In January, U.S. containerized imports logged their highest month-on-month gain since last May, according to data from Descartes. Inbound volumes rose 7.2% versus December to 2,068,493 twenty-foot equivalent units, Descartes reported Wednesday.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that last month’s imports were almost identical to Descartes’ imports stats for January 2019 and 2020, pre-pandemic.
The worse news is that this month looks especially weak, according to Port Tracker, which covers 12 U.S. ports and is published by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.
February could be slowest month since May 2020
Port Tracker just cut its projections for early 2023. On Tuesday, it reduced its outlook for January-May imports by 3.5% versus estimates released a month ago.
Port Tracker now projects that the facilities it covers will handle 1.57 million TEUs in February, down 26% year on year “for the slowest month since 1.53 million TEUs in May 2020, when many factories in Asia and most U.S. stores were closed by the pandemic,” said the NRF.
Port Tracker’s current estimate for this month is 3% below volumes in February 2019.
“February is traditionally a slow month, but these are the lowest numbers we’ve seen in almost three years,” said Jonathan Gold, the NRF’s vice president for supply chain and customs policy.
According to Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett, “In some ways, 2023 is reminiscent of 2020, when the world’s economies shut down because of the pandemic and no one had a clue where we were headed. The economy is far from shut down, but the degree of uncertainty is very similar.”
Port Tracker now estimates the first-half volumes will come in 19.4% below the first half of 2022, when imports hit an all-time high. On a positive note, it expects imports in March-June will be above 2018-19 levels.
January import drivers
Declines in imports from China depressed U.S. volumes in the second half of 2022. That trend reversed in January, according to Chris Jones, executive vice president of industry and services at Descartes.
China represented 70.7% of the month-on-month gains from the top 10 countries of origin, he said. U.S. imports from China were up 75,359 TEUs in January versus December.
Another change: West Coast ports lost a lot of ground versus East and Gulf Coast ports in 2022 but inched back up in January, thanks to a 35,054-TEU month-on-month gain in Long Beach.
Echoing Port Tracker, Jones pointed to the air of uncertainty ahead.
“The economy, a key factor in container import volume growth, continues to defy predictions,” said Jones. “The January update of the logistics metrics Descartes is tracking shows some stability, but continues to point to challenging global supply chain performance in 2023.”
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