Boom times not over yet: U.S. container ports still near highs

photo of the Port of Long BeachMay was one of the busiest months in history for the container ports of Long Beach and Charleston.

photo of the Port of Long Beach

There may be doom and gloom about the future, but America’s ports are still posting historically high numbers for the recent past. The ports of Long Beach, California, and Charleston, South Carolina, just reported exceptionally strong throughputs for May.

Long Beach had total throughput of 890,989 twenty-foot equivalent units, the second best tally ever, topped only by May 2021.

Imports totaled 436,977 TEUs, again the second highest except for May 2021. Imports last month were more than 30% above pre-pandemic levels in May 2018 and May 2019. 

chart showing monthly imports at the Port of Long Beach
Photo: American Shipper based on data from the Port of Long Beach

The neighboring Port of Los Angeles will report May numbers in the coming days. A spokesperson told American Shipper that it was “a great month” with throughput “well north of 900,000 TEUs.”

On the East Coast, Charleston handled 255,104 TEUs in May, up 11% year on year. It was the port’s third highest total in history, topped only by March 2022 (264,334 TEUs) and April 2022 (264,099 TEUs).

Chart: American Shipper based on data from South Carolina Ports Authority

Ports working through ship queues

Offshore queues of waiting container ships fell at many ports in May. Ship-position data from MarineTraffic showed over 30 ships stuck waiting off Charleston in late February. On Friday, there were none (although queues remained high off New York/New Jersey and Savannah, Georgia, at 24 and 16 ships, respectively).

Over the course of last month, as both Long Beach and Los Angeles handled strong import volumes, the number of container ships waiting offshore fell from 44 to 30, a drop of 32%.

Chart: American Shipper based on data from Marine Exchange of Southern California

The ongoing process of bringing down the offshore backlog should continue to support Long Beach and Los Angeles import volumes this month.

On Thursday, there were 20 container ships waiting, according to the Marine Exchange of Southern California. (In 2021, queues fell in February through late June, as they have thus far year, then headed back up again.)

What’s next?

On Wednesday, Henry Byers, head of ocean intelligence for FreightWaves, wrote that “U.S. import demand is falling off a cliff,” citing a FreightWaves SONAR index showing a sharp decline in bookings for U.S. imports over recent weeks (based on scheduled day of departure).

Chart: FreightWaves SONAR.

Nevertheless, some port and retail reps predict strong imports in the coming months. And there are dozens of remaining ships waiting off all three coasts that still need to be unloaded, which should support import volumes until queues are cleared.

According to Mario Cordero, executive director of the Port of Long Beach, “We are moving an extraordinary amount of cargo. Looking ahead, we are ready for the traditional summertime surge to coincide with China’s recovery from a lengthy port lockdown.”

Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain at the National Retail Federal (NRF), predicted, “We’re in for a busy summer at the ports. Back-to-school supplies are already arriving, and holiday merchandise will be right behind them.”

The NRF does not foresee a plunge in imports. On the contrary, it expects imports in June-October to rise 2% versus the same five months last year. Following 2.26 million TEUs of imports in April, it projects 2.31 million in May, 2.31 million in June, 2.3 million in July, 2.28 million in August, 2.13 million in September and 2.13 million in October.

Chart: American Shipper based on data from NRF Port Tracker

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