Led by Los Angeles, top U.S. ports announce huge increase in February throughput

Photo Credit: Georgia Ports Authority

March 21, 2024–U.S. ports continued to show large increases in throughput in February, furthering a trend that defies expectations as consumers, buoyed by a strong jobs market and wage hikes, keep buying goods and boosting the influx of imported cargo.

Retail sales posted a 1.5% gain in February from the same month the year before, according to a report by the U.S. Census Bureau, a point seized on by the National Retail Federation (NRF).

“Retail sales rebounded in a solid fashion in February, showing the consumer is still spending and pointing to underlying strength in the economy,” NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz said. 

Retail sales are up again (Chart provided by U.S. Federal Reserve Bank.)

“These results indicate that the economy is continuing to expand in the first quarter despite tight credit conditions and still-elevated inflation,” Kleinhenz said. “Job gains, wage increases, and continued GDP growth are supporting household spending.”

Cargomatic President Ed Aldridge said, “This is good news for the entire transportation industry. At Cargomatic, we have already been seeing some upticks, particularly on the West Coast. We operate in more than 50 major markets, including the nation’s top 20 ports. So, we are definitely ready to handle additional customer volumes whenever and wherever they need us.” 

America’s number-one gateway, Port of Los Angeles (POLA), led the trend, announcing a massive 64% YoY increase in imports for February. Just two months into 2024, POLA has handled 35% more cargo than during the same period in 2023.

“Market confidence in our gateway is as strong as it’s ever been,” said POLA Executive Director Gene Seroka, noting that “with American consumers still spending and economic indicators positive, the Port of Los Angeles is well-positioned as we move into the second quarter.”

Across San Pedro Bay, the Port of Long Beach (POLB) also recorded significantly higher throughput in February, as it moved 674,723 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) in the month, up 24.1% year over year. Imports alone were up 29.4% over last February.

POLB CEO Mario Cordero said the port’s “top-notch customer service” and “ongoing efforts” to attract business back to the West Coast are paying off, along with continued investments in infrastructure “that will keep us competitive and sustainable for decades to come.”

Across the country, in Savannah, Georgia, port officials were no less enthusiastic about the gains they are seeing as the year progresses, reporting 14.4% growth in overall throughput and a 19% uptick in imports year over year. 

Georgia Ports Authority (GPA) President and CEO Griff Lynch expressed pleasure in seeing two consecutive months of growth in January and February, while port officials said the improving volumes should carry the GPA to a stronger second half of Fiscal Year 2024, ending in June.

“The region’s fast-growing population, and an increasing number of manufacturing and logistics operations are both factors in the long-term expansion of trade through Georgia,” Lynch said.

To the north of Savannah, the Port of Virginia likewise reported much improved numbers over February 2023, processing 281,901 total TEUs for the month, up 10% year over year while loaded imports came in 20% higher.

With six of the remaining top 10 U.S. ports still to report, the provisional numbers from the East and West Coast nonetheless show that the country’s imports are increasing and that much of the incoming trade is heading to the western ports—a trend that has been underway for much of the past six months.

In January, with all top 10 ports reporting, the nation saw a rise of more than 9% in imports, with the USWC ports increasing its throughput by 17.72% compared to the Gulf at 3.41% and the USEC at 1.63%. 

Compared with January 2023, the USWC ports saw a year-over-year gain of 3% in market share for total throughput, while the USEC and Gulf Coasts lost some 2.7% and 0.30% respectively.

The January numbers also were in line with figures from the fourth quarter of 2023, which showed a 6.3% increase in U.S. imports year over year, with the USWC ports increasing their throughput by 18%, while the Gulf was down 3.9% and the USEC slipping 2.6%.

In terms of market share for Q4 2023 imports, the USWC gained around 4.8%, while the USEC lost 3.9% and the Gulf was down 0.9%. In overall throughput, the USWC gained some 4.3%, the USEC lost 3.9% and the Gulf was down 0.4%.

Analysts attribute the boost in throughput for the USWC ports as coming from shipper confidence in the region’s gateways following the agreement in June 2023 between the dockworkers of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and their employers, the Pacific Maritime Association.

During prolonged contract talks starting in July 2022, many shippers diverted cargo away from the USWC out of work-stoppage concerns. Today’s numbers point to a similar trend now impacting the East and Gulf Coasts as the union representing approximately 45,000 workers has been extremely vocal in saying it will walk if a contract isn’t reached by October.