Trouble at sea? Import volumes projected to reach new lows in the first half of this year

WASHINGTON – Import cargo volume for February 2023 at U.S. major container ports is expected to drop to nearly its lowest level since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the Global Port Tracker report released by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.

The report is forecasting February’s import figures to be 1.57 million twenty-foot container equivalent units, down 25.6% from February 2022 for the slowest month since May 2020 logged 1.53 million TEU, when many factories in Asia and most U.S. stores were closed by the pandemic.

“February is traditionally a slow month, but these are the lowest numbers we’ve seen in almost three years,” said Jonathan Gold, NRF vice president for supply chain and customs policy. “Retailers are being cautious as they wait to see how the economy responds to efforts to bring inflation under control.”

“In some ways, 2023 is reminiscent of 2020, when the world’s economies shut down because of the pandemic and no one had a clue where we were headed,” added Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett. “Cargo volumes are down, and the economy is in a contradiction of rising employment and wages that promise prosperity at the same time high inflation and rising interest rates threaten a recession. The economy is far from shut down, but the degree of uncertainty is very similar.”

U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.73 million TEU in December, down 2.6% from November and down 17.1% from December 2021.

Last year’s port figures broke multiple monthly records in the first half of 2022 but saw significant drops in the second half for an annual total of 25.5 million TEU, down 1.2% from the annual record of 25.8 million TEU set in 2021.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, only the 1.51 million TEU recorded in February 2020 and 1.37 million TEU in March 2020 have been lower.

Global Port Tracker is forecasting 1.76 million TEU for March 2023, down 24.8% year-over-year; April at 1.87 million TEU, down 17.3%; and May at 1.92 million TEU, down 19.9%.

The company expects the June forecast to be 2 million TEU, the first time imports are expected to be that high since October but down 11.3% from last June. If all results fall in line with projections, the figures would bring the first half of 2023 to 10.9 million TEU, down 19.4% from the first half of 2022.

Global Port Tracker, which is produced for NRF by Hackett Associates, provides historical data and forecasts for the U.S. ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle and Tacoma on the West Coast; New York/New Jersey, Port of Virginia, Charleston, Savannah, Port Everglades, Miami and Jacksonville on the East Coast; and Houston on the Gulf Coast.

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