The state of elevated United States-bound imports and shipments remained intact in December, making 2021 a record-setting year, according to data recently issued by global trade intelligence firm Panjiva.
Total December U.S.-bound containerized freight imports—at 2,666,164 TEU (Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units)—were off 1.9% compared to November and were down 0.5% annually. Despite these declines, Panjiva observed that total 2021 containerized freight imports set a new annual record, rising 15% over 2020, to 32,970,647 TEU, with Panjiva noting that this tally showed how 2021 imports made up for 2020’s down year, due, in large part, to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Looking at U.S.-bound shipments, Panjiva reported that December shipments—at 1,333,700—saw a 6.6% increase over November and a 10.9% annual increase. For calendar year 2021, shipments posted a 16.6% annual gain, to 14,709,654.
As freight imports slowed somewhat to end 2021, Panjiva explained that the slowdown aligns U.S. imports back to the long-term trend seen in previous years and could serve as a sign that “some amount of normalcy is returning.” What’s more, it noted that 2021 imports on balance were what it called “unseasonably high” for most of the year and subsequently putting pressure on capacity and resulting in decreased levels of service.
“Importers faced lengthening lead times and shipping costs, coupled with rising shipping rates as they worked to get seaborne imports into the country,” Panjiva said.
Panjiva Research Director Eric Oak said in an interview that when looking at how imports and shipments finished the year, it is important to remember and consider season trends, in that the numbers tend to decline towards the end of the year and into January and February.
“It is hard to disentangle the pure seasonal effect from the noise, or congestion,” he said. “But it is interesting that we are starting to get back to somewhat of a more ‘seasonal’ pattern. We are still at high levels, and 2021 was a record year, but it does seem like things are progressing or returning to the mean….coming back to what we expect, despite these overarching [supply chain] problems. Whether that means we are returning to normal, or this is the new normal, will be a question for later this year or next year.”
Panjiva highlighted how 2021 continued to show how U.S. consumers shifted their consumption habits from services to durables, driven by the pandemic and also spending more time at home, too. But this, by no stretch, offered up any type of logistics networks relief, as the need to produce, move, and deliver goods did not abate. And it added that this situation could be viewed as a contributing factor for inflation growth—when compared to services—as goods can suffer from scarcity more so than services that are able to, in theory, scale up through the usage of more virtual or distributed resources.
As for if 2022 may resemble something more akin the 2019, the last full pre-pandemic year, Oak said it remains too early to tell.
“We are still seeing imports fall a little and don’t know where that is going to end up,” he said. “The first time we are going to see and get a better idea is probably the Lunar New Year holiday, in terms of whether we are up or down based on previous baselines. If we are somewhere in the middle, that would suggest a return to kind of a more standard environment and patterns that we are used to…but, again, it is too early to tell if the American consumer as a whole is going to kind of flip back to the more services-driven spending.”
Looking at imports for specific sectors, Panjiva reported the following for calendar year 2021: