Photo courtesy Georgia Ports Authority

U.S. Imports: East-West Cargo Gap Widens in August

Mike Schuler
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September 23, 2022

With U.S. port data from August trickling in, we’re getting greater insight into the West to East cargo shift that continues to play out in the United States.

A new report from industry veteran John McCown, founder of Blue Alpha Capital, does an excellent job at dissecting the August data from the top ten U.S. ports. The report shows that total inbound cargo volumes to the United States were flat in August (0.0%) compared to the same month last year. This compares to a 0.2% yoy decline in July and well below the 5.0% gain in June.

Considering forecasts had been calling for volumes to decline starting in August, flat performance is pretty good.

August’s overall inbound volume, at more than 2.1 million TEUs, was actually the fifth highest monthly volume ever and 4.8% above the average monthly volume since the summer of 2020 when the pandemic-fueled imports surge began.

East-West Cargo Gap

Perhaps the most striking takeaway from August was the difference in performance between East and Gulf Coast ports and those on the West Coast.

As we have reported recently, the East/Gulf Coast ports of New York/New Jersey, Savannah and Houston all recorded strong year-over-year gains in August, while Los Angeles and Long Beach on the West Coast reported falling volumes (Long Beach saw a slight increase in overall volumes due to empty exports, but imports were down yoy).

To further illustrate this shift, the Port of New York and New Jersey, which typically ranks as the third busiest U.S. port behind Los Angeles and Long Beach, reported the highest total throughput in the country in August.

Credit: Blue Alpha Capital

McCown’s report shows inbound cargo volumes at East/Gulf Coast ports were up 17% compared to the average from the previous 26 months, while West Coast ports were 7.5% below. The coastal gap in August, at 23.5%, was the fifteenth straight month where the year over year percent changes in volume at East/Gulf Coast ports outperformed West Coast ports, and the second highest during that same period, according to McCown. The gap was primarily driven by a sharp drop in inbound volumes at Los Angeles and, to a lesser extent, Long Beach.

To put it simply, East and Gulf Coast ports are increasingly picking up volumes that West Coast ports are losing. And if you pull the charts back, you’ll see West Coast ports have been losing market share (as a % of the total inbound cargo) relatively consistently since 2016, coinciding with the opening of the expanded Panama Canal.

Credit: Blue Alpha Capital

“Since mid-2021 there has been a more pronounced move away from the West Coast as shippers redirected container routings to minimize the effect of widely reported delays related to congestion. There has been some recovery from the December 2021 low point in the early part of 2022. However, the figures have returned to a downtrend since March and are now at record lows,” McCown writes.

More on this and other insights from August can be found in John McCown’s full report.

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