The first half of 2020 is forecast to total 9.5m TEU, down 9.3% from the same period last year

The first half of 2020 is forecast to total 9.5m TEU, down 9.3% from the same period last year

Imports at major US retail container ports are expected to remain significantly below last year's levels into this autumn as the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic continues.

"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," explains Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy at the National Retail Federation (NRF). "The outlook for imports is slowly improving, but these are still some of the lowest numbers we've seen in years."

The latest Global Port Tracker report released by the NRF and Hackett Associates shows US ports handled 1.53m Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU) in May, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. That was down 4.8% from April and down 17.2% year-over-year. A TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.

June was estimated at 1.69m TEU, down 5.8% year-over-year. July is forecast at the same 1.69m TEU, down 14.1% from last year, while August is forecast at 1.69m TEU again, down 13.3%.

Looking further ahead, September is forecast at 1.64m TEU, down 12.3%; October at 1.7m TEU, down 9.9%, and November at 1.68m TEU, down 0.6%. 

With imports usually trailing off in November and December after the bulk of holiday merchandise has arrived, the 1.7m 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 1.61m 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 9.94m TEU, a 0.7% improvement from the amount forecast a month ago.

The first half of 2020 is forecast to total 9.5m TEU, down 9.3% from the same period last year but better than the 10% decline expected last month. Before the extent of the pandemic was known, the first half of the year was forecast at 10.47m TEU.

Imports during 2019 totaled 21.6m TEU, a 0.8% decrease from 2018 amid the trade war with China but still the second-highest year on record.

"US 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," says Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett. "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."