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US ports ‘struggling to keep up’ amid more record imports

17/06/2021

With volumes up by more than a quarter on 2019 levels and with the traditional container shipping peak-season fast approaching, US west coast ports ‘will continue to face massive amounts of pressure’, says Bimco

With consumer demand staying strong and with the traditional container shipping peak-season fast approaching, US west coast ports already handling record-breaking volumes “will continue to face massive amounts of pressure” and “will have to continue to run fast if they are to stand any chance of keeping up”, according to shipping association Bimco.

 

Chief shipping analyst Peter Sand highlighted that the ports of San Pedro Bay on the US west coast – Los Angeles and Long Beach – have continued their record-breaking start to the year, “exceeding pre-pandemic records again and again”, with volumes in the first five months of this year up more than 26% on 2019 levels.

Bimco noted that “already under pressure to handle a throughput that has broken the pre-pandemic record every month for 11 months in a row, practically all ports in the US will have to continue to run fast to keep up, as peak season starts breathing down their necks”.

In May, loaded imports and total throughput in both ports broke their previous highs. In the Port of LA, 535,714 loaded TEU were imported, up from the previous record of 490,127 TEU. In Long Beach, 444,736 loaded TEU came in.

Empty exports record high

One flipside to the record high loaded imports are record-high empty exports, Bomco highlighted, with 675,429 TEUs leaving the two ports in May. That is five and a half times more than the 122,951 TEUs loaded exports in the same month, driven by a combination of US exports not recovering as fast as imports, and carriers looking for a quick turnaround time to get boxes back to Asia, Bimco noted.

Volumes up 26% on 2019 levels

In the first five months of this year the two ports have recorded a total throughput of 8.6m TEU – a 45.3% increase from the 5.9m TEU handled in the first five months of 2020, but also up by 1.8m TEU (26.5%) from the start of 2019, Bimco noted. Before the pandemic, the highest throughput ever recorded by the two ports was 1.5m TEU, which was recorded in July 2019. That milestone has now been surpassed for 11 consecutive months, Bimco pointed out.

While records are to be broken, the hectic pace at which container ships are arriving at the ports of San Pedro Bay – the sheer size of them and the current close-to-max utilisation of their cargo-carrying capacity – “is obviously causing congestion at multiple points throughput the global supply chain networks”, Bimco noted. “Making it more spectacular, is the fact that it has been going on for almost a year now.

“Container shipping networks are particularly stretched on the transpacific trade lane, and booming US retails sales gives reason to believe that the current state of ‘emergency’ is here to stay throughout the rest of the year – perhaps even for longer. By the end of May, Covid-19 related disruptions around the South China port of Yantian is just adding to the contingencies popping up anywhere along the trade lanes causing local events to have global repercussions.”

Sand commented: “Another month of record high retail sales in the US in May – when looked at on an unadjusted basis – suggests that as the US economy re-opens and services become more widely available, US demand for goods remain strong. Retailers are currently struggling to keep up and the delays on getting their goods shipped continues to cause severe disruption to just-in-time supply chains.”

“As long as consumer demand stays strong, the two ports in LA and others throughout the US, will continue to face massive amounts of pressure. Adding to this, with the traditional container shipping peak-season now fast approaching, the ports will have to continue to run fast if they are to stand any chance of keeping up.”

 

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