Port Tracker report factors to declining volumes within the coming months


The new edition of the Port Tracker report issued today by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and maritime consultancy Hackett Associates pointed to end-of-the-year import volumes at the United States-based retail container ports to be well below records that were hit earlier in 2022.

The ports surveyed in the report include: Los Angeles/Long Beach; Oakland; Tacoma; Seattle; Houston; New York/New Jersey; Hampton Roads; Charleston, and Savannah; Miami; Jacksonville; and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Port Everglades.

Authors of the report explained that cargo import numbers do not correlate directly with retail sales or employment because they count only the number of cargo containers brought into the country, not the value of the merchandise inside them, adding that the amount of merchandise imported provides a rough barometer of retailers’ expectations.

“Retailers are in the middle of the annual holiday frenzy but ports are headed into their winter lull after one of the busiest and most challenging years we’ve ever seen,” NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said in a statement. “We’ve dodged a rail strike and the retail supply chain should be able to easily handle the remaining weeks of the holiday season. But it’s time to settle on a labor contract for West Coast ports and address other supply chain issues that remain so the lull doesn’t become the calm before a storm.”

For October, the most recent month for which data is available, import volume—at 2 million TEU (Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units)—was off 1.3% compared to September and was off 9.3% annually.

Port Tracker issued projections for the subsequent months, including:

  • November, at 1.85 million TEU, for a 12.3% annual decline (this would be the lowest tally since February 2021’s 1.87 million TEU);
  • December, at 1.94 million TEU, for a 7.2% annual decrease;
  • January, at 1.97 million TEU, for an 8.7% annual decrease;
  • February, at 1.67 million TEU (this would be its lowest since June 2020’s 1.61 million TEU, when cargo backups led to heightened levels of port congestion), for a 20.9% annual decrease;
  • March, at 1.91 million TEU, for an 18.6% annual decline; and
  • April, at 1.95 million TEU, for a 13.8% annual decrease

Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett wrote in the report that despite the twin tailwinds of inflation and the high cost of borrowing, U.S. retail sales saw steady growth heading into the holiday season, as well as third quarter GDP up 2.9%, and employment gains (mostly in the services sector).

“In theory, these key indicators point the way to a robust economy, which brushes aside any thoughts of a recession with either a soft or hard landing,” he wrote. “Yet the volume of imported container cargo at the ports we cover has declined on a year-over-year basis in three of the last four months, and the next six months will see further declines to a level not seen for some time. Trying to understand why is critical and will help explain why a recession should not be written off just yet.”

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