US facing lowest ocean freight peak season since 2014

7/16/2020

Throughput at North America’s major import container facilities is slowly improving but is expected to remain “significantly below” last year’s levels into this autumn due to continuing impacts of the coronavirus, retail experts say.

National Retail Federation vice-president for supply chain and customs policy Jonathan Gold said the recession brought on by the coronavirus situation “may be easing” but retailers are being careful with their imports this year.

“The outlook for imports is slowly improving, but these are still some of the lowest numbers we have seen in years,” Mr Gold said.

Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett said US imports are performing like a “yo-yo” — going up one month and down the next due to the uncertain demand created by the backdrop. 

“We are starting to go out to eat and buy clothing again, but how sustainable is that? The danger is that the rising number of virus infections is leading to renewed restrictions, which may cause demand to weaken again,” he said.

According to the Global Port Tracker, a monthly survey released by the NRF and Hackett Associates, US ports handled 1.53m teu in May, down 4.8% from April and down 17.2% year over year.

June was estimated at 1.69m teu, down 5.8% year over year, while July is also forecast at 1.69m teu, down 14.1% from 2019; August at 1.69m teu, down 13.3%; September at 1.64m teu, down 12.3%; October at 1.70m teu, down 9.9%, and November at 1.68m teu, down 0.6%.

The 1.70m teu figure for October is likely to be the busiest month of the traditional July-to-October “peak season” for shipping. If so, it would be the lowest peak since the 1.61m seen in September 2014.

NRF spokesperson Craig Shearman echoed those remarks, telling Lloyd’s List that “peak season won’t be very peak this year” given the low throughput figures.

“The busiest month of the year usually falls sometime in the July-October peak season range. The all-time record was October 2018 at 2m teu and we've been around 1.8m or 1.9m something the past few years, always somewhere in those months. This year, we had 1.82m back in January, then the bottom fell out.”

The combined loaded import volume at the west coast ports decreased by 55,000 teu between April and May, a 5.5% drop. The total loaded import volume was 947,000 teu, down 14.2% from the same month of last year. 

East coast port volumes decreased by 68,000 teu between April and May, a slide of 8.7%. The loaded import volume of 712,000 teu is down 20.9% compared with the same month of 2019.

Overall, projections suggest that 2020 import container volume will be down 8.9%, with the west coast improving from last month’s forecast but the east coast weakening as “transatlantic trade diminishes”. 

The Global Port Tracker provides historical data and forecasts for the US west coast ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle/Tacoma. On the east coast, it covers New York/New Jersey, Port of Virginia, Charleston, Savannah, Port Everglades, Miami and Jacksonville. It covers Houston on the US Gulf coast.