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NRF: Imports rising despite Red Sea attacks

A deal between unions and employers at West Coast ports comes as the retail industry is entering the peak shipping season.
While January's imports saw a 1% decrease from November, it was an 8.3% increase year-over-year.

Inbound cargo volume at the nation’s major container ports is expected to see year-over-year increases through the first half of the year despite attacks on ships in the Red Sea.

That’s according to the most recent Global Port Tracker report released today by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.

“Only about 12% of U.S.-bound cargo comes through the Suez Canal but the situation in the Red Sea is bringing volatility and uncertainty that are being felt around the globe,” said NRF VP for supply chain and customs policy Jonathan Gold. “U.S. retailers are working to mitigate the impact of delays and increased costs. However, the longer the disruptions occur, the bigger impact this could have. More needs to be done among partners and allies to ensure the safety of vessels and crews in order to avoid yet another year of supply chain disruption.”

Following continued attacks on cargo ships by Yemen’s Houthi rebels in the Red Sea, the U.S. and U.K. militaries have launched airstrikes on the group.

Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett said carriers are using a surplus of capacity built up during the pandemic to ease the impact as voyages are diverted around the Cape of Good Hope due to the Red Sea conflict, or to the U.S. West Coast. He added that improvements are already being seen.

“The shipping industry has rapidly adjusted by adding extra vessels to its networks, and has returned to normal weekly ship arrivals,” Hackett said. “Service from Asia to the U.S. East Coast is working well and the dramatic rise in freight rates is showing signs of easing, with pressure from shippers likely to quickly bring these down.”

According to the latest Global Port Tracker, U.S. ports covered by report handled 1.87 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU) – one 20-foot container or its equivalent – in December, the latest month for which final numbers are available. While this was a 1% decrease from November, it was an 8.3% increase year-over-year. December’s results brought 2023 to 22.3 million TEU, down 12.8% from 2022.

For January, the Global Port Tracker projected the month at 1.81 million TEU, up 0.3% year-over-year. February is forecast at 1.86 million TEU, up 20.4% year-over-year, and March is forecast at 1.71 million TEU, up 5.5% year-over-year.

February is traditionally the slowest month because of Lunar New Year factory shutdowns in Asia. However, NRF says the timing of the holiday and its impact on cargo and year-over-year comparisons varies. April is forecast at 1.83 million TEU, up 2.6% year-over-year. May is forecast at 1.94 million, up 0.3%, and June at 1.93 million TEU, up 5.5%.

If accurate, those estimates would bring the first half of 2024 to 11.1 million TEU, up 5.3% from the same period last year.

Global Port Tracker 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.

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