Imports Expected to Remain Below Last Year’s Levels

cargo ship

Import cargo volume at the nation’s major container ports is climbing back from a nearly three-year low in February. It is expected to remain well below last year’s levels heading into this fall, according to the Global Port Tracker report released on May 8, by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.

Jonathan Gold
Jonathan Gold

“Consumers are still spending and retail sales are expected to increase this year, but we’re not seeing the explosive demand we saw the past two years,” said NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold. “Congestion at the ports has largely gone away as import levels have fallen, but other supply chain challenges remain, ranging from trucker shortages to getting empty containers back to terminals. We were pleased by recent reports of progress related to the West Coast port labor negotiations but will continue to monitor the situation closely until there is a new agreement ratified by both parties.”

“With economic uncertainty continuing, the impact on trade is clear,” said Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett. Also noted was continued high inflation, Federal Reserve interest rate hikes, and recent bank failures. “Year-over-year import volumes have been on the decline at most ports since late last year and declining exports out of China highlight the slowdown in demand for consumer goods. Our forecast now projects a larger decline in imports in the first half of this year than we forecast last month. Our view is that imports will remain below recent levels until inflation rates and inventory surpluses are reduced.”

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US ports covered by Global Port Tracker managed 1.62 million twenty-foot equivalent units—one 20-foot container or its equivalent—in March, the latest month for which final numbers are available. That was up 5 percent from February, which saw the lowest levels since May 2020, but down 30.6 percent year over year.

Ports have not yet reported April numbers, but Global Port Tracker projected the month at 1.73 million TEU, down 23.4 percent year over year. May is forecast at 1.83 million TEU, down 23.5 percent from last year’s 2.4 million TEU, the record for the number of containers imported during a single month. June is forecast at 1.9 million TEU, down 15.9 percent; July at 2.01 million TEU, down 7.9 percent; August at 2.04 million TEU, down 9.9 percent, and September at 1.96 million TEU, down 3.4 percent. The large year-over-year declines are skewed by unusually high volumes last year.

The first half of 2023—previously forecast at 10.8 million TEU—is now forecast at 10.4 million TEU, down 22.8 percent from the first half of 2022. Global Port Tracker has not yet forecast the full year. However, the third quarter is expected to total 6 million TEU, down 7.2 percent from the same time last year. The first nine months of the year would total 16.5 million TEU, down 17.8 percent year over year. Imports for all of 2022 totaled 25.5 million TEU. This is down 1.2 percent from the annual record of 25.8 million TEU set in 2021.

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