Port Report: China may look to take a little extra time off this Lunar New Year

Port of Shanghai (Photo: FreightWaves)

Slowdown headed for U.S. import volumes as largest exporter sees economy weaken ahead of prolonged holiday.

As the three largest U.S. ports see major congestion amid large volumes of inbound containers, the only near-term relief may come from the upcoming Chinese Lunar New Year. China’s Lunar New Year, which begins February 5, is technically a week-long holiday for most of the country’s factory workers. But China’s manufacturing industry and logistics businesses typically shut down a week earlier and later than the official holiday period so employees can make the long journey home to the nation’s vast interior. All in, the Lunar New Year can last up to 40 days thanks to the extended travel times and family reunions. This Lunar New Year is different due to an uncertain trade outlook and a weaker Chinese economy. The Wall Street Journal reports that factories in the export dependent southern coastal region of China furloughed workers up to two months prior to Lunar New Year due to weakening sales.


While the country’s ports are only closed for three days, the factory closures and employee absences mean a slowdown in freight markets, particularly to China’s biggest customer. Indeed, February is typically the slowest month for U.S. imports of Chinese goods. U.S. Census Bureau data show that the dollar value of Chinese goods entering the U.S. is at its monthly lowest point in February in five of the last eight years. Since 2011, the value of Chinese goods entering the U.S. fell an average of 15 percent during February. U.S. ports likewise see a slowdown in containers crossing into their terminals, with much of the slowdown extending into March. The Port of Los Angeles saw its container volumes fall 10 percent from January through February last year while a 31 percent drop was seen in February to March.


Shipping lines naturally dial back service in the face of lower volumes, with a number of voyages and sailings cancelled during Lunar New Year. Containership analytics firm PR News Service says the Ocean Alliance will take out six voyages to the U.S. West Coast and Canada from February through March. The 2M Alliance will take three sailings to the U.S. East Coast over the same time.

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As FreightWaves Jim Wilson reports, Australia’s move to protect its domestic shipping industry continues to idle more vessels. Two more ships registered to Australia will exit service, along with 80 seafaring jobs. As in many countries, Australia limits coastal shipping between domestic ports to ships registered in the country and crewed by citizens. But the high cost of paying Australian seafarers makes it increasingly uneconomic to use ocean freight. Australia’s parliament was said to be looking at ways to make ocean shipping more affordable for domestic customers. One proposal has been to give temporary licenses to non-Australian firms to provide coastal shipping. But the move has generally been opposed by Australia’s maritime industry.


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Michael Angell, Bulk and Intermodal Editor

Michael Angell covers maritime, intermodal and related topics for FreightWaves. His interest in transportation stretches back several generations. One great-grandfather was a dray horseman along the New York waterfront and another was a railway engineer in Texas. More recently, Michael has written about the shipping industry for TradeWinds, energy markets for Oil Price Information Service, and general business topics for FactSet Mergerstat and Investor's Business Daily. When he is not stuck in the office, he enjoys tours of ports, terminals, and railyards.