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NRF: US container ports enjoying new records amid post-pandemic recovery

Imports at U.S. retail container ports hit a new record this spring as the American economy continues to recover from the pandemic, according to Global Port Tracker report released by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.

U.S. ports covered by the report handled 2.27 million TEU in March, up 21.2 percent from February and set a new record for the number of containers seen during a single month. The previous record was 2.21 million TEU set last October. 

March volume was up a record 64.9 percent year-over-year but the growth rate was artificially high because many Asian factories had shut down because of the pandemic at that point last year and most U.S. stores were being ordered to close, NRF said.

The first half of 2021 is forecast to be up 33.9 percent from the same period in 2020. As with March, the growth is skewed because of the sharp decline in imports during the first half of last year.

The first half of 2021 is expected to be a third higher than last year standing at around 12.7 million TEU.

The ongoing high cargo volume reflects the recovering U.S. economy. Gross domestic product grew at an annual rate of 6.4 percent in the first quarter and some economists are predicting 13 percent in the second quarter.

“Growth that fast is a clear indication that U.S. economic output has almost recovered to its level before the pandemic struck,” Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett said.

“Retail sales numbers show consumers are spending a large portion of their stimulus checks as well as savings that accumulated while staying home rather than going out and income from new jobs. This is turning out to be a year of super growth that will act as the driver of the global economy.”

Congestion at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach – the nation’s largest ports – has begun to ease as carriers have shifted vessels to the Pacific Northwest or to the East Coast via the Panama Canal, Hackett said.

But some ships are still facing delays to unload as ports work at capacity and COVID-19 infections impact workers. Shortages of containers and other equipment and operational issues also continue to slow down the supply chain.