Despite slight improvement, imports at top US ports remain below last year

Imports at major US retail container ports are expected to remain significantly below last year’s levels into this fall as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic continues, according to a new monthly report released today by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.

“Economic indicators show that the recession brought on by the pandemic may be easing, but retailers are being conservative with the amount of merchandise they import this year,” Jonathan Gold, NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold, explained.

“The outlook for imports is slowly improving, but these are still some of the lowest numbers we’ve seen in years.”

“U.S. imports are performing like a yo-yo, up one month and down the next with no apparent cause that can realistically point to either a crashing or booming economy,” Ben Hackett, Hackett Associates Founder, said.

“We’re starting to go out to eat and buy clothing again, but how sustainable is that? The danger is that the rising number of virus infections is leading to renewed restrictions, which may cause demand to weaken again.”

US ports covered by the report handled 1.53 million TEUs in May, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. That was down 4.8 percent from April and down 17.2 percent year-over-year.

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June was estimated at 1.69 million TEU, down 5.8 percent year-over-year. July is forecast at the same 1.69 million TEU, down 14.1 percent from last year; August at 1.69 million TEU again, down 13.3 percent; September at 1.64 million TEU, down 12.3 percent; October at 1.7 million TEU, down 9.9 percent, and November at 1.68 million TEU, down 0.6 percent.

With imports usually trailing off in November and December after the bulk of holiday merchandise has arrived, the 1.7 million TEU figure for October is likely to be the busiest month of the traditional July-to-October “peak season” for shipping. If so, it would be the lowest peak since 1.61 million in September 2014.

The outlook is about the same as a month ago, with some months higher and some lower. Imports for the six-month period from May through October are expected to total 9.94 million TEU, a 0.7 percent improvement from the amount forecast a month ago.

The first half of 2020 is forecast to total 9.5 million TEU, down 9.3 percent from the same period last year but better than the 10 percent decline expected last month. 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, 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. 

US port relief efforts during COVID-19

As the US ports are struggling to recover from the coronavirus pandemic, many of them are unable to do so without adequate governmental financial support.

On 9 July, as a first step in providing funding to ports, Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY), chairman of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee, and Peter DeFazio (D-OR), chair of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, introduced the “Maritime Transportation System Emergency Relief Act”.

As informed, the authorization bill seeks to establish a program to provide dedicated maritime assistance and emergency relief grant funds.  The program would make funds available to US public port authorities for emergency response, cleaning and sanitization, staffing, workforce retention and paid leave, procurement and use of personal protective equipment, debt service payments, and for infrastructure repair.

“COVID-19 relief is critical for the port and maritime industry in response to challenges faced as a result of the pandemic. Maritime Transportation System Emergency Relief funds will help ports manage the impact of this pandemic and ensure that ports and our maritime transportation system maintain a state of readiness and remain prepared to help lead us to economic recovery,” Christopher J. Connor, American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA) President and CEO, commented.

While we know that this is an authorization bill, it’s AAPA’s hope that the bill be adopted with a strong intent for its funding and that Congress will move expeditiously.”