Several key US Atlantic and Gulf Coast ports are reporting record-high container throughput in 2022, despite a drop-off in demand at the end of the year.
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Port Houston, the Port of Savannah, South Carolina Ports and the Port of Virginia each broke volume records in 2022, despite weakened demand in November and December brought on by excess inventory and low buyer demand amid economic uncertainty, according to data released by the ports.
Port Houston handled 3,974,901 twenty-foot equivalent units during 2022—14% higher than 2021 numbers. With the high volumes came record-setting tonnage as well, with a 22% increase compared to the previous year.
While annual numbers were strong, December volumes were 12% less than those of December 2021. Port officials attributed the dip to "a softening of demand that mirrors other gateways across the country." As such, loaded container imports during December of 2022 decreased by 16% compared to December 2021.
Despite lowered demand, the port registered the strongest December for exports ever, notching a 7% year over year.
"The volumes we've experienced this year at Port Houston have been incredible, and we never wavered in our commitment to do our part to efficiently move cargo through our terminals," said Roger Guenther, executive director at Port Houston, in a statement.
The figures were published weeks before the port's new dwell fee, approved by the port's board in October, is set to go into effect on Feb. 1. The charge, which Port Authority Houston dubbed a "sustained import dwell fee," was supposed to go into effect in December but was postponed due to software issues.
Georgia Ports' Port of Savannah gained 5% in TEUs throughput in 2022 compared to record-setting 2021 with 5.9 million TEUs. Soft December volumes brought import volumes down by nearly 8% in 2022 compared with 2021.
"It was a challenging year, but collaborative effort across Georgia's supply chain ensured cargo movement remained fluid," said Georgia Port Authority Executive Director Griff Lynch, in a press release.
December was the second month in a row for the port to have decreases in both import and export volumes. Trade volumes peaked in August with a record-setting high of 575,500 TEUs. Tonnage tracked by the Georgia Port Authority also increased by 2% from 2021, reaching 42.4 million mt in 2022.
South Carolina Ports
SC ports handled just under 2.8 million TEUs during 2022, for an increase of 1.5% against the prior year.
"South Carolina's excellent port team and maritime community efficiently handled record cargo volumes and expertly navigated supply chain challenges to keep freight moving for our customers," South Carolina Ports President and CEO Barbara Melvin said in a statement.
Like many ports, December volumes came under pressure as year-end demand fell short of expectations. SC ports moved 219,351 TEU in December, a decline of just under 11% against the year.
Port of Virginia
The total throughput for the Port of Virginia increased by 5.1% between 2021 and 2022, after a 25.2% jump from 2020 to 2021. Amid the annual growth, the port saw a 16% decrease in December 2022 TEU volumes compared to the same month in 2021.
Even as the port saw an increase in throughput, it had 3.1% fewer vessels calling during the year, pointing to larger tonnage being deployed on the Far East-to-US Atlantic Coast trade amid strong demand during the first half of the year.
Weak year-end rates amid high annual volumes
Even with the record-setting annual volumes, East Coast import rates have plummeted throughout the year.
Platts Container Rate 5, which follows ex-Asian shipments bound for ECNA, fell nearly 74% throughout the year. The rate entered 2022 at $10,900/FEU, peaked at $12,000/FEU in March and fell steadily beginning in the second quarter through the end of the year to land at $2,850/FEU on Dec. 30.
Trans-Atlantic shipments on PCR9 also saw decreases, moving from $7,200/FEU at the beginning of the year to settle at $5,900/FEU, an 18% dip. Both routes fared better than West Coast import rates from North Asia, which fell more than 85%, or $8,150, throughout the year.