Stronger Than Expected Volumes Prompt Increase in Forecast for U.S. Imports

container imports
Container import volumes continue to grow in the fall leading to forecasts of an increased outlook (file photo)

Published Dec 8, 2023 2:11 PM by The Maritime Executive


Container import volumes at the main U.S. ports containers ports continued to grow into the fall leading to a later than expected peak this year and prompting forecasts for continuing year-over-year growth in 2024. With the U.S. economy appearing to be on a sustainable growth path, the National Retail Federation is projecting record total sales volumes for the 2023 holiday season and strong growth in import volumes in the first quarter of 2024 compared to weak volumes early in 2023.

Import volumes surprised the retail trade group which had last month lowered its forecast for container volume in its monthly Global Port Tracker report. The group reported that it believed most imported holiday season merchandise had already arrived by September and that inbound cargo volume at the nation’s major container ports was expected to slow during the remainder of 2023.

“We originally thought peak season would come in August but imports kept growing in September and again in October,” said Jonathan Gold, Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy at the NRF. “Whether it was merchandise for retailers or cargo for other businesses, that’s a good sign for the economy and for the holiday shopping season.”

The report highlights that October’s import volume was a higher than expected 2.05 million TEUs at the major U.S. ports topping September’s 2.03 million TEU and marking the fifth consecutive month of month-over-month gains. October was also the first month to show year-over-year gains in volume since June 2022.

As a result, the National Retail Federation is raising its outlook for fourth-quarter import volumes by over five percent compared to a reduced forecast issued last month. While they still project that the year’s import volumes will be down 12.4 percent versus 2022, they believe the strength of the economy will lead to continued gains going forward.

The retail group also raised its forecast for the first quarter of 2024 by 2.4 percent versus last month now calling for import volume of 5.45 million TEU between January and March 2024. That represents monthly gains versus 2023 of between nearly seven percent and more than 14 percent in February which was slowed in 2023 by the Lunar New Year and an extended holiday period in Asia.

The retailers highlight that in seven of the past 10 years, import volumes have peaked in October. They believe shippers accelerated shipments in 2021 and 2022 due to the fears of port congestion and last year’s threats of labor problems after the union contract expired on the West Coast. 

Figures from Descartes Systems Group confirmed the anticipated slowing of volumes in November. They calculated a nine percent decline in volumes from October to November 2023 at U.S. ports, noting that while it was consistent with historical performance, it reflects a continuing decline in volumes from China. 

“November has traditionally been a weaker month than October and while the decline is steep, it is consistent with other years’ performance,” commented Chris Jones, EVP Industry at Descartes.

They calculate that November’s volumes came in at just under 2.1 million TEU. It however was 7.4 percent higher than November 2022 and more than 10 percent higher than pre-pandemic November 2019.