Impact of Covid-19 easing at major U.S. retail container ports

United States
Published:  15 June, 2020

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic at major U.S. retail container ports appears to be easing slightly, with projected imports remaining below last year’s levels but not as much as previously forecast, according the Global Port Tracker report of the U.S. National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.

“The numbers we’re seeing are still below last year, but are better than what we expected a month ago”, said Jonathan Gold, Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy, NRF. “It may still be too soon to say, but we’ll take that as a sign that the situation could be slowly starting to improve. Consumers want to get back to shopping, and as more people get back to work, retailers want to be sure their shelves are stocked”. U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.61 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU) in April, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. That was down 7.8% from a year earlier, but up 17% from a four-year low seen in March and significantly better than the 1.51 million TEU previously expected (a TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent).

According to the report, May was estimated at 1.58 million TEU, down 14.6% year-over-year, but up from the 1.47 million TEU forecast a month ago. June is forecast at 1.56 million TEU, down 12.9% from last year, but up from the previous forecast of 1.46 million TEU, while July is forecast at 1.62 million TEU, down 17.4% from 2019, but up from 1.58 million TEU previously expected. Imports for the six-month period from April through September are expected to total 9.74 million TEU, a 3% improvement from the 9.46 million TEU expected a month ago, while the first half of 2020 is forecast to total 9.46 million TEU, down 10% from the same period in 2019 but better than the 9.15 million TEU expected a month ago. Before the extent of the pandemic was known, the first half of the year was forecast at 10.47 million TEU.

According to Ben Hackett, Founder Hackett Associates, imports are erratic “with one month up and the next down”. He added that “getting 40 million people back to work will take time, especially with many fearful of catching the virus and staying home. That makes a rapid return to an economic boom unlikely.”

Imports during 2019 totalled 21.6 million TEU, a 0.8% decrease from 2018 amid the trade war with China, but still the second-highest year on record.