Despite concerns of a looming recession and the ongoing issues in container shipping, US imports have made a slow but steady recovery. Monthly imports are either at or above 2019 levels, depending on the data source used, and several ports have seen significant month-on-month gains. For example, the Port of New York/New Jersey surged by 19% in April compared to March. While still down 18% from a year ago, the trend is positive, with global volume data from ocean carriers showing the same upward trend as Descartes’ data.
China, which has been a major negative for US imports since September, has rebounded significantly in April, with US imports from China up 27% month on month. Vietnam was in a distant second, up 18,249 TEUs. However, the National Retail Federation (NRF) has issued a more cautious outlook, highlighting the declines versus the 2021-22 peak, the uncertainties ahead, and a reduced outlook for peak season. Global Port Tracker estimates April volumes will be 1,732,948 TEUs for the ports it covers, down 23% from April 2022, when volumes were inflated by the one-off COVID-era demand boom.
While the expectation is for a second-half rebound, there is little evidence yet of the destocking phase ending. Internal data from Maersk’s fourth-party logistics arm shows no bookings recovery at this point. As markets boomed in early 2021, multiple carriers predicted a normalization in the second half, which did not happen. In early 2022, as markets continued to boom, they predicted a normalization in the second half of that year. This time, they were right, but the decline was precipitous. The data suggests that US imports will remain roughly in line with 2019 levels through May and exceed pre-pandemic volumes in June-September. However, the situation is fluid, and no one knows for sure how things will ultimately play out.