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US Container Imports Showing Signs of Pre-COVID Peak Season Pattern

Container shipping spot rates in the trans-Pacific trade began to ascend in late June and have since remained at their 2023 peaks.

U.S. import statistics substantiate that at least some of this rate hike can be attributed to increased demand. According to data analysts, U.S. ports received 2,196,268 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) in August, a 0.4% uptick from July and a 5.5% surge from June. Notably, these August figures exceeded those from August 2019, prior to the pandemic, by 2.5%.

The report described the August imports total as "comparatively consistent with the customary upswing witnessed during non-pandemic peak seasons."

Another data source, Global Port Tracker, maintained by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and consultancy Hackett Associates, assesses imports at twelve leading U.S. ports using officially released port data.

According to Global Port Tracker, these ports handled 5% more imports in August compared to July. Furthermore, the forecast anticipates that total imports will surpass 2 million TEUs per month for three consecutive months, from August through October.

Jonathan Gold, NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy, interpreted these numbers as a strong indication of retailer optimism regarding the upcoming holiday season. He pointed out that retailers only import merchandise they believe they can sell.

Global Port Tracker's full-year 2023 projection anticipates these covered ports handling a total of 22.3 million TEUs, representing a 2% increase compared to 2018 and a 3% rise compared to 2019, the pre-pandemic year.

While trans-Pacific spot rates have ceased their upward trajectory, they have stabilized at or near recent peak levels, implying that pricing support continues to emanate from cargo demand and/or limited ship capacity.

As of the first week of September, the Drewry World Container Index (WCI) evaluated Shanghai-Los Angeles spot rates at $2,254 per forty-foot equivalent unit (FEU), reflecting a 43% increase since late June. Meanwhile, the Freightos Baltic Daily Index (FBX) China-North America west coast assessment stood at $1,877 per FEU, marking a 57% surge from late June.

The WCI Shanghai-New York index registered at $3,398 per FEU, with the FBX China-North America east coast index at $3,062 per FEU. These east coast indexes exhibited gains of 35% and 40%, respectively, since late June.

Notably, water constraints at the Panama Canal have garnered widespread media attention; however, container ships continue to transit the canal without significant delays.

Data on average transit delays for shipments to major U.S. ports, measuring the variance between the declared arrival date and the estimated date on bills of lading for inbound containerized cargo. Notably, despite concerns about the canal's impact on vessel schedules, there was no sequential increase in August delays at East and Gulf coast ports. In fact, they decreased by 4.7% compared to July and remained stable compared to June.

In addressing the Panama Canal's drought situation, Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett asserted, "We have closely monitored conditions at the Panama Canal, and it now seems that the situation has had minimal effects on retail supply chains and is unlikely to pose a problem as we approach the peak shipping season."


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