In its newly-released March Global Shipping Report, Waterloo, Ontario-based Descartes, a provider of logistics based on-demand, software-as-a-service offerings, highlighted a significant decline in U.S.-bound container import volumes, from January to February, while remaining in line with 2019 pre-pandemic volumes.
This is the 20th edition of the Global Shipping Report, going back to its debut in August 2021.
For the month of February, Descartes observed that U.S. container volumes—at 1,734,272 TEU (Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units)—were off 16.2% compared to January, while falling 25.0% annually, and down 0.3% compared to February 2019 prior to the pandemic. Descartes noted that there were a few factors at play when looking at the February tally, including how February has three fewer days, at 28, compared to January’s 31, as well as the timing of China’s Lunar New Year in January and its expected impact on container import volumes in the late February and early March timeframe. What’s more, the decline in imports, from January to February, was at its highest percentage over the last seven years, save for February 2020, at the onset of the pandemic, with a 17.9% decline.
“Examining imports from January and February in the previous six years, February 2023 volumes would have been expected to be significantly lower than January 2023,” said Chris Jones, EVP Industry at Descartes, in a statement. “Declining container import volumes but rising port transit times demonstrate that, while 2023 volumes resemble 2019, global supply chain performance could remain uneven in 2023.”
The report also observed that even though imports fell in February, port transit delays were up for the top West, East and Gulf Coast ports, adding that Chinese imports also fell along with the rest of the top countries of origin. Other factors it cited included how COVID continues to be a factor and the West Coast labor situation remains unresolved.
Looking at sequential volume performance for individual ports, Descartes reported that February import volumes, for the top 10 U.S. ports, fell by a collective 296,390 TEU, with all ports posting declines, with the exception of the Port of Tacoma, which posted an 8%, or 4,169 TEU, improvement. The Port of Los Angeles saw the steepest sequential import decline, down 32%, or 118,442 TEU.
From a volume share perspective, the report found that volume share, for the top East Coast and West Coast ports, was relatively stable. And in comparing the top five West Coast ports with the top five East and Gulf Coast ports, from January to February, Descartes found that, for total import volume, East and Gulf Coast ports rose to 48.6%, for a 1.6% boost over January 2023, with West Coast ports falling 2.8%, to 36.0%, marking its lowest share over the last year, for West Coast ports.
The report added that when comparing to top 10 U.S. ports to smaller ports, top 10 ports market share fell to 82.8% of all volume, down from January’s 84.0, as market share for the top 10 ports “has been steadily declining since mid-2022 with February 2023 also being the lowest share in the last year,” the report said.
In a recent interview, Descartes’ Jones noted that a return to 2019 volume levels, which was also the case in January, which was up 7.2% compared to December, was somewhat both encouraging and expected.
“The general sentiment, especially when you look at things like how people have been [forecasting] the economy, in particular, has been more pessimistic,” he said. “But if you look at where the economy has been over the last two quarters, we have had GDP growth, with the fourth quarter at 2.9%, which is solid.”