Coronavirus: uncertain outlook for US box imports


The latest US container imports forecasts in the Global Port Tracker report assume a post-coronavirus return to “some sort of normalcy” this month or next.

That might prove overly optimistic given that the financial and commodity markets were in freefall yesterday and the dangers of the disease were laid bare when Rick Cotton, head of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, was reported to have tested positive for COVID-19.

The report, produced by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates, makes for grim reading.

It references a new NRF survey of members which found that 40% of respondents are seeing disruptions to their supply chains from the virus and that another 26% expect to see disruptions as the situation continues.

Even with an assumed relatively rapid recovery, it predicts the coronavirus impact on US box imports will be “larger and last longer than previously expected” as factory shutdowns and travel restrictions in China continue to affect production

Jonathan Gold, NRF vice president for Supply Chain and Customs Policy, said there remained a lot of unknowns about how the spread of the Covid-19 was affecting supply chains.

“As factories in China continue to come back online, products are now flowing again,” he added. “But there are still issues affecting cargo movement, including the availability of truck drivers to move cargo to Chinese ports.

“Retailers are working with both their suppliers and transportation providers to find paths forward to minimize disruption.”

US ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.82 million TEU in January, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. That was up 5.7% from December but down 3.8% from unusually high numbers a year ago when U.S. tariff deadlines skewed the market.

“February was estimated at 1.42 million TEU, slightly above the 1.41 million TEU expected a month ago but down 12.6% from last year and significantly lower than the 1.54 million TEU forecast before the coronavirus began to have an effect on imports,” said the report.

March is forecast at 1.32 million TEU, down 18.3% from last year and less than the 1.46 million TEU expected last month or the 1.7 million TEU forecast before the virus.

“April, which had not previously been expected to be affected, is now forecast at 1.68 million TEU, down 3.5% from last year and lower than the 1.82 million TEU forecast last month, the report added.

The report’s authors admit that forecasting around coronavirus is difficult but remain hopeful of a Q2 recovery. 

Box imports are expected to jump to 2.02 million TEU in May, a 9.3% increase year-over-year, on the assumption that “Chinese factories will have resumed most production by then and will be trying to make up for lower volume earlier”.

June is forecast at 1.97 million TEU, up 9.6% year-over-year, and July is forecast at 2.03 million TEU, up 3.3% year-over-year.

“Now that we are in the coronavirus environment, uncertainty has expanded exponentially,” said Hackett Associates' founder, Ben Hackett.

“Our projections are based on the optimistic view that by the end of March or early April some sort of normalcy will have returned to trade.”