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‘Heady Days’ of Cargo Growth ‘Quickly Receding’

After a record-setting spring, cargo imports at major U.S. container ports are expected to slow significantly for the rest of the year, but 2022 should still see a net gain over 2021, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released Monday by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.

“Retail sales are still growing, but the economy is slowing down and that is reflected in cargo imports,” said Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy at the NRF. “Lower volumes may help ease congestion at some ports, but others are still seeing backups and global supply chain challenges are far from over. Our biggest concern is the potential for disruption because of separate labor negotiations at the West Coast ports and the freight railroads.”

Gold said concluding both sets of negotiations without disruption is critical as the important holiday season approaches.

The contract between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association expired July 1, and many retailers brought in cargo early and shifted to East and Gulf Coast ports to avoid any potential disruptions related to contract negotiations, with early shipments helping drive second-quarter volumes.

At the same time, the freight railroads and their union are now working with a Presidential Emergency Board to resolve their contract discussions, which have been ongoing for two years. In addition, the Port of Oakland was briefly shut down in late July amid protests by independent truckers over a new state law aimed at eliminating independent owner-operators.

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“The heady days of growth in imports are quickly receding,” Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett said. “The outlook is for a decline in volumes compared with 2021 over the next few months and the decline is expected to deepen in 2023.”

U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 2.25 million 20-foot containers or equivalent units (TEU) in June, which was down 5.9 percent from May’s 2.4 million TEU–the largest number of containers imported in a single month since NRF began tracking imports in 2002–but up 4.9 percent year over year.

June’s results brought the first half of the year to 13.5 million TEU, a 5.5 percent increase year over year. Ports have not yet reported July’s numbers, but Global Port Tracker projected the month at 2.26 million TEU, up 3.2 percent year over year. Shipments for August are forecast to be down 3 percent to 2.2 million TEU, while September is seen rising 0.4 percent to 2.15 million TEU.

Looking into the fourth quarter, the outlook is for October cargo imports to decline 3.9 percent to 2.13 million TEU, November to drop 2.7 percent to 2.06 million TEU and December to fall 3 percent to 2.03 million TEU.

Those figures would bring the second half of the year to 12.8 million TEU, down 1.5 percent from the same period last year. But 2022 overall is expected to total 26.3 million TEU, up 2 percent from last year’s annual record of 25.8 million TEU.

The cargo data comes as NRF continues to forecast that 2022 retail sales will grow between 6 percent and 8 percent over 2021. Sales were up 7 percent during the first half of the year.

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.