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Strong Outlook as Container Volumes Remain Positive at US Ports

containers
Imports were strong in the first two months of 2024 contributing to a positive outlook (Long Beach file photo)

Published Mar 12, 2024 2:00 PM by The Maritime Executive

 

U.S. imports are strong and continuing to grow with the outlook remaining positive into 2024. The disruptions in the Red Sea and at the Panama Canal have not impacted the number of containers arriving at U.S. ports with analysts reporting carriers have successfully adapted to the current challenges. The result is a leveling off in the markets.

While the total number of containers arriving at the major U.S. ports declined in February versus the prior month, it was due to the number of days and not a drop in volume. On a daily average basis, container volumes were up approximately six percent over January 2024 to 65,000 TEU per day. 

Year-over-year, total box volumes were up more than 23 percent according to Descartes a productivity software company for the logistics industry. However, adjusting the numbers for the timing of the Lunar New Year holiday, which was in January 2023 and later in February 2024, Descartes’ analysts calculate actual volume growth was around 13 percent year-over-year. They reported total U.S. import volumes of 2.14 million TEU in February, which they also note is up 19.5 percent from pre-pandemic February 2019.

 “February 2024 was a strong month considering its brevity and continues the robust performance that started in January 2024,” said Chris Jones, EVP Industry and Services, Descartes. “The combined effect of the Panama drought and the conflict in the Middle East on transit times declined in February and volume for the Gulf Coast ports remained constant versus January.”

The National Retail Federation, the trade group for U.S. retailers, points out that retailers and their carrier partners are adjusting to the re-routings and new schedules. While costs are up, they note carriers are not paying Suez Canal tolls which should help elevate some of the pressures. They also believe the markets have stabilized after the initial shocks.

“Cargo has been rerouted and goods are arriving where they are needed and in time to meet consumer demand despite the ongoing challenges,” says Jonathan Gold, the NRF’s Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy. “Retailers have been impacted by costs and shipping delays, but they are working to minimize any impact on consumers.”

The NRF is projecting that retailers’ inbound cargo volumes remain on track to show year-over-year gains into 2024. They are projecting monthly volumes ranging between 1.77 and 1.99 million TEU during the remainder of the first half of 2024. The current estimate is a total of 11.5 million TEU for the first half of 2024. That would be up 7.8 percent from the same period of 2023.

Despite concerns of the impact of the disruptions in the Red Sea and delays at the Panama Canal on global supply chains, Descartes highlights that 2024 is starting off to be a strong year for container imports. While warning of the upcoming labor negotiations at the U.S. South Atlantic and Gulf Coast ports, they note that growth levels so far in 2024 even after seasonal adjustments for Lunar New Year are in line with the consumer-fueled pandemic growth.