U.S. import numbers show improvement but remain below 2019 levels

By Jeff Berman, Group News Editor · July 8, 2020

Keeping in line with its previous edition, the new edition of the Port Tracker report, which was issued today by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and maritime consultancy Hackett Associates, is calling for United States retail container import volumes to remain at reduced levels, due largely to the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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.

NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said in the report that even though economic indicators may indicate that the COVID-19-driven recession is showing signs of easing, retailers are still being conservative, in regards to the amount of merchandise they are importing into the U.S. in 2020.

“The outlook for imports is slowly improving, but these are still some of the lowest numbers we’ve seen in years,” said Gold.

Port Tracker found that for May, the most recent month for which data is available, U.S.-based retail container ports handled 1.53 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU), which represented a 4.8% decline compared to April and a 17.2% annual decline.

The report pegged June to come in at 1.69 million TEU, for a 5.8% annual decline, with July also at 1.69 million TEU, which would represent a 14.1% annual decline. August is expected to be off 13.3% annually, also at 1.69 million TEU. September is estimated to hit 1.64 million TEU, for a 12.3% decline, and October is estimated to hit 1.7 million TEU, for a 9.9% annual decline.

The report observed that if the projected tally for October, which is typically the busiest month of the July through October peak season for shipping, comes to fruition, it will mark the lowest level for peak activity going back to September 2014, which recorded 1.61 million TEU.

What’s more, the report indicated that the import outlook for the six-month period, from March through October, is expected to come in at 9.94 million TEU, a 0.7% gain over the report’s previous projection. And it added that the first half of 2020 is now expected to be off 9.3% annually, at 9.5 million TEU, which is an improvement over the 10% decrease estimate that was previously expected. Before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, the first half of 2020 was estimated to hit 10.47 million TEU. The report expects full-year 2020 imports to be down 8.9% annually but did not provide an import figure.

Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett pulled no punches, writing in the report that U.S. imports are ostensibly swinging like a yo-yo, in that the numbers are seeing ups and downs, with no apparent cause that indicates what could be considered either a booming or crashing economy.

Hackett also raised that point that despite the fact that people are starting to go out for meals and shopping again, it will not prove to be sustainable, should COVID-19 infection and death rates rise.

“The danger is that the rising number of virus infections is leading to renewed restrictions which may cause demand to weaken again,” noted Hackett. “In the meantime, many large companies are reviewing their mode of operations and are shedding workers in large numbers, suggesting that the worst may be yet to come.”

July 8, 2020