackluster October for West Coast ports

Container volume flat in lackluster October for West Coast ports

Container volumes handled by West Coast ports were flat in October as the ports recorded a lackluster month while East Coast ports reported strong gains.

According to numbers posted on the website of the Pacific Maritime Association, total loaded containers, both imports and and exports, moving through the West Coast in October were down less than 1 percent from October 2014.

Imports increased 1.4 percent year-over-year, but exports declined 4.4 percent. Exports have been weak all year due to the strong dollar, which makes U.S. goods more costly, and weak economies in China, Japan and most European countries. The U.S. Commerce Department reported Friday that exports in October dropped to the lowest level in more than four years.

Although containerized imports at West Coast ports edged up, major retailers in October continued to ship as much of their holiday merchandise as possible through East Coast ports, possibly a continued reaction to the labor issues earlier this year during the contentious contract negotiations between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the PMA.

According to PIERS, the JOC.com sister company, containerized imports moving through East Coast ports in October increased 12 percent from October 2014, and the coast’s share of total U.S. containerized imports increased to 44.8 percent from 43 percent in September. The West Coast share of imports dropped to 49.7 percent from 51.4 percent in September, and the Gulf Coast’s share declined to 5.45 percent from 5.5 percent.

The PMA numbers show that year-to-date, West Coast ports are struggling to overcome the huge losses they experienced in January and February when ILWU work slowdowns and employer retaliation generated the worst congestion since the 2002 ILWU contract negotiations. PMA numbers show that total West Coast container volume was still down 3 percent from the first 10 months of 2014. Imports were up less than 1 percent, and exports were down 10 percent.

Los Angeles-Long Beach, the largest U.S. port complex, was down 2.6 percent year-to-date in total container volume. Oakland was down 5.2 percent and the Northwest Seaport Alliance of Seattle and Tacoma was up less than 1 percent, due most likely to diversion of containers from Portland, which sacrificed more than 90 percent of its container business when the port lost its two largest liner services following two and one-half years of ILWU work slowdowns.

In the coming months, it appears that West Coast ports should be regaining much, although probably not all, of the containerized imports they lost during the past year’s labor problems. Imports through Los Angeles-Long Beach in the first 10 months of 2015 are up less than 1 percent from the same period last year. Oakland’s imports are up 1.6 percent and imports through the Northwest Seaport Alliance are up 7.9 percent year-to-date compared to 2014.

December will probably be a slow month for imports because all of the holiday season merchandise has been delivered to the stores. West Coast ports should show large gains in January and February when the numbers will be compared to terrible volumes earlier this year during the depth of the labor issues.

West Coast ports in January handled 591,994 20-foot container units, down from 831,624 TEUs in January 2014. February’s imports slipped further to 577,754 TEUs from 725,535 TEUs in February 2014.

Contact Bill Mongelluzzo at bill.mongelluzzo@ihs.com and follow him on Twitter:@billmongelluzzo