The cargo surge of the past two years appears to be slowing down.
Imports at the nation’s major container ports are expected to fall below last year’s levels for the remainder of 2022.
That’s according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates. The report cited ongoing inflation and the Federal Reserve’s efforts to cool demand through higher interest rates.
“Consumers are still buying, but the cargo surge we saw during the past two years appears to be slowing down,” said NRF VP for supply chain and customs policy Jonathan Gold. “Cargo volumes are solidly above pre-pandemic levels, but the rate of growth has slowed and even slid into negative numbers compared with unusually high volumes last year.”
The key now is dealing with ongoing supply chain issues around the globe and with labor negotiations at West Coast ports and freight railroads.
“Smooth operations at the ports and on the rails is crucial as we enter the busy holiday season,” Gold said.
Talks continue between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association, whose contract expired July 1. Meanwhile, the freight railroads and their union have continued to negotiate after recommendations from the Presidential Emergency Board appointed this summer were released. Both dockworkers and railroad workers remain on the job, but there are concerns about potential disruptions.
“The number of vessels waiting to dock on the West Coast has been reduced to near-normal,” Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett said. “But with the switch of some cargo to the East Coast, congestion and pressure on the ports has shifted to the East Coast. The inland supply chain, particularly rail, continues to face difficulties that have resulted in the delay of containers leaving ports, causing terminal congestion that impacts the ability of carriers to discharge their cargo.”
NRF continues to forecast that 2022 retail sales will grow between 6% and 8% over 2021. Sales were up 6% during the first seven months of the year.
U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 2.18 million twenty-foot equivalent units – one 20-foot container or its equivalent – in July, the latest month for which final numbers are available. That was down 3.1% from June and down 0.4% from July 2021 – only the third year-over-year decline in two years and the first since December 2021.
Ports have not yet reported August’s numbers, but Global Port Tracker projected the month at 2.17 million TEU, down 4.3% year over year. September is forecast at 2.1 million TEU, down 1.8%; October also at 2.1 million TEU, down 4.8%; November at 2.04 million TEU, down 3.3%, and December at 2.01 million TEU, down 4%.
The first half of the year totaled 13.5 million TEU, a 5.5% increase year over year. The forecast for the remainder of the year would bring the second half to 12.6 million TEU, down 3.1% year over year. For the full year, 2022 is expected to total 26.1 million TEU, up 1.2% from last year’s annual record of 25.8 million TEU.
The current decline is expected to continue in January 2023, which is forecast at 2.11 million TEU, down 2.6% from January 2022.
Global Port Tracker, which is produced for NRF by Hackett Associates, provides historical data and forecasts for the U.S. ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle and Tacoma on the West Coast; New York/New Jersey, Port of Virginia, Charleston, Savannah, Port Everglades, Miami and Jacksonville on the East Coast, and Houston on the Gulf Coast.