U.S. Container Traffic Still Soft But Growth Expect In Early 2010

After more than two and a half years of year-over-year declines, import cargo volume at the nation’s major retail container ports is expected to see three straight months of gains in early 2010, according to the monthly Port Tracker report released today by the National Retail Federation and IHS Global Insight.

“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, NRF’s vp/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.”

U.S. ports surveyed handled 1.18 million 20-foot Equivalent Units in October, the most recent month for which actual numbers are available. That was up 4% from September as retailers hit their busiest shipping month of the year as the holiday season approached. However, this figure was down 14% from October 2008 and marked the 28th month in a row to see a year-over-year decline.

November was estimated at 1.09 million TEU, down 12% from last year, and December is forecast at 1.05 million TEU, down 1% from last year. January 2010 is forecast at 1.02 million TEU, down 4% from January 2009. One TEU is one 20-foot container or its equivalent.

The January figure would mark the 31st month of year-over-year declines, but the trend is forecast to be broken in February 2010, when cargo is expected to total 972,391 TEU. The figure is below the 1 million mark because February is the slowest month of the year, but would be a 16% increase over February 2009. March 2010 is forecast at 1.02 million TEU, a 6% increase over March 2009, and April 2010 is forecast at 1.08 million TEU, a 9% increase over April 2010. Port Tracker forecasts only six months in advance, so later numbers aren’t yet known.

The report now expects 2009 to end with a total volume of 12.6 million TEU, a drop of 17% from last year’s 15.2 million TEU and the lowest since the 12.47 million TEU imported in 2003.