U.S. container import volume was up nearly 10% in December compared to the same month last year and continued to trend higher than pre-pandemic levels through peak shipping season, according to the latest Global Shipping Report by Descartes Systems Group. The report showed no impacts from Red Sea shipping disruptions through December, but impacts could start to be felt this month.
The report revealed that December 2023 U.S. container import volumes reached a total of 2.1 million TEUs, representing a 9.2% increase compared to December 2022 and a 10.6% growth compared to pre-pandemic December 2019. Compared to November 2023, growth was a more modest at 0.4%.
The numbers bring total U.S. import volumes in 2023 to 4.6% of 2019 totals and a decline of 11.7% compared to 2022, when the pandemic-fueled surge imports surge finally ran out of steam.
While there was a slight overall increase in month-over-month aggregate volume at ports, Descartes’ report highlighted counterintuitive swings in coastal performance. The top East and Gulf Coast ports saw increases, driven by significant volume growth at the Port of Houston, while the top West Coast ports experienced decreases, particularly at the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. As a result, East and Gulf Coast ports increased their share of U.S. container imports to nearly 45%, while top West Coast ports saw a decrease in market share to 39.7%.
Somewhat surprisingly, the drought in the Panama Canal did not seem to affect U.S. container import volume at East and Gulf Coast ports in December, with volumes recovering after a large drop in December.
Port delay times increased nearly across the board in December, but particularly at Gulf Coast ports where the Port of Houston experienced the greatest container volume increase (30%) over November.
“December was a solid month and it’s fair to say that U.S. import container volume over the year was beyond what the market anticipated last January,” said Chris Jones, EVP Industry Descartes. “The impact of the drought in Panama did not appear to impact Gulf Coast ports volumes in December, but transit times did grow considerably in the region. Now we have the conflict in the Middle East affecting transit through the Suez Canal and U.S import container import volumes could be impacted starting in January.”
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