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Modest growth expected for US imports from Asia after record-setting 2021

US imports from Asia set a new record in 2021, jumping 14.4 percent over the previous record set in 2020. Photo credit: Shutterstock.com.

US imports from Asia in December fell marginally year over year, signaling that the largest US trade lane has likely entered a period of single-digit gains in monthly cargo volumes after ending a year in which Asian imports set a new record by jumping 14.4 percent over 2020.

But even single-digit year-over-year monthly growth, as retailers forecast will be the norm, will continue to aggravate the vessel bunching and inland transportation problems experienced throughout the US supply chain.

The record 18.97 million TEU of Asian imports in 2021 surpassed the then-record 16.6 million TEU record set in 2020, according to PIERS, a JOC.com sister product within IHS Markit.

US imports from Asia in December were up 8 percent from November, but down 0.3 percent compared with December 2020. Imports registered huge monthly year-over-year gains in the first half of 2021 because they were measured against a first half of 2020 in which imports were ravaged by COVID-19 supply chain interruptions. Imports surged in the second half of 2020, so year-over-year monthly comparisons in the second half of 2021 showed more modest gains.

That scenario is likely to be repeated at least into the second quarter this year. According to Global Port Tracker, which is published monthly by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates, year over year imports are forecast to increase 9 percent in January, 7.3 percent in February, and then decline 3.3 percent in the post-Lunar-New Year month of March before growing 2.2 percent in April.

Import growth lags at ports with vessel bunching

PIERS indicates that gateways experiencing the largest vessel backlogs last fall — including Los Angeles-Long Beach, the Northwest Seaport Alliance (NWSA) of Seattle and Tacoma, Savannah, and Oakland — underperformed ports such as New York-New Jersey, Houston, Norfolk, and Charleston that experienced less supply chain congestion.

Imports from Asia in December fell 10.8 percent in Los Angeles-Long Beach and 19.5 percent in the NWSA, while increasing 6.8 percent in Savannah and 1.9 percent in Oakland compared with December 2020. In contrast, imports surged 20.9 percent in New York-New Jersey, 41.8 percent in Houston, 26.1 percent in Norfolk, and 22.2 percent in Charleston last month.

Regional market share of Asia imports was little changed in 2021. The West Coast’s market share declined to 60.2 percent from 60.9 percent in 2020, the East Coast’s share increased to 33.4 percent from 33.3 percent, and the Gulf Coast increased to 6 percent from 5.4 percent.