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July 18, 2022

US imports set record high as West Coast labour talks continue

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 labour contract expired, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.

By Beth Wright

“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,” NRF vice president for supply chain and customs policy, Jonathan Gold says. “Supply chain challenges will continue throughout the remainder of the year, and it is particularly important that labour 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 on 1 July, but cargo operations are continuing. 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,” says 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 2.4m Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units – one 20-foot container or its equivalent – in May, the latest month for which final numbers are available. That was up 6% from April and up 2.7% 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 2.34m TEU this March.

Ports have not yet reported June numbers, but Global Port Tracker projected the month at 2.25m TEU, up 4.8% from the same month last year. That would bring the first half of the year to 13.5m TEU, a 5.4% increase year over year.

July is forecast at 2.31m TEU, up 5.3% from last year, and would be the fourth-busiest month on record. August is forecast at 2.26m TEU, down 0.5% year over year; September at 2.12m TEU, down 0.8%; October also at 2.12m TEU, down 4.1%, and November at 2.06m TEU, down 2.5%.

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 totalled 25.8m TEU, a 17.4% increase over 2020’s previous annual record of 22m TEU.

US apparel imports during May grew 21.6% to 2.77bn million square metres (MM2), with the largest increase in shipment volumes year-on-year coming from Cambodia.

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