Container imports falling close to pre-pandemic levels

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by Emily Atkins

Economic turmoil, reduction in retail transactions, and high fuel costs are making an impact on U.S. container imports.

November U.S. container import volumes declined to close to November 2019 levels. Volume in the month experienced a significant 12 percent decline from October 2022, and an 11.1 percent decline in imports from China. Compared to 2021, TEUs were down 19.4 percent, and only 2.8% higher than pre-pandemic November 2019.

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New data revealed in Descartes monthly shipping report show port delays continue to decrease, but major East and Gulf Coast ports still have extended wait times versus major West Coast ports. Key economic indicators during this period paint a conflicting picture about their impact on future import volumes and, combined with COVID, the Russia/Ukraine conflict and the West Coast labour situation, continue to point to further disruptions and challenging global supply chain performance going into 2023.

“Comparing fall imports in 2022 to the previous six years, November would have been expected to be lower than October,” said Chris Jones, EVP industry and services at Descartes.

“However, November 2022 had the greatest October-to-November decline since 2016 at 12 percent. The November U.S. container import data reaffirms that the pressure on supply chains and logistics operations has begun to lift, but there are still a number of issues that may cause further disruptions in 2023.”

The downward trend continued in November for U.S. container imports from China. There were 686,514 TEUs, a reduction of 11.1 percent versus October and down 31.5 percent from the 2022 high in August. China represented 35.1 percent of the total U.S. container imports, a decline of 6.4 percent from the high of 41.5 percent in February 2022.

Of the top 10 countries importing into the U.S., Vietnam, Thailand and Germany on a percentage basis fared worse than China in November versus October.

All of the top 10 U.S. ports saw volume declines, with the exception of the Port of Seattle: The Ports of New York/New Jersey and Long Beach experienced the greatest decline: 12.8 percent.

Port delays continued to improve in November 2022, and wait times were lower than October 2022. The major West Coast ports are all now well below 10 days and the Port of Long Beach is in the five-day range.