Imports at major US retail container ports hit a new record this spring and volume during the first half of 2021 is expected to be a third higher than last year as the economy continues to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Despite the continuing pandemic, most consumers are in good financial health and aren’t hesitating to spend,” says Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy at the National Retail Federation (NRF). “More spending translates into more merchandise arriving at our ports as retailers continue to meet increasing demand. The cargo surge that began last fall doesn’t show any sign of stopping. Unfortunately, disruption and congestion issues are also continuing.”
US ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 2.27m TEU in March, the latest month for which final numbers are available. That was up 21.2% from February and set a new record for the number of containers seen during a single month since NRF began tracking imports in 2002. The previous record was 2.21m TEU set last October. A TEU is one 20-foot container or its equivalent.
March volume was up a record 64.9% 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 US stores were being ordered to close.
The first half of 2021 is forecast to be up 33.9% 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. But the six-month total of 12.7m TEU would put 2021 on track to beat 2020’s full-year total of 22m TEU, which was up 1.9% over 2019 despite the pandemic.
April numbers are not yet available, but the month was projected at 2.17m TEU, up 34.5% year-over-year. May is forecast at 2.22m TEU, up 44.9%; June at 2.08m TEU, up 29.7%; and July at 2.15m TEU, up 12.2%.
Looking further ahead, August is forecast at 2.23m TEU, up 6%, and September at 2.13m TEU, up 1.3%.
The ongoing high cargo volume reflects the recovering US economy. Gross domestic product grew at an annual rate of 6.4% in the first quarter and some economists are predicting 13% in the second quarter.
“Growth that fast is a clear indication that US economic output has almost recovered to its level before the pandemic struck,” says Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett. “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 adds. 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.