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SoCal Ports Rebuild Market Share on Strength of Consumer Spending

California ports
Long Beach had its best September ever as both ports expect continued gains for the remainder of 2023 (Port of Long Beach file photo)

Published Oct 23, 2023 6:29 PM by The Maritime Executive

Southern California’s ports are continuing to build back their volumes from the low point of early 2023 while reporting that they expect the increases to continue into the end of the year based on the strength of the American consumer. Both Los Angeles and Long Beach are beginning to string together a series of months of gains year-over-year with improvements coming in both imports and exports.

Despite holidays in Asia and the carriers' continued use of blank sailings to manage capacity both ports called September a good month, while Long Beach was also able to achieve its busiest September on record. At the end of nine months, both ports’ volume year-to-date however remains down in the range of 20 percent versus 2022.

At Long Beach with over 829,000 TEU moving through the port, it was the third consecutive month of gains as well as the highest monthly total since June 2022. Citing the strength of consumer spending and the new labor contract, they reported a nearly 12 percent year-over-year increase as well as the port’s first monthly year-over-year cargo increase in 14 months. Long Beach’s strength was driven by a better than 19 percent increase in import volumes while exports were down by more than 10 percent.

The neighboring Port of Los Angeles however showed the unusual separation of the two neighboring ports as it experienced an expected nearly 10 percent decline in month-over-month volumes. Los Angeles however was still able to post a five percent gain over 2022 and its second consecutive month of year-over-year gains.

Imports came back strongly for Los Angeles versus 2022 up 14 percent, which the port highlights as the biggest year-over-year gain increase in over two years. Exports were also up for the fourth consecutive month and the fifth month over 100,000 TEUs. Driven by strong increases in exports of recyclables, animal feed, and vehicle parts, the Port of Los Angeles handled 55 percent more exports than a year earlier.  They also pointed out that declines in empty volumes were making it easier for American exporters to ship their goods out of the port.

While saying that they expected the muted peak season to continue, both ports are projecting improvements through the last quarter of 2023. “We look forward to a moderate rebound in cargo volume through the end of the year,” said Port of Long Beach CEO Mario Cordero. 

The Port of Los Angeles expects flat volumes for October but increases in both November and December. While they are down 19 percent through nine months, Gene Seroka, Executive Director for the Port of Los Angeles, forecasts they will end the year down 13 percent versus 2022. He notes that they are currently 12 percent below their five-year running average for the port while projecting Los Angeles will handle a total of 8.6 million TEU in 2023 down from the peak of nearly 10.7 million in 2021. He notes that the port has the capacity and the ability to scale up to meet demand.

Both ports look to continue to rebuild market share after a year of uncertainty while the longshore workers were without a contract. Analysts point out the Southern California ports could also benefit from the current problems and delays at the Panama Canal, which could encourage shippers to use the California ports instead of sending cargo to East Coast and Gulf Coast ports.