US Imports From Asia Hit Record Levels Last December

US imports from Asia recorded their highest December level ever, signaling the import surge that began in June still has plenty of momentum — and will continue to pressure overburdened US port and inland hubs.

Imports of 1.626 million TEU were up 29.9 percent from December 2019 and the third-highest monthly volume of 2020, behind October and August, according to PIERS. For all of 2020, imports from Asia totaled 16.6 million TEU, up 4.1 percent from 2019.

The import surge that began in late June is certain to continue at least for the next two months as retailers ship more merchandise before some factories in Asia close for the Lunar New Year. That is a cautionary note for ports, terminal operators, and inland rail hubs that the congestion they have been experiencing since last fall will continue in the coming months.

December is normally a slow month in the eastbound trans-Pacific, as most of the holiday merchandise has been shipped, and the product moved via rail to inland hubs. In 2020, though, record e-commerce sales as well as shipments of personal protective equipment (PPE) and medical supplies kept the import momentum strong in December.

As the flood of imports worked their way through the supply chain, congestion rose at intermodal hubs in the interior. Intermodal traffic of all kinds rose 2.38 percent in December from November, according to the Intermodal Association of North America (IANA). It was the first time since 2015 that December’s intermodal volume was stronger than in November. Intermodal volume in the fourth quarter was up 9.62 percent from Q4 2019, the strongest year-over-year quarterly growth rate since December 2013, according to IANA.

US imports from Asia in the first half of 2020 recorded year-over-year monthly declines due to the economic impact of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) on production in Asia and retail sales in the US. However, the situation changed abruptly in late June, and imports remained at near-record levels in the second half of the year.

The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and New York-New Jersey suffered from congestion issues because a large portion of last year’s imports were squeezed into the final six months of the year. Also, container shortages emerged at Asian load ports, and shipments were rolled.

Vessels were so backed up at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which handles about 50 percent of US imports from Asia, in December that 28 to 30 vessels each day had to sit at anchor outside the ports waiting for berthing space to open, according to the Marine Exchange of Southern California. Waits of seven days or longer were common.

As a result of the delays in Asia as well as in Los Angeles-Long Beach, thousands of containers that should have moved into the US in December were pushed back to January, which means that January’s import volume could turn out to be similar to, if not larger than, December’s.

Source: Journal of Commerce