Port Tracker: COVID-19 impact on container traffic eases

WASHINGTON – The impact of COVID-19 at major U.S. retail container ports appears to be easing slightly, with projected imports remaining below last year’s levels but not as much as previously forecast, according to the latest Global Port Tracker report from the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.

“The numbers we’re seeing are still below last year but are better than what we expected a month ago,” NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said. “It may still be too soon to say, but we’ll take that as a sign that the situation could be slowly starting to improve. Consumers want to get back to shopping, and as more people get back to work, retailers want to be sure their shelves are stocked.”

“Imports are erratic, with one month up and the next down,” Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett said. “Getting 40 million people back to work will take time, especially with many fearful of catching the virus and staying home. That makes a rapid return to an economic boom unlikely.”

U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.61 million twenty-foot equivalent units in April, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. That was down 7.8% from a year earlier but up 17% from a four-year low seen in March and significantly better than the 1.51 million TEUs previously expected.

May was estimated at 1.58 million TEUs, down 14.6% year-over-year, but up from the 1.47 million TEUs forecast a month ago. June is forecast at 1.56 million TEUs, down 12.9% from last year but up from the previous forecast of 1.46 million TEUs, while July is forecast at 1.62 million TEUs, down 17.4% from last year but up from 1.58 million TEUs previously expected.

August is forecast at 1.71 million TEUs, just below the 1.73 million TEU expected a month ago and down 12.9% from last year, while September is forecast at 1.66 million TEUs, slightly lower than the 1.7 million TEU expected a month ago and down 11.3% from last year. October, which was not previously forecast, is expected to total 1.73 million TEUs, down 7.9% from last year. That would mark the first time since April that the year-over-year decline would drop from double digits to single digits.

Imports for the six-month period from April through September are expected to total 9.74 million TEUs, a 3% improvement from the 9.46 million TEUs expected a month ago.

The first half of 2020 is forecast to total 9.46 million TEUs, down 10% from the same period last year but better than the 9.15 million TEUs expected a month ago. Before the extent of the pandemic was known, the first half of the year was forecast at 10.47 million TEUs.

Imports during 2019 totaled 21.6 million TEUs, a 0.8% decrease from 2018 amid the trade war with China but still the second-highest year on record.

Global Port Tracker, which is produced for NRF by the consulting firm Hackett Associates, provides historical data and forecasts 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.