Cargo containers still below one million mark

Import cargo volume at the nation’s major retail container ports improved in March over February’s seven-year low, but was still at its lowest level in five years and remained below the one million mark, according to the monthly Port Tracker report released by the National Retail Federation and IHS Global Insight.

“Cargo that came across the docks in March is in the stores now, so these numbers show us that retailers expect slow sales this spring and summer, and have been cautious in the amount of merchandise that they’ve ordered,” NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said. “Month-to-month numbers are rising but we’re still expecting significantly lower quantities of merchandise being imported than we saw last year.”

US ports surveyed handled 984,633 Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units in March, the most recent month for which actual numbers are available. That was up 16.8% from February’s 842,882 TEU, which was the lowest level since March 2002, but still down 15% from March 2008. The March 2009 number is the next lowest since the 901,497 seen in February 2004, and marks the 21st month in a row to see a year-over-year decline. One TEU is one 20-foot container or its equivalent.

Volume for April was estimated at 1.04 million TEU, down 18% from a year earlier, and May is forecast at 1.06 million TEU, down 19% from last year. June is forecast at 1.09 million TEU, down 16%; July at 1.12 million TEU, down 15%; August at 1.15 million TEU, down 15.8%; and September at 1.13 million TEU, down 17%.

The first half of 2009 is now forecast at 6.1 million TEU, down 19% from the 7.5 million TEU seen in the first half of 2008. Total volume for 2008 was 15.2 million TEU, down 7.9% from 2007’s 16.5 million TEU and the lowest level since 2004’s 14 million TEU.

“The monthly numbers are on their way back up but that’s really just the shipping cycle we see every year whether we’re in a recession or not,” IHS Global Insight Economist Paul Bingham said. “The real rebound is still in the future. Import container traffic is projected to continue to be weak for the next several months due to the underlying reduction in demand for goods.”

All US ports covered by Port Tracker – Los Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle and Tacoma on the West Coast; New York/New Jersey, Hampton Roads, Charleston and Savannah on the East Coast, and Houston on the Gulf Coast – are rated “low” for congestion, the same as last month.