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Amid ‘Off the Charts’ Cargo Imports, Biden Plans Executive Action

Cargo imports at the largest U.S. retail container ports are continuing to show double-digit growth over last year, as companies work to meet strong consumer demand, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released Thursday by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.

“The year-over-year growth we saw this spring was off the charts because the comparisons were against a time when most stores were shut down due to the pandemic,” Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy at NRF, said. “But we’re continuing to see strong growth even as we enter a point when stores had begun to reopen last year. That’s a sign of the tremendous demand from consumers.”

NBC News reported on Thursday that President Biden will take executive action to create more competition among the rail and ocean shipping industries to address supply chain issues that are driving costs up for importers and prices up for consumers.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden will direct the Federal Maritime Commission to crack down on “unjust and unreasonable fees” in the ocean shipping industry and work with the Justice Department to investigate anticompetitive practices.

Psaki said that the executive order will save U.S. businesses on shipping costs and in turn will lower prices for American consumers. The Drewry World Container Index increased 4.7 percent, or $397, for the week ended Thursday and also was 333 percent higher than a year ago.

Gold said the challenge for retailers and supply chains is keeping shelves stocked as port congestion and other supply-chain disruptions continue to impact the industry and the economy more broadly.

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“Operational constraints brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic combined with the surge in consumer demand have severely strained the logistics supply chain,” Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett said. “The level of growth in the last year has put unprecedented pressure on importers, carriers and domestic transportation providers alike.”

U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 2.33 million 20-foot equivalent units (TEU) in May, up 8.6 percent from April and 52.2 percent from a year earlier. The number set a record for the most containers imported during a single month since NRF began tracking imports in 2002, topping the previous record of 2.27 million TEU set this March.

Ports have not reported June numbers yet, but Global Port Tracker projected the month at 2.15 million TEU, which would be a 33.8 percent increase from the same time last year. That would bring the first half of 2021 to 12.8 million TEU, up 35.6 percent from the same period last year.

July shipments are forecast at 2.21 million TEU, a 15.1 percent year-over-year gain, while August cargo imports are projected to rise 9.4 percent to 2.3 million TEU and September is expected to be up 2.5 percent ti 2.16 million TEU. Looking into the fourth quarter, October cargo imports are forecast at 2.13 million TEU, down 3.7 percent for the first year-over-year decline since July 2020, and November at 2.06 million TEU, down 2 percent.

Global Port Tracker will not release its forecast for December until next month, but 2021 is on track to grow 16.7 percent over 2020’s full-year total of 22 million TEU. Cargo imports during 2020 were up 1.9 percent over 2019 despite the pandemic.

Global Port Tracker provides historical data and forecasts for the U.S. ports of Los Angeles-Long Beach and Oakland, Calif., and Seattle and Tacoma, Wash., on the West Coast; New York-New Jersey; Port of Virginia; Charleston, S.C.; Savannah, Ga., and Port Everglades, Miami and Jacksonville, Fal., on the East Coast, and Houston on the Gulf Coast.