The ongoing elevated state of United States-bound imports remained firmly intact in April, according to data issued this week by global trade intelligence firm Panjiva.
Total April U.S.-bound import shipments—at 1,188,688—headed up 5.3% annually and are up 25.3% on a year-to-date basis. And containerized freight imports—at 2,819,591 TEU (Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units) were up 25.5% annually and 27.6% year-to-date, following March’s 3,017,140 TEU, which marked the first time freight imports topped the 3 million TEU mark in a single month. Panjiva observed that the difference in April shipment and TEU growth was attributed to a surge of LCL shipments a year ago as PPE shipments got underway.
Even though containerized imports rose by an impressive 25.5% annually, it was well below March’s 51% annual gain, while posting a 19.3% annual gain compared to April 2019. The firm explained that the 2019 comparison represents that a fundamental improvement in activity, rather than early-pandemic comparisons, are tied to the increase and not a timing effect.
What’s more, Panjiva noted that on a daily basis, the number of TEU being handled fell 3.7%, from March to April, at 94,000 TEU per day, a 3.5% increase compared to the last peak season through November 30, 2020, and also serving as a sign that pressure on ports may be waning after a March peak.
On the product side, for April, Panjiva reported the following import numbers:
In terms of origin locations, Panjiva said that imports from China, including Hong Kong, were up 42.6% annually, and up 31% compared to April 2019, with imports out of Europe up 19.6% annually, a record high, and also up 17.8% compared to 2019.
Panjiva said that the disruptions from the Suez Canal in March may have contributed to April’s numbers, while rate increases recently implemented by major container lines serves as an indication that Transatlantic growth is likely to remain intact.
In an interview, Panjiva Research Director Chris Rogers explained that on a top level, even with April volumes down compared to March, import numbers remain close to historical levels.
“Despite lower volumes, retail sales numbers remain really strong, and demand is still there,” said Rogers. “That is something many retailers have been expecting and is why we are still seeing full vessels coming over [to the U.S.]. We are seeing a bit of a shift in the consumer discretion rate while there has still been an elevated level of demand for home goods like furniture and household appliances and also a pickup in leisure goods. As people gear up for summer, in tandem with the reopening of the U.S., that will continue as people want stuff for vacations and not just staying at home. There is a change in mix there.”
On the industrial side, Rogers said there are some elements related to the slowdown in the rate of growth, for things like electrical components and machinery, among others, even though the growth rate remains very high compared to historical levels, albeit slower compared to previous months.
“It may very well be that we are seeing the crest of the wave in some regards,” he said. “Clearly, we need to be careful with year-over-year comparisons, due to the timing of the pandemic more than a year ago. Looking ahead, April, May, and June are viewed as off-peak, with April certainly not off-peak. May remains too early to tell. Port congestion is reduced but still there to a certain extent, so that needs to be worked through.”
What’s more, Rogers pointed to how container shipping lines are still confidently keeping rates high, with Hapag-Lloyd recently announcing a general rate increase (GRI), which suggests they don’t see any kind of material slowdown before the end of the year. And ZIM said it expects growth for the full year to be quicker than it was in the first quarter, making it feel like more of the same.”
Looking ahead, Rogers said risk factors may come into play later in the year, with the full reopening of things like leisure activities, with spending later in the year more geared towards services, which, at some point, could lead to some sort of slowdown.
“That will need to be seen, if it happens, as the holidays are still six months out,” he said. “Inflation is very much on the agenda, which is leading some companies to say costs are getting too high and they will need to pass those costs on to consumers or start trimming some activity. Companies are going to have to make decisions about what to do about that.”