News Article | 12/22/2009

Retailers Forecast Strong Import Growth

Containerized imports at 10 major U.S. ports are expected to rise in three consecutive months starting in February, breaking a 31-month streak of year-to-year declines, the National Retail Federation and IHS Global Insight said in their monthly Port Tracker report.

“We’ve been seeing hints of a turnaround in our past few reports but this is starting to look like a clear trend,” said Jonathan Gold, the NRF’s vice president for supply chain and customs policy. “If retailers are starting to import more merchandise, it’s because they expect to be able to sell more, and that’s a good sign for our industry and the overall economy.”

By predicting a 9 percent year-to-year increase in April, the new report extended the cautious optimism shown in last month’s Port Tracker, which a forecast year-to-year increases of 16 percent in February and 6 percent in March. Volume through the ports in January is forecast to be down 4 percent. Port Tracker forecasts cover only six months.

Ports surveyed handled 1.18 million TEUs in October, the most recent month for which actual numbers are available. That was up 4 percent from September but was down 14 percent from October 2008. November was estimated at 1.09 million TEUs, down 12 percent from last year, and December is forecast at 1.05 million TEUs, down 1 percent.

The report now expects 2009 to end with a total volume of 12.6 million TEUs at the 10 ports. That would be a drop of 17 percent from last year’s 15.2 million TEUs and the lowest since the 12.47 million TEUs reported in 2003.

“The second half of 2009 has seen an improvement, with ‘less bad’ year-over-year numbers compared with the first half,” said Paul Bingham, an IHS Global Insight economist. “While improving, import container traffic is projected to be weak through March due to the traditional slow season combined with the weak pace of economic recovery.”

The drop in cargo has produced one benefit: All 10 ports covered by Port Tracker – Los Angeles, Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle, Tacoma, New York-New Jersey, Hampton Roads, Charleston, Savannah and Houston – continue to be rated by the survey as “low” for congestion.