US imports continue to rise, still double digits vs pre-Covid

Containerized goods are still arriving in the US at a record pace. Port throughput fell below all-time high in August. The plethora of ships waiting at the ports of the East and Gulf Coast is almost as bad as ever.

According to Descartes, the US imported a total of 2,529,042 twenty-foot equivalent units in August. This is down 1.8% year over year (y/y), marking the first time since July 2020 that Descartes’ monthly tally has not increased y/y.

Chart showing container import statistics by year
(Chart: Descartes. Source: Descartes Datamayne)

However, the gradual decline in volumes did not induce the y/y decline in August. Rather, it was due to a jump in imports in August 2021, i.e. a tougher compass than a year ago.

This August’s imports were essentially unchanged Versus very strong numbers in July, They fell 0.1%, or 1,864 TEU, compared to July – a small feeder ship’s worth of cargo.

August imports were up 18% versus August 2019, pre-COVID. In July, volumes were up 15% from pre-pandemic levels.

“Many factors such as a slowing economy, inflation and high fuel costs still have not had the expected effect of slowing US container imports,” Descartes said.

US Customs data confirms continued import strength. Customs filings measured in TEUs are closely aligned with those in record-setting 2021.

Blue Line: 2022 Imports, Green Line: 2021 (Chart: FreightWaves Sonar)

East/Gulf Coast crowd unabated

Meanwhile, the ship backlogs of many US ports continues to rise,

As of Monday morning, 144 container ships were waiting from North American ports, according to a US shipper survey of MarineTraffic vessel-position data and California port queue lists. Total of ships waiting offshore peaked in the low 150s in January and again in late July,

There were 37 container ships from Savannah, Georgia on Monday morning; 25 from New York/New Jersey; 24 from Houston; 14 from Vancouver, British Columbia; 14 away from Los Angeles/Long Beach; 12 from Virginia and Maryland; 11 from Oakland, Calif.; and seven from other ports. Of the total, 70% of the waiting ships were on the east or off the Gulf coasts.

According to Descartes, US monthly import volumes of 2.4 million TEU or more have led to port congestion. August throughput is “still significantly higher and above the level that has caused port congestion and delays for the past 18 months,” it said. Its data “point to congested and challenging global supply chain performance for the rest of 2022.”

NRF eases H2 import outlook

On Wednesday, the National Retail Federation (NRF) released its August import forecast and a slightly lower outlook for the second half.

The Port Tracker report published by NRF and Hackett Associates estimated August imports to total 2.17 million TEU, down 4.3% y/y. This is virtually unchanged versus July (down less than 1%) and up 11.3% from August 2019, pre-Covid. (The port tracker includes 11 US ports, so its sum is different from that of Descartes.)

NRF expects US ports to set a new import record this year, up 1.2% from 2021, driven by a strong first half.

It calculates that import volume increased 5.5% y/y to 13.5 million TEU in the first half. NRF projects lower total for the second half: 12.6 million TEU, down 3.1% y/y. Port Tracker has slightly lowered its forward projections in each of the last three months. Its latest second-half forecast is 1.6% lower than its outlook in August.

Imports face demand

While most US imports are shipped under annual contracts, the cargo being moved in Very low rates are being seen in the spot marketRepresents low spot demand in relation to transport supply.

Drewry’s Shanghai-Los Angeles spot-rate valuation fell to $4,782 per forty-foot equivalent unit in the week reported Thursday, down 14% from the previous week and 59% from the same week last year.

Weekly Spot Valuation per FEU (Chart: FreightWaves Sonar)

On Monday, Platts rated the North Asia-West Coast North America route at $4,200 per FEU and reported carrier offerings as of $3,600 per FEU last week. A source told Platts, “The rates are coming down fast.

Along with spot rates, FreightWaves Sonar’s proprietary index that tracks a subset of US-bound bookings also indicates falling demand.

After a sharp decline in May, the index remained low throughout the summer. It has fallen again in recent weeks and is now down to levels seen in 2019, pre-COVID.

Index: January 2019 = 100 (Chart: Container Atlas of FreightWaves Sonar)

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