Import cargo volume at the nation’s major container ports is expected to begin slowly climbing again this month after February saw one of the lowest levels since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the “Global Port Tracker” report released today by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.
“Retailers are maintaining reduced inventories in anticipation of rebuilding with new seasonal stock once they have a clearer take on expected levels of consumer spending,” Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett said in a release. “While import volumes remain low, the tight labor market and strong wages are helping consumers absorb the impact of inflation and continue to spend.”
The report marks the latest sign that businesses are seeing contradictory signals in the U.S. economy, with a mixture of high inflation and interest rates balanced by a historically low unemployment rate and healthy consumer spending.
“There are many uncertainties about the economy, but we expect imports to show modest gains over the next several months,” NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said in the release. “Growth is a positive sign, but levels are still far below normal and retailers will remain cautious as they work to keep inventories in line with consumer demand.”
U.S. ports covered by in the report handled 1.81 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) in January, the latest month for which final numbers are available. That was down 16.5% year over year but up 4.4% from December for the first month-over-month increase since last August.
Ports have not yet reported their February numbers, but the Global Port Tracker projected that the month dropped to 1.56 million TEU, down 13.6% from January and down an unusually large 26.2% from a year earlier. That would make it the slowest month since 1.53 million TEU in May 2020, when many factories in Asia and most U.S. stores were closed due to the pandemic. Since the beginning of the pandemic, only the 1.51 million TEU recorded in February 2020 and 1.37 million TEU in March 2020 have been even lower.
Beginning this month, imports are expected to climb at least through mid-summer but will nonetheless remain below last year’s levels, NRF and Hackett predicted. The report provides data for the U.S. ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle and Tacoma on the West Coast; New York/New Jersey, Port of Virginia, Charleston, Savannah, Port Everglades, Miami and Jacksonville on the East Coast, and Houston on the Gulf Coast.