Congested US Ports Should See Slight Reprieve in First Half of 2022

Congested ports in the U.S. are expected to get a welcome break from rapid import growth in the first half of this year, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates on Wednesday.

Imports at the nation’s congested container ports are expected to grow modestly during the first half of 2022, but volumes will remain high, continuing the pressure that accelerated last year as the economy bounced back from pandemic lockdowns, the report said.

“We’re not going to see the dramatic growth in imports we saw this time last year, but the fact that volumes aren’t falling is a clear sign of continued consumer demand,” said Jonathan Gold, NRF’s VP for supply chain and customs policy, in a statement. “Last year set a new bar for imports, and the numbers remain high as consumers continue to spend despite COVID-19 and inflation. The slowdown in cargo growth will be welcome as the supply chain continues to try to adapt to these elevated volumes. Unfortunately, many experts expect ongoing disruptions throughout 2022 for a variety of reasons.”

Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett added that congestion is still a problem for ports in the U.S. He stated that the Port of Los Angeles alone currently has around 40 ships waiting to dock. “As more ships arrive each day and delays mean some cargo won’t get unloaded until the following month, shifts in import patterns could be difficult to follow for the next few months,” Hackett said.

But this congestion will ease slightly due to the Lunar New Year factory closings in Asia this month and the consequent drop in export production, said Hackett. However, he mentioned that a shortage of equipment, worker availability and storage space at distribution centers and warehouses across the country remains problematic, as does the export of empty containers back to Asia.

“Nonetheless, backups cannot be erased quickly as long as terminals continue to face a lack of space brought on by the supply chain’s inability to efficiently transfer cargo out of the terminals to its end destinations,” Hackett stated.

According to NRF, U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker are expected to handle 13 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU) – one 20-foot container or its equivalent – during the first half of 2022, up 1.5% over the 12.8 million TEU handled during the same period in 2021. By contrast, the first half of 2021 saw a record 35.7% increase over the unusually slow first six months of 2020, when many Asian factories and U.S. stores were shut down because of the pandemic.

The ports handled 2.09 million TEU in December 2021, the latest month for which final numbers are available, the report noted. That was down 1.2% from November and down 1% year-over-year. Ports have not yet reported January numbers, but Global Port Tracker projected the month at 2.15 million TEU, up 4.4% year-over-year. February is forecast at 2.04 million TEU, up 8.7%.

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