April Global Shipping Update: Import Volumes Increase Significantly at West Coast Ports
As the second quarter of 2023 unfolds, U.S. economic uncertainty continues to cast its shadow across the supply chain. While inflation appears to be decelerating, interest rates are still high and the political impasse over raising the federal debt ceiling is cause for concern, with the potential to send shock waves through global financial markets if the government defaults. In the midst of this volatile economic landscape, importers and logistics service providers (LSPs) continue to grapple with lingering supply chain challenges.
IMPORT VOLUMES REMAIN ON 2019 TRACK
Largely driven by activity at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, U.S. container import volumes increased significantly in March 2023, rising 6.9% from February 2023 to 1,853,705 TEUs (Figure 1) and keeping the monthly trendline aligned with pre-pandemic 2019 volumes. While volume was down compared to March 2022 (27.5% drop in TEU volume), imports were still up 4.2% from pre-pandemic March 2019.
When evaluating container import volumes, it’s worth noting that March 2023 numbers may be influenced by multiple factors, including the longer duration of the month (31 days vs. 28 days in February) and the potential lingering impact of January’s Chinese Lunar New Year holiday on early March import volumes.
Figure 1: U.S. Container Import Volume Year-over-Year Comparison
Source: Descartes Datamyne™
WEST COAST PORTS MAKE GAINS
Compared to February 2023, container import volumes for the Top 10 U.S. ports in March 2023 increased 98,379 TEUs (Figure 2). The West Coast ports made strong gains at the expense of the smaller ports, with the Port of Los Angeles experiencing the greatest overall container volume increase (30%), followed by the Port of Long Beach (25%).
The surge in volume at West Coast ports seems counterintuitive given that import volumes from China continued their downward trend—declining 7.4% from February 2023 and down 41.6% from the August 2022 high—and no country had a spike in commodities or exports to the U.S. from February to March. In addition, importers have likely been shifting freight away from the West Coast ports due to the uncertainty of the ongoing—and still unresolved—contract negotiations with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).
Figure 2: February to March Comparison of Import Volumes at Top 10 U.S. Ports
Source: Descartes Datamyne™
Notably, for the top 10 countries of origin, U.S. box import volume increased 2.5% (30,257 TEUs) in March, with Italy (50%), Thailand (39%) and South Korea (23%) experiencing the greatest percentage increases.
PORT TRANSIT DELAYS STABILIZE
Despite the increase in container import volume, port transit delays stabilized for all ports. Overall port transit delays in March 2023 were consistent with February 2023, with transit times at the major East and Gulf Coast ports remaining slightly lower than at major West Coast ports (Figure 3).
Figure 3: Monthly Average Transit Delays (in days) for the Top 10 Ports
Note: Descartes’ definition of port transit delay is the difference as measured in days between the Estimated Arrival Date, which is initially declared on the bill of lading, and the date when Descartes receives the CBP-processed bill of lading.
ONGOING CHALLENGES HINDER TRADE FLOW
Despite the March data showing consistency with pre-pandemic import volume seasonality, lingering supply chain issues continue to hamper the efficient flow of goods. While the situation has improved since the start of the year, COVID continues to impact manufacturing supply chains, especially in China where companies are still dealing with the fallout of the country’s sudden zero-COVID exit this past December.
The ILWU contract negotiations continue to drag on, with the two sides seemingly no closer to bridging the gap on their disagreements. While there has been little impact on container processing to date, tensions are rising and there are calls to bring in the federal government to assist in the negotiations to resolve the issue.
On the regulatory front, California’s AB5 labor law remains a significant hurdle for logistics and transportation providers, with big implications for truckers at U.S. ports. With no resolution in sight, the potential for AB5 protests—akin to the demonstrations at the Port of Oakland last July that lead to a 28% drop in processed cargo containers—remains a concern.
With cuts to oil production and the war in Ukraine propelling energy prices higher, elevated gasoline costs—a significant contributor to high inflation rates—remain a challenge for importers and LSPs. Indeed, the price of gasoline increased slightly to $3.50 per gallon, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, although it was down $0.63 per gallon from the same time in 2022.
And while the decline in the cost of diesel is good news—decreasing slightly to $4.11 per gallon and down $1.04 per gallon from March 2022—the cost of both fuels is likely to remain elevated for the foreseeable future given the disruption of global energy markets.
TIPS TO MITIGATE ONGOING SHIPPING DISRUPTIONS
While the pressure on supply chains and logistics operations continues to ease, ongoing issues have the capacity to cause further disruptions as the second quarter of 2023 unfolds. To manage supply chain turbulence, importers and LSPs should review their supply chain strategies to identify opportunities to mitigate risk and moderate supply chain variability.
In the short term, logistics companies should keep a close eye on ILWU contract negotiations, potential AB5-related port disruptions or decline in port container processing performance, and the spread of any new COVID variants, especially in China, that might impact manufacturing supply chains.
Given the current economic unpredictability, importers and LSPs should focus on retaining existing supply chain resources, especially drivers. While wage increases are important, building trips to reduce stress and improve quality of life for drivers is equally important for increasing driver retention.
To improve supply chain velocity and reliability, logistics companies should seek out less congested transportation lanes, including alternative entry lanes through northern and southern borders and inland ports. While total transit time is a valid consideration, supply chain predictability is especially valuable during times of economic uncertainty.
Thinking long-term, importers and LSPs should implement strategies to mitigate the risk of another logistics capacity crisis down the road. Companies may consider evaluating supplier and factory location density to minimize reliance on over-taxed trade lanes and geographical regions that have the potential for conflict.
Overall, the March U.S. container import data points to less pressure on supply chains and logistics operations, with box import volumes tracking to 2019 levels and port transit delays remaining constant despite significant volume increases at West Coast ports. Yet, despite a degree of relief from the logistical challenges that choked operations during the height of the pandemic, several current issues may cause further disruptions and threaten global supply chain performance in 2023.
COVID continues to impact available supply chain and logistics resources and operations globally, increasing supply chain performance variability, while labor-related issues such as the unresolved ILWU contract negotiations and California’s AB5 law threaten West Coast port operations.
Although the latest Consumer Price Index report (February 2023) shows a gradual decline in inflation, the rate is still high—driving a rolling recession and continued economic uncertainty in the U.S.; diesel prices continue to decline, but gas prices have risen slightly and remain elevated due to the Russia/Ukraine conflict. By monitoring these key economic and logistics factors closely, importers and LSPs can heighten supply chain resilience to mitigate risk and strengthen operational and financial performance moving forward.