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US container imports follow pre-pandemic trends

Photo: Port of New York and New Jersey A vessel approaches a bridge
US container imports in April 2023 were significantly higher than the previous month, tracing trends seen in the pre-pandemic market.

Imports were 9.0% higher in April 2023 than in March 2023 as volumes from China increased, according to a report from Descartes. April volumes in 2023 were down 17.8% on-year as the normalisation of the market which unfolded in the second half of 2022 continues to show in monthly figures and on-year comparisons.

Imports from China were were 26.7% higher on-month at 742,692 teu, accounting for 36.8% of March US container imports.

Descartes noted a return to pre-pandemic seasonality over the first four months of 2023, with imports tracking 2019 levels within a 1.5% margin.

Among the top 10 US ports, imports were up 10.9% overall, led by a 54,466 teu or 19.3% increase at the Port of New York/New Jersey, followed by Savannah with a 24,923 teu or 14.6% increase.

“This growth is somewhat counterintuitive given that China volumes increased dramatically which should favor West Coast ports,” said Descartes.

The report also noted that large ports continue to take market share from smaller ports.

Usual container traffic seasonality was disrupted across the globe by the pandemic and extended by the widespread congestion across supply chains. Delays at ports continue to improve, said the report, with average transit delays falling for all of the top 10 ports and reaching the lowest levels since at least 2021.

US import volumes began to rise sharply in the second half of 2020 – bucking the usual trend of softening from around August. Volumes stayed at inflated levels before falling back in the second half of 2022; by November, imports had reached levels close to those seen before the pandemic.