Port Tracker report eyes lower volumes but still-steady import levels for 2022

While United States-bound retail container imports are not expected to see the same elevated growth rates in 2022 that were a key theme of 2021 activity, modest growth and a still-high level of volume, do still remain in the forecast through the first half of 2022, according to the most recent edition of the Port Tracker Report, which was issued today by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and maritime consultancy Hackett Associates.

The ports surveyed in the report include: Los Angeles/Long Beach; Oakland; Tacoma; Seattle; Houston; New York/New Jersey; Hampton Roads; Charleston, and Savannah; Miami; Jacksonville; and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Port Everglades.

Authors of the report explained that cargo import numbers do not correlate directly with retail sales or employment because they count only the number of cargo containers brought into the country, not the value of the merchandise inside them, adding that the amount of merchandise imported provides a rough barometer of retailers’ expectations.

“We’re not going to see the dramatic growth in imports we saw this time last year, but the fact that volumes aren’t falling is a clear sign of continued consumer demand,” NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said in a statement. “Last year set a new bar for imports, and the numbers remain high as consumers continue to spend despite COVID-19 and inflation. The slowdown in cargo growth will be welcome as the supply chain continues to try to adapt to these elevated volumes. Unfortunately, many experts expect ongoing disruptions throughout 2022 for a variety of reasons.”

For December, the most recent month for which data is available, import volume—at 2.09 million TEU (Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units)—was off 1.2% compared to November and was down 1% annually. May 2021 remains the all-time highest-volume month, at 2.33 million TEU).

And, for calendar year 2021, imports came in at 25.8 million TEU, for a 17.4% annual increase, setting a new record and breaking the previous record, of 22 million TEU, set in 2020 against the backdrop of the pandemic.

For the following months, Port Tracker issued the following projections:

  • January, at 2.15 million TEU, for a 4.4% annual increase;
  • February at 2.04 million TEU, for an 8.7% annual increase;
  • March, at 2.12 million TEU, for a 6.7% annual decrease; and
  • April, at 2.19 million TEU, for a 2% annual increase;
  • May, at 2.27 million TEU, for a 2.6% annual decrease; and
  • June, at 2.26 million TEU, for a 5.2% increase

Looking at the first half of 2022, Port Tracker expects U.S. ports to handle 13 million TEU, which would represent a 1.5% annual increase. This would be significantly below the 2021 growth rate over 2020, which was up 35.7%, due to what the report referred to as unusually slow first six months of 2020, when many Asian factories and U.S. stores were shut down because of the pandemic.

Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett wrote in the report that the calendar year 2021 import volumes may have been even higher were it not for ongoing congestion—mainly at the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach—not prevented the discharge of discharge of containers from a significant number of ships, whose last cargo of the year rolled over into January and will now be counted as part of 2022’s tally.

“One thing is for certain: the heady days of import growth seen in the first half of 2021 will not be repeated,” wrote Hackett. “Our view is that growth this year will be comparatively weak given an expected slowdown in consumer demand as the U.S. economy returns to normal and declining COVID-19 cases give individuals the confidence to go out and spend their money on services like dining and travel rather than goods. But that confidence could be buffered if fear of further inflation shift money from spending to savings.

What’s more, Hackett observed that with Lunar New Year factory closings in Asia this month and the consequent drop in export production, North American terminals will have an opportunity to reduce existing congestion.

“Nonetheless, backups cannot be erased quickly as long as terminals face a lack of space brought on by the supply chain’s inability to efficiently transfer cargo out of the terminals to its end destinations,” he wrote. “A shortage of equipment, worker availability and storage space at distribution centers and warehouses across the country remains problematic, as does the export of empty containers back to Asia to be loaded with the next round of imports.”  

About the Author

Jeff Berman, Group News Editor

Jeff Berman is Group News Editor for Logistics Management, Modern Materials Handling, and Supply Chain Management Review. Jeff works and lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, where he covers all aspects of the supply chain, logistics, freight transportation, and materials handling sectors on a daily basis. Contact Jeff Berman

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