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Boom times not over yet: US container ports still near highs

Long Beach imported 436,977 TEUs in May, second most on record

Port of Long Beach (Photo: Shutterstock/ADLC)

There may be doom and gloom about the future, but America’s ports are still posting historically high numbers for the recent past. The ports of Long Beach, California, and Charleston, South Carolina, just reported exceptionally strong throughputs for May.

Long Beach had total throughput of 890,989 twenty-foot equivalent units, the second best tally ever, topped only by May 2021.

Imports totaled 436,977 TEUs, again the second highest except for May 2021. Imports last month were more than 30% above pre-pandemic levels in May 2018 and May 2019. 

chart showing monthly imports at the Port of Long Beach
Photo: American Shipper based on data from the Port of Long Beach

The neighboring Port of Los Angeles will report May numbers in the coming days. A spokesperson told American Shipper that it was “a great month” with throughput “well north of 900,000 TEUs.”

On the East Coast, Charleston handled 255,104 TEUs in May (including imports, exports and empties), up 11% year on year. It was the port’s third highest monthly total in history, topped only by March 2022 (264,334 TEUs) and April 2022 (264,099 TEUs).

graph showing monthly volumes at Port of Charleston
Chart: American Shipper based on data from South Carolina Ports Authority

Ports working through ship queues

Offshore queues of waiting container ships fell at several ports in May. Ship-position data from MarineTraffic showed over 30 ships stuck waiting off Charleston in late February. On Friday, there was only one.

Over the course of last month, as both Long Beach and Los Angeles handled strong import volumes, the number of container ships waiting offshore fell 32%, from 44 to 30, according to data from the Marine Exchange of Southern California.

Graph showing number of container ships waiting off Los Angeles Long Beach
Chart: American Shipper based on data from Marine Exchange of Southern California

The ongoing process of working through the offshore backlog should continue to support Long Beach and Los Angeles import volumes this month. In 2021, queues fell in February through late June, as they have thus far this year, then headed back up again.

What’s next?

On Wednesday, Henry Byers, head of ocean intelligence for FreightWaves, wrote that “U.S. import demand is falling off a cliff,” citing a FreightWaves SONAR index showing a sharp decline in bookings for U.S. imports over recent weeks (based on the scheduled day of departure).

Chart: FreightWaves SONAR.

Some port and retail reps predict strong imports in the coming months.

And there were still 92 container ships waiting off U.S. coastlines on Friday, according to data from MarineTraffic and the Marine Exchange. In January-February, there were around 150. The current count includes 25 off Savannah, Georgia, 20 off Los Angeles/Long Beach, 18 off New York/New Jersey and 14 off Houston, Texas. Until queues are cleared, the unloading of cargo from waiting ships will help support import volumes (with the caveat that a portion of inbound cargo is counted in Customs import data before it leaves the queue).

According to Mario Cordero, executive director of the Port of Long Beach, “We are moving an extraordinary amount of cargo. Looking ahead, we are ready for the traditional summertime surge to coincide with China’s recovery from a lengthy port lockdown.”

Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain at the National Retail Federal (NRF), predicted, “We’re in for a busy summer at the ports. Back-to-school supplies are already arriving, and holiday merchandise will be right behind them.”

The NRF expects imports in June-October to rise 2% versus the same five months last year. Following 2.26 million TEUs of imports in April, it projects 2.31 million in May, 2.31 million in June, 2.3 million in July, 2.28 million in August, 2.13 million in September and 2.13 million in October.

Monthly imports from the National Retailer Federation
Chart: American Shipper based on data from NRF Port Tracker

Click for more articles by Greg Miller 

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Greg Miller

Greg Miller covers maritime for FreightWaves and American Shipper. After graduating Cornell University, he fled upstate New York's harsh winters for the island of St. Thomas, where he rose to editor-in-chief of the Virgin Islands Business Journal. In the aftermath of Hurricane Marilyn, he moved to New York City, where he served as senior editor of Cruise Industry News. He then spent 15 years at the shipping magazine Fairplay in various senior roles, including managing editor. He currently resides in Manhattan with his wife and two Shih Tzus.