Shipping costs expected to rise amid political turmoil

Import cargo volume at the nation’s major retail container ports is expected to grow 11% in March, compared with the same month a year ago, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.

“These numbers show solid increases over last year and are evidence that our nation’s economic recovery is continuing to build momentum,” said Jonathan Gold, VP supply chain and customs policy at NRF. “Increases in imports are a clear sign that retailers expect sales to continue to climb in the next several months.”

But the climb in imports may soon be accompanied by a rise in shipping costs due to political turmoil in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and elsewhere, according to Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett.

“Oil supply is going down as a number of nations have dropped out of the production cycle,” Hackett said. “Freight rates have been decreasing, but that will not last long as fuel costs are factored in.”

U.S. ports followed by Global Port Tracker handled 1.2 million Twenty-foot Equivalent Units in January, the latest month for which actual numbers are available. (One TEU is one 20-foot cargo container or its equivalent.) That was up 5% from December and 12% from January 2010. It was the 14th month in a row to show a year-over-year improvement after December 2009 broke a 28-month streak of year-over-year declines.

February, traditionally the slowest month of the year, was estimated at 1.12 million TEU, which would represent an increase of 12% over February 2010. March is forecast at 1.19 million TEU, up 11% from a year ago.  

The first half of 2011 is forecast at 7.5 million TEU, up 9% from the first half of 2010. For the full year, 2010 totaled 14.7 million TEU, a 16% increase over 2009. Last year’s percentages were high because 2009’s 12.7 million TEU was the lowest level seen since 2003.