US container imports still rising, topping pre-COVID levels

Peak season demand propelled imports higher in September, although softening spot rates point to a fourth-quarter slowdown.

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There has been no shortage of doom and gloom about the “plunge” in U.S. imports this year. And yet, the numbers still don’t show anything to be particularly gloomy about.

U.S. imports have been rising month on month since February. They were up sequentially yet again in September, according to data released Tuesday by Descartes Systems Group (NASDAQ: DSGX).

Descartes said the U.S. imported 2,203,452 twenty-foot equivalent units in September. That’s up 0.3% versus August and up 27% from the low point in February amid Chinese New Year.

(Chart: Descartes. Data source: Descartes Datamyne)

U.S. imports over the first nine months of 2023 were 2.5% higher than in the same period in 2019, pre-COVID, according to Descartes’ data. They were up 4.6% compared to the same period in 2018 and 11.4% versus January-September 2017.

This September’s imports significantly exceeded pre-pandemic levels: up 8% from the same month in 2019, 9% from 2018 and 15.5% from 2017. Normally, volumes decline in September compared to August. This year, they held firm.

(Chart: FreightWaves based on data from Descartes Datamyne)

Indeed, this year’s import numbers only look bad if you compare them to inflated levels seen during the one-off COVID-era shipping boom of 2021-2022. Negative sentiment based on such comparisons may stem from recency bias: the tendency to overemphasize the importance of recent events when estimating future events.

Imports from China building back up

According to Descartes’ data, which is based on customs filings, September saw significant month-on-month import losses at ports in Los Angeles and New York/New Jersey, offset by significant sequential gains in Long Beach, California, and Tacoma, Washington.

Inbound volumes from China continued to be the primary driver of sequential growth — despite all the talk of nearshoring and supply chain diversification.

U.S. imports from China — at 866,762 TEUs — accounted for 39.3% of total imports in September and were up 4.2% versus August. September imports from China were the highest since August 2022, according to Descartes’ data.

(Chart: FreightWaves based on data from Descartes Datamyne)

Asia-US spot rates have retreated

Declining trans-Pacific spot rates likely signal that volumes will weaken in the fourth quarter, as they would seasonally in any normal, nonpandemic year.

Spot rates logged double-digit gains between late June and mid-August (albeit off very low levels), giving container lines hope that post-boom returns might be less painful than expected. That hope faded as spot rates retreated. Spot rates sank in late August and throughout September before stabilizing at lower levels in October.

The Freightos Baltic Daily Index (FBX) assessed China-East Coast spot rates at $2,239 per forty-foot equivalent unit on Friday, down 24% from Aug. 17 and up only 2% from June 30.

The West Coast lane has fared better. FBX’s China-West Coast index was at $1,508 per FEU on Friday, down 17% from Aug. 17 but still up 26% versus June 30.

Spot rate in USD per FEU. Blue line: China-East Coast. Green line: China-West Coast. (Chart: FreightWaves SONAR)

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