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August Container Trade Rose at West Coast Ports

10/3/2013 9:24:01 AM

West Coast ports in August enjoyed a welcome bump in container traffic after seven months of lackluster performance this year. The volume of loaded import containers increased 3 percent in August year-over-year, and exports were up 2 percent.

The performance was uneven, however, with most of the growth occurring at the California ports. Total container volume in Los Angeles-Long Beach increased 6 percent compared to August 2012, and Oakland was up 5 percent. However, the Seattle-Tacoma gateway experienced a large drop in August, with total loaded inbound and outbound containers down 13 percent year-over-year.

According to numbers published Oct. 1 by the Pacific Maritime Association, a similar trend has been under way all year. Both Los Angeles-Long Beach and Oakland are up 2 percent year-to-date through August. Seattle-Tacoma is down 2 percent year-to-date. Portland was up 3 percent in the first eight months of the year, but from a smaller base.

One possible explanation is that carriers are deploying their largest vessels in the Pacific Southwest services, which normally call at Los Angeles-Long Beach inbound and Oakland outbound. Those vessels have capacities ranging from 10,000 to 13,000 20-foot container units. The lines are also deploying post-Panamax vessels in the Pacific Northwest, but the vessels are not quite as large as in the Pacific Southwest services.

The total volume growth in containerized imports and exports at West Coast ports year-to-date through August is an unspectacular 1 percent. Imports are up 2 percent and exports are down 1 percent. The imports reflect the slow growth in the U.S. economy, while the drop in containerized exports is a result of the lengthy recession in Europe and a slowdown in China’s economy.

A somewhat unusual occurrence this year is that total container volume in Prince Rupert is down 2.7 percent year-to-date though August. That port on Canada’s Pacific coast, which looks to the U.S. market for about two-thirds of its container volume, had been significantly outperforming U.S. ports since its Fairview Container Terminal opened in November 2007. Consistent double-digit growth at Prince Rupert was the norm until this year.

If the import growth that U.S. West Coast ports experienced in August continues for the next few months, the peak season this year could be better than anticipated. August was easily the best month for imports. Containerized imports were 4 percent higher than in May, which was the second-busiest month of 2013 for imports.

Exports, which had been languishing much of the year, experienced a small increase of 2 percent compared to August 2012, and were up 8 percent from July 2013. Containerized exports normally do well in the fall and early winter, peaking in March, so the best months may still be ahead.

The Journal of Commerce


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