Import cargo volume at the nation’s major container ports is expected to begin slowly climbing again this month after February saw one of the lowest levels since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the Global Port Tracker report released by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.
“There are many uncertainties about the economy, but we expect imports to show modest gains over the next several months,” NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said. “Growth is a positive sign, but levels are still far below normal and retailers will remain cautious as they work to keep inventories in line with consumer demand.”
U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.81 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units – one 20-foot container or its equivalent – in January, the latest month for which final numbers are available. That was down 16.5 percent year over year but up 4.4 percent from December for the first month-over-month increase since last August.
“Retailers are maintaining reduced inventories in anticipation of rebuilding with new seasonal stock once they have a clearer take on expected levels of consumer spending,” Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett said. “While import volumes remain low, the tight labor market and strong wages are helping consumers absorb the impact of inflation and continue to spend.”
Ports have not yet reported February numbers, but Global Port Tracker projected that the month dropped to 1.56 million TEU, down 13.6 percent from January and down an unusually large 26.2 percent from a year earlier. That would make it the slowest month since 1.53 million TEU in May 2020, when many factories in Asia and most U.S. stores were closed due to the pandemic. 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.
Even without the impact of the pandemic, February is historically the slowest month of the year because of Lunar New Year factory shutdowns in Asia and retailers’ lull between the holiday season and spring shopping. In February 2022, the impact of Lunar New Year was mitigated by congestion at U.S. ports that kept a supply of vessels waiting to unload, resulting in an artificially large year-over-year comparison this February.
Beginning this month, imports are expected to climb at least through mid-summer but will nonetheless remain below last year’s levels. March is forecast at 1.74 million TEU, down 25.9 percent year over year; April at 1.87 million TEU, down 17.2 percent, and May at 1.92 million TEU, down 19.7 percent. June is forecast at 2 million TEU, the first-time imports are expected to be that high since October but down 11.5 percent from last June. July is forecast at 2.13 million TEU, down 2.5 percent year over year.