August 10, 2023

July import volumes continue to mirror pre-COVID ‘normal’


“Imports still plunging, down 14% year on year” sounds alarming for the U.S. economy. But July’s percentage drop is an artifact of the COVID-driven import boom, a one-off event that ended in late 2022 that is no longer news.

“Imports unchanged versus pre-pandemic levels” is a less dramatic headline with no double digits, ominous undertones or “plunging” involved. Yet that is the real news: The volume of containerized imports to the U.S. is normal and healthy. There is no sign yet in the import data of consumer weakness or an impending recession.

Descartes reported Wednesday that imports to all U.S. ports totaled 2,187,810 twenty-foot equivalent units in July. That’s down 14% year on year, up 5% sequentially from June and effectively unchanged versus July 2019, pre-COVID (down 0.5%).

chart of import volumes
(Chart: Descartes Datamyne)

U.S. imports are up 1.7% over the first seven months of this year versus the same period in 2019. “Volumes continue to track 2019 performance,” said Descartes.

U.S. imports from China increased the most in July versus June, up 36,818 TEUs month on month, with volumes from South Korea posting the second-largest gain, up 11,418 TEUs.

Among U.S. ports, Savannah, Georgia, saw the biggest gain, up 47,900 TEUs in July versus June, followed by New York/New Jersey, up 43,169 TEUs. Los Angeles had the steepest month-on-month drop, down 68,874 TEUs, according to Descartes.

NRF expects 2023 to top 2018, 2019

Another data source, Global Port Tracker, published by the National Retail Federation and consultancy Hackett Associates, measures imports to 12 leading U.S. ports using official numbers released by the ports.

Final numbers are not yet in for July, but on Monday, Global Port Tracker estimated that last month’s volumes totaled 1.91 million TEUs for the ports it covers. That’s a decline of 13% year on year but it’s in line with pre-COVID levels: down 3% versus July 2019 and flat versus July 2018.

Global Port Tracker predicts imports will rise to 2.03 million TEUs this month at the ports it covers — the highest monthly tally since last October.

It forecasts that U.S. imports for full-year 2023 will be down 13% from the boom-inflated volumes last year, but slightly higher than pre-pandemic levels: up 2% versus full-year 2018 and 3% versus 2019. 

chart of import volumes
(Chart: FreightWaves based on data from NRF)

“We expect to see a smooth shipping season ahead of the winter holiday season,” said Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy at the NRF.

According to Ben Hackett, founder of Hackett Associates, imports have not kept pace with rising sales year to date “because retailers are working their way through inventory built up over the last 12 to 18 months. Cargo growth should resume as inventories are depleted.”

Import bookings remain firm

FreightWaves SONAR’s booking index points to strong imports over the coming weeks. The index measures the trend in a portion of bookings from all overseas ports as of the scheduled departure date.

Scheduled bookings covered by the index were near their year-to-date high on Tuesday, up 36% from the recent low in early May and up 14% from the same time in 2019, pre-COVID. Given widely varying transit times from global loading ports, current bookings imply healthy import levels throughout August and into September.

Blue line: 2023 import bookings trend. Orange line: 2019 import bookings trend. (Chart: FreightWaves SONAR)

Click for more articles by Greg Miller 


The second annual F3: Future of Freight Festival will be held in Chattanooga, “The Scenic City,” this November. F3 combines innovation and entertainment — featuring live demos, industry experts discussing freight market trends for 2024, afternoon networking events, and Grammy Award-winning musicians performing in the evenings amidst the cool Appalachian fall weather.

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