Port of Los Angeles Forecasts Strong Import Volumes in 2021

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Five and a half months into the surge in import cargo volume, the Port of Los Angeles continues to see strong volumes exceeding the traditional seasonality. The port projects that the strong volumes will continue well into 2021, while it, however, notes that export volumes remain depressed.

It is unusual to see the level of growth in imports this late in the calendar year the port says, citing warehouse and inventory replenishment as well as late holiday season orders as contributing to the strong volumes. The Port of Los Angeles has experienced four consecutive months of growth driven by the import surge helping it to report a better than 20 percent increase in container volume in November.

“Since August, monthly cargo volume has averaged almost 930,000 TEUs,” said Port of Los Angeles Executive Director Gene Seroka. “With consumers continuing to stay at home and purchase goods rather than services, we expect robust activity on our docks to continue for at least several months.” 

The growth in volumes in the second half of 2020 permitted the port to recover from the strong declines experienced in the spring. Year-to-date, overall cargo volume is three percent lower compared to 2019. The first five months of 2020 cargo had plummeted nearly 19 percent compared to last year.

Using data from the port’s enhance traffic management tools, Seroka forecast that the port would end 2020 down around one percent versus 2019. So far in December, volumes have been very strong and they forecast the month could be 17 percent ahead of last year. January 2021 could be a further five percent up over a strong January 2020. With retailers forecasting strong imports, Los Angeles expects it could see growth until at least the traditional pause at the beginning of March related to Chinese New Year. 

While import volumes have been surging, the port reports that export volumes have dropped in 23 of the last 25 months. Exports were down more than five percent in November with the port citing the continued trade tensions with China and the strength of the US dollar, which makes US exports expensive. Further highlighting the weakness in exports, the port reported that the volume in empty containers leaving the port, which are in high demand in Asia, was twice that of exports in November.

The strong volumes are creating some well-publicized challenges for the operations. In November, 88 cargo vessels arrived at the port, including nine unscheduled trips added by carriers due to the strong demand. 

On the last day of the month, 12 cargo ships were waiting at anchorage with 100,000 TEUs that had been forecast in the November volume but delayed into December. The port said 50 of the 88 vessels in November had to anchor before they could get to dock. So far in December, 80 percent of the arrivals have had to wait at anchor an average of four days due to congestion at the terminals and in the port.

Seroka added, “To help stakeholders manage the cargo influx, the port has introduced new data tools for asset planning, provided additional land for chassis and containers, and is working with cargo owners large and small to prioritize their shipments.” He reported that they had made an effort to get holiday shipments, including the delayed toys and gift containers, out of the port. 

The port is also looking at space utilization and working on an incentive plan for the terminals and truckers for 2021 all designed to respond to and manage the volumes that they expect to remain strong in 2021.

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