U.S. Container Import Volumes Flatten Maintaining Pre-Pandemic Levels

container imports
Container volumes have flattened returning to levels pre-pandemic and 2020 (Long Beach file photo)

Published Oct 10, 2023 6:23 PM by The Maritime Executive

While U.S. container import volumes have shown month-to-month increases since early in 2023, and are above 2019 pre-pandemic levels, they are expected to remain flat or decline slightly for the remainder of 2023. While volumes experienced additional slight growth last month, the slow pace is now leading some forecasters to lower their outlook for the remainder of 2023.

Descartes, which tracks port volumes based on customs filings, reports that September overall was up just slightly over the previous month, less than half a percent, but that it is up significantly from the low in February 2023. Further, they highlight that while volumes are down from the surges in 2021 and 2022, they are up 2.5 percent compared to 2019 and by larger percentages compared to 2018 or before. 

Total container import volume is up 27 percent since February according to Descartes calculations. The point to signs that global supply chains have flattened and are following patterns established before the pandemic.

“Cargo volumes will still be strong the rest of the year, but not as high as we expected a month ago,” said Jonathan Gold, Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy at the National Retail Federation. The retail trade association believes that volumes have peaked for 2023 and are likely to gradually slow headed into the end of the year. Gold believes that retailers stocked up earlier this year to safeguard against supply chain issues while other analysts point to already high inventory levels and the belief that consumer spending will remain lower due to economic concerns.

“We are already seeing this in the operational decisions carriers are making,” said Ben Hackett, Founder of Hackett Associates. “They have slowed down their ships in an attempt to cut capacity without having to take vessels out of service as new, larger ones ordered when demand was higher are delivered. Even so, ships are not sailing fully loaded, and freight rates are declining as a result. That’s a further indication that no cargo growth from current levels is expected on the near-term horizon. Perhaps 2024 will be better.”

The NRF had forecast in its monthly Global Port Tracker report that inbound container volume at major U.S. ports would reach two million TEU in August and stay at that level through October. That would have been the first time the two million TEU mark has been reached since October 2022. While August was 2.3 percent ahead of July, monthly retail imports however came in slightly below forecast leading the NRF to revise its outlook to reflect slightly lower and leveled off volumes for the remainder of 2023.

On an individual port basis, Descartes calculates that Los Angeles saw the largest declines in September partially offset by gains at the neighboring Port of Long Beach and growth at the Port of Tacoma (Washington). East Coast ports, which had been stronger in recent months, experienced declines according to Descartes led by the Port of New York/New Jersey as well as Baltimore, Charleston, and Norfolk, with Savannah largely flat month over month.

The retail import forecast is now just over 5.7 million TEU for the fourth quarter, down from the earlier outlook of 5.9 million TEU. They however are still looking at a nearly four percent increase in volumes in the quarter versus last year when the slowdown in imports began. 

The NRF is now projecting that 2023 volumes will total 22.1 million TEU, which would be down 13.5 percent from last year. However, it would slightly exceed 2020 levels which is consistent with Descartes which highlights the flattening in the supply chain but continued growth in monthly import volumes.