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March Cargo Imports Hit Five-Year Low

Cargo imports at U.S. retail container ports plunged to their lowest level in five years in March, according to initial estimates.

The Global Port Tracker report released Tuesday by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates shows imports are projected to remain significantly below normal levels through early summer as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

“Even as factories in China have begun to get back to work, we are seeing far fewer imports coming into the United States than previously expected,” Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy at NRF, said.

“Many stores are closed, and consumer demand has been impacted with millions of Americans out of work,” Gold added. “However, there are still many essential items that are badly needed and because of store closures, cargo may sit longer than usual and cause other supply chain impacts.”

While actual numbers for March are not yet available, estimates show that imports plunged to 1.27 million TEU, down 21.3 percent year-over-year and the lowest level seen since 1.21 million TEU in February 2015 during a labor dispute that bogged down West Coast ports.

The largest drop in cargo imports is forecast for the first half of this year, “but with uncertainty about the length of the lockdown and extent of the pandemic, the second half may not be in better shape,” Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett said.

U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.51 million 20-foot equivalent units in February. That was down 17 percent from January and 6.8 percent below a year earlier. A TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.

February numbers are normally lower than January due to annual factory shutdowns in China for Lunar New Year celebrations, the report noted. But the shutdowns lasted longer than usual and continued into March because of the coronavirus outbreak.

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With thousands of stores closed across most of the country and consumer discretionary purchasing severely depressed, April shipments are forecast to drop 17.6 percent to 1.44 million TEU, while May cargo arriving at U.S. ports is seen dropping 20.1 percent to 1.48 million TEU. Looking beyond that, cargo container imports are projected to fall 21.4 percent in June to 1.41 million TEU, 18.2 percent in July to 1.61 TEU and 12.5 percent in August to 1.72 million TEU.

Before the coronavirus began to have an effect on imports, February through May had been forecast at a total of 6.9 million TEU, but is now expected to total 5.7 million TEU, a drop of 17.3 percent. As recently as last month, monthly numbers had been expected to hit the 2 million TEU mark beginning in May. The last time monthly totals fell below 1.5 million TEU was in February 2017.

The first half of 2020 is forecast to be down 15.1 percent from the same period last year to 8.93 million TEU. Before the extent of the pandemic was known, the first half of the year was forecast at 10.47 million TEU.

Imports during 2019 totaled 21.6 million TEU, a 0.8 percent decrease from 2018 amid the trade war with China, but still the second-highest year on record.

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, Fla., on the East Coast, and Houston on the Gulf Coast.