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Here’s What Could Happen With Container Congestion This Year

Imports at congested U.S. container ports are expected to grow modestly in the first half of the year, but continued high volumes will keep up the pressure that built as the economy bounced back from the pandemic last year, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released Wednesday by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.

“With Lunar New Year factory closings in Asia this month and the consequent drop in export production, North American terminals will have an opportunity to reduce existing congestion,” Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett said. “Nonetheless, backups cannot be erased quickly as long as terminals continue to face a lack of space brought on by the supply chain’s inability to efficiently transfer cargo out of the terminals to its end destinations.”

Hackett said congestion continues hampering gateways on both coasts and the Port of Los Angeles alone has around 40 ships waiting to dock. He noted that a shortage of equipment, worker availability and storage space at distribution centers and warehouses across the country remains problematic, as does the export of empty containers back to Asia.

“We’re not going to see the dramatic growth in imports we saw this time last year, but the fact that volumes aren’t falling is a clear sign of continued consumer demand,” Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy sat the NRF, Gold said. “Last year set a new bar for imports, and the numbers remain high as consumers continue to spend despite Covid-19 and inflation. The slowdown in cargo growth will be welcome as the supply chain continues to try to adapt to these elevated volumes. Unfortunately, many experts expect ongoing disruptions throughout 2022 for a variety of reasons.”

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U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker are expected to handle 13 million 20-foot containers or equivalent units (TEU) during the first half of 2022, up 1.5 percent over the 12.8 million TEU handled during the same period in 2021. By contrast, the first half of 2021 saw a record 35.7 percent increase over the unusually slow first six months of 2020, when many Asian factories and U.S. stores shut down because of the pandemic.

The ports handled 2.09 million TEU in December, down 1.2 percent from November and 1 percent below a year earlier. Imports for all of 2021 totaled 25.8 million TEU, a 17.4 percent increase over 2020’s record high of 22 million TEU that was set despite the pandemic.

Ports have not yet reported January numbers, but Global Port Tracker projected the month at 2.15 million TEU, up 4.4 percent year-over-year. The rest of the half is projected to have some see-sawing. February cargo shipments are forecast to increase 8.7 percent to 2.04 million TEU, while March volume is expected to be down 6.7 percent, April to rise 2 percent to 2.19 million TEU, May to fall 2.6 percent to 2.27 million TEU and June to climb 5.2 percent to 2.26 million TEU.

According to the latest monthly trade update from Panjiva, the supply chain research unit of S&P Global Market Intelligence, U.S. seaborne imports fell 0.2 percent to 2.67 million TEU in January from the month before and 1.4 percent lower than January 2021. Panjiva said in its report that this continues “what could be described as a post-holiday shipping hangover as carriers and ports continue to process backlogs.”

The report showed that when U.S. imports from 2010 to the end of 2021 were calculated, January was 63,400 TEU above the trend line and comparable to the level recorded in 2019, which was 63,000 TEU above the trend. This is lower than 2021, when January imports were 176,200 TEU above the trend line.

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.