Container Traffic at U.S. Ports Suggests Manufacturing Rebound

A bump in import activity at U.S. seaports suggests that consumer confidence could be on the rise.

One of the key leading indicators of economic growth is activity at the major U.S. ports. While the amount of goods imported into the U.S. only tells part of the story (goods exported gives a clearer picture as to the balance of trade), it offers a look at the state of consumer confidence in the country.

According to the monthly Global Port Tracker report, which is produced for the National Retail Federation (NRF) by consulting firm Hackett Associates, the major U.S. retail ports handled 1.04 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) in February. That represented a drop of 16% from the number of containers handled in January, and a 5.7% drop from February 2011. Ports included in the study are: Los Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle on the West Coast; New York/New Jersey, Hampton Roads, Charleston and Savannah on the East Coast; and Houston on the Gulf Coast.

However, the Global Port Tracker estimates that traffic rebounded in March 2012 to 1.19 million TEUs, which would be a 9.6% jump from the previous year. For the first six months of 2012, total import volumes at the retail ports should be up 2.2% compared to the same period a year ago.

Retailers are continuing to watch rising gas prices, but job gains and other indicators show the economy is strengthening, says Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy with the NRF. All of this should improve consumer confidence and lead to increased spending, so retailers are cautiously building up their inventories, which would be welcome news indeed for manufacturers.

In a separate study of imports that focuses on commodities at all U.S. ports, Zepol is reporting that import shipment volumes in March were up 11.9% from February, and were up 2.6% in TEUs for the first quarter of 2012, compared to the same quarter a year ago. Zepol is also reporting that Q1 of 2012 has outperformed first-quarter numbers for the past three years.

In terms of total number of shipments, plastics and rubber products led the way in March 2012 with 87,646 TEUs, with textiles in second place with 82,914 TEUs. No other import category exceeded 50,000 TEUs.

When measured by percentage of change, autos and parts had the biggest change from March 2011, being up 22%. Furniture imports were up 20%. The only category studied by Zepol that was down in the year-over-year study was textiles, which declined 4% from March 2011.

All told, import activity had its biggest gains in March 2012 at the West Coast ports, where imports were up 12.65% over the previous year. Activity was also up at the East Coast ports, by 2.8%. Gulf Coast ports were virtually flat, with activity down 0.01%. At all other ports, activity was down 5.2%.

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