After a steep slump in September, US imports stabilize in October

The outlook for US imports looked bleak in September as volumes fell double digits both year-on-year and compared to August. If imports had continued to fall at September pace, they would have fallen below pre-COVID levels in October.

However, imports did not fall further in October, according to data released by Descartes Datamyne on Monday. Last month’s volumes were virtually flat compared to September. The return to pre-pandemic volumes is more gradual.

According to Descartes, US ports handled 2,220,331 twenty-foot units of imports in October, virtually unchanged (+0.2%) from the previous month. Volume was down 13% year over year but still up 7.2% from pre-COVID October 2019.

(Graphic: Descartes. Data source: Descartes Datamyne)

Savannah recovers, NY/NJ withdraw

September’s plunge was caused by exceptionally large declines in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, California, and Savannah, Georgia. In October, Descartes reported much smaller monthly declines in the two California ports: 9,241 TEUs in Long Beach (down 2.7% from September) and 12,105 TEUs in Long Beach (down 3.9%).

Savannah was a special case. September volumes were pushed down over 20% by the closure of Hurricane Ian. The latest Descartes figures show an increase of 11,958 TEU or 5.3% for Savannah in October compared to September. (Descartes derives his dates from customs declarations; his numbers differ from the official port numbers, which are later published each month.)

In addition to Savannah, monthly gains were recorded for Houston; Charleston, South Carolina; Oakland, California; and Seattle and Tacoma, Washington.

The biggest surprise in the numbers was a big drop for New York/New Jersey, which recently overtook Los Angeles to become America’s busiest container port. According to Descartes, imports from New York/New Jersey fell by 26,972 TEU or 6.3% in October compared to September.

East Coast delays still high but decreasing

Shippers have shifted significant volumes from West Coast ports to East and Gulf Coast ports amid concerns over labor bargaining in West Coast ports. A new employment contract has yet to be negotiated, more than four months after the end of the last one.

Bookings in East Coast ports are well above the national average. Index: 100 = January 2019. Green line: bookings to Savannah. Orange Line: to NY/NJ. Blue line: national average (Graph: FreightWaves SONAR)

This shift resulted in a decrease in ships anchored or loitering off the coast of west coast ports and an increase in ships waiting off the other coasts.

According to American Shipper surveys of ship location data and MarineTraffic port queue lists, the total number of ships waiting outside North American ports rose to about 150 in January and then dropped to under 100 in the spring as the Los Angeles/Long Beach queue broke. It then bounced back above 150 in late July, fueled by snakes off the East and Gulf Coasts.

Since the inbound volume has since decreased, the queues have gradually dissipated. The number fell below 100 in mid-October. As of Tuesday morning, 87 vessels were waiting, 14% off the West Coast and 86% off the East and Gulf Coasts. That’s still very high: Before COVID, the number was in the single digits.

Descartes data on average delays in ports shows the same divergence between coasts.

This data shows that average delays in the top five West Coast ports fell by 40% from January to October. In contrast, the average delays in the top ports on the other two coasts fell by half that pace – by 20% – over the same period.

Top 5 West Coast Ports: Los Angeles, Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle, Tacoma. The 5 major ports on the East/Gulf Coast: NY/NY, Savannah, Charleston, Houston and Norfolk, Virginia. Delays defined as days between the estimated arrival date on the bills of lading and the date the bills of lading were processed by U.S. Customs (Graph: American Shipper based on Descartes Datamyne data)

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