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US Cargo Imports Close in on Early Pandemic Volumes

One month after monthly imports fell below the 2 million mark for the first time since February 2021, U.S. ports have another potential milestone on the horizon.

In February, import cargo volume at major U.S. ports is expected to drop to nearly its lowest level since the early innings of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the Global Port Tracker report released Tuesday by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and maritime and trade consultancy Hackett Associates.

February’s forecast for U.S. ports monitored by the tracker estimate they’ll handle 1.57 million TEUs, a 25.6 percent decline from the 2.11 million TEUs of cargo volume last year. This would be the slowest month for cargo containers since 1.53 million TEU in May 2020, when many factories in Asia and most U.S. stores were closed amid the pandemic’s outbreak. Since the beginning of the pandemic, only the 1.51 million TEU recorded in February 2020 and 1.37 million TEU in March the same year have been lower.

The expected 1.57 million TEUs is down from last month’s estimates for February which projected 1.63 million TEUs.

“With the U.S. economy slowing and consumers worried by rising interest rates and still-high inflation, retailers are importing less merchandise,” said Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy, NRF. “February is traditionally a slow month, but these are the lowest numbers we’ve seen in almost three years. Retailers are being cautious as they wait to see how the economy responds to efforts to bring inflation under control.”

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U.S. ports covered by the Global Port Tracker handled 1.73 million TEUs in December, the latest month for which final numbers are available. These totals were down 2.6 percent from November’s 1.78 million TEUs and down 17.1 percent from December 2021, when 2.09 million TEUs were handled.

The year-end totals brought 2022, which broke multiple monthly records in the first half of the year but saw significant drops in the second half—to an annual total of 25.5 million TEU, down 1.2 percent from the annual record of 25.8 million TEU set in 2021.

“In some ways, 2023 is reminiscent of 2020, when the world’s economies shut down because of the pandemic and no one had a clue where we were headed,” Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett said. “Cargo volumes are down, and the economy is in a contradiction of rising employment and wages that promise prosperity at the same time high inflation and rising interest rates threaten a recession. The economy is far from shut down, but the degree of uncertainty is very similar.”

Ports have not yet reported January numbers, but Global Port Tracker projected the month at 1.78 million TEU, which would be down 17.6 percent year over year from the 2.16 million TEU in January 2022.

March is forecast at 1.76 million TEU, down 24.8 percent year over year, with April estimates at 1.87 million TEU (down 17.3 percent) and May at 1.92 million TEU (down 19.9 percent). June is forecast at 2 million TEU, the first time imports are expected to be that high since October but still down 11.3 percent from last June. Those numbers would bring the first half of 2023 to 10.9 million TEU, down 19.4 percent from the first half of 2022.

Global Port Tracker, which is produced for NRF by Hackett Associates, provides historical data and forecasts for the U.S. ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle and Tacoma on the West Coast; New York/New Jersey, Port of Virginia, Charleston, Savannah, Port Everglades, Miami and Jacksonville on the East Coast, and Houston on the Gulf Coast.

Despite the overall import declines, some ports set cargo records in 2022 as more volume was rerouted to the East Coast and Gulf Coast amid ongoing West Coast port congestion and continued worries about a dockworker strike in the California-based hubs.

The Port of New York and New Jersey closed out 2022 handling a record 9.5 million TEUs—beating its previous record set a year earlier in 2021 by 5.5 percent and marking the first time the East Coast’s busiest port cracked the 9 million TEU mark.

Thanks to West Coast congestion and a boom in East Coast container traffic, the Georgia Ports Authority handled a record-setting 5.9 million TEU worth of containerized cargo in 2022, 5 percent more than the year before. The Port of Savannah saw four of its top five months ever for container volume during 2022, and trade volumes peaked in August at 575,500 TEU, another all-time record. 

While import cargo volumes into the U.S. were down 1.2 percent across 2022, Chinese ports appear to be going in the opposite direction. According to data from the Ministry of Transport of the People’s Republic of China, the country’s ports processed 15.7 billion tons of cargo in 2022—0.9 percent more than the previous year. In the same period, port container throughput increased by 4.7 percent year over year, to 295.9 million TEU.