Port Tracker predicts painless labor talks, U.S. import forecast weak
West Coast longshore labor negotiations won't hinder U.S. container traffic, but imports that are starting to rise again after the slack winter season will show weak increases or declines below last year's levels over the coming months.
That's the assessment of the monthly Port Tracker report released Wednesday by the National Retail Federation and Global Insight.
'Monthly port volumes are building slowly following the slow season but import container traffic is forecast to be quite weak through August due to the underlying weakness in demand in the U.S. economy,' said Global Insight Economist Paul Bingham.
All U.S. ports covered by Port Tracker — Los Angeles-Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle and Tacoma on the West Coast; New York-New Jersey, Hampton Roads, Charleston and Savannah on the East Coast; and Houston on the Gulf Coast — are rated 'low' for congestion, the same as last month.
'The covered ports are operating without congestion from the harbor to the gate, with late-winter weather problems resolved,' Bingham said.
Negotiations started March 17 on a new contract between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association, and the National Retail Federation's Jonathan Gold does not expect a repeat of the disruptions that closed West Coast ports in 2002 when the six-year labor agreement expires this summer.
'Those who follow West Coast labor relations believe things will not be so bad this time around,' said Gold, NRF vice president for supply chain and customs policy. 'Talks have begun earlier than usual and with the Panama Canal being expanded, more ships using the Suez Canal and East Coast ports being expanded, both labor and management realize this year that the dominance of West Coast ports is not guaranteed.
'Contentious labor negotiations would hasten the move to the East Coast and would prove costly for those on both sides of the negotiating table. Terminal operators don't want to lose volume, and union negotiators don't want to lose the jobs that go with that volume. This should provide a strong incentive for both sides to conclude a new contract before July.'
For February, traditionally the slowest month in the year and the most recent month for which numbers are available, import volume at the U.S. ports surveyed by Port Tracker dropped 5.4 percent year on year to 1.24 million TEUs. March was estimated at 1.29 million TEUs, up 1.1 percent from the same month in 2007, which if the figure holds true would break a seven-month run of declines. Further monthly forecasts are:
' April, 1.34 million TEUs, up 1.7 percent.
' May, 1.36 million TEUs, down 1 percent.
' June, 1.38 million TEUs, down 4.9 percent.
' July, 1.43 million TEUs, down 1 percent.
' August, the same year on year at 1.46 million TEUs. ' Simon Heaney