Imports set another record high this spring as the nation’s major container ports worked to reduce congestion and retailers stocked up before dockworkers’ West Coast labor contract expired, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.
“Cargo volume is expected to remain high as we head into the peak shipping season, and it is essential that all ports continue to operate with minimal disruption,” said NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold. “Supply chain challenges will continue throughout the remainder of the year, and it is particularly important that labor and management at West Coast ports remain at the bargaining table and reach an agreement.”
The contract between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association expired July 1, but cargo operations are continuing. The NRF and more than 150 groups wrote to President Biden last week asking the administration to work with both sides to avoid disruption.
Ports saw a surge in activity this spring as a slowdown in cargo from Chinese factories closed by COVID-19 gave them a chance to clear built-up congestion. Retailers bringing in seasonal merchandise and importing other goods early to avoid any problems related to the contract negotiations may have also contributed to volume.
“Congestion of ships waiting to berth on the West Coast has eased, and we expect to see the same on the East Coast as carriers begin to return to their normal patterns of port calls,” said Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett. “After a short period of decline, freight rates are on the rise again as congestion in Europe and idle vessels there take capacity out of circulation.”
US ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 2.4 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU)—one 20-foot container or its equivalent—in May, the latest month for which final numbers are available. That was up 6 percent from April and up 2.7 percent year-over-year. It also set a new record for the number of containers imported in a single month since NRF began tracking imports in 2002, topping 2.34 million TEU this March.
Ports have yet to report June numbers, but Global Port Tracker projected the month at 2.25 million TEU, up 4.8 percent from the same month last year. That would bring the first half of the year to 13.5 million TEU, a 5.4 percent increase year-over-year.
July is forecast at 2.31 million TEU, up 5.3 percent from last year, and would be the fourth busiest month on record. August is forecast at 2.26 million TEU, down 0.5 percent year over year; September at 2.12 million TEU, down 0.8 percent; October also at 2.12 million TEU, down 4.1 percent; and November at 2.06 million TEU, down 2.5 percent.
The year-over-year declines during the second half of the year contrast with unusually high numbers during the same period in 2021, but volumes remain high, and the full year is still expected to see a net increase over 2021. Imports for all of 2021 totaled 25.8 million TEU, a 17.4 percent increase over 2020’s previous annual record of 22 million TEU.