December imports surprisingly high amid Panama, Suez Canal woes

With all the headlines on trade disruptions, you might have expected U.S. imports to fall in December. They didn’t, according to new data from Descartes.

The U.S. imported 2,107,012 twenty-foot equivalent units of containerized goods in December, up 0.4% from November and up 9.2% year on year, said Descartes (NYSE: DSGX) on Monday.

December is traditionally slow from a seasonal perspective — and there was another headwind this year.

A drought in Panama significantly reduced transits of larger Neopanamax-class container ships in November and December, with transit constraints intensifying last month.

Container vessels that traditionally used the Panama Canal to bring Asian goods to East and Gulf Coast ports switched to the Suez Canal. Those ships then rerouted from the Suez Canal to longer voyages around the Cape of Good Hope, with diversions starting in late November and accelerating in recent weeks.

Intuitively, this should have led to some pressure on U.S. import volumes in December, with weakness centered on East and Gulf Coast ports, as had been the case in November.

West Coast shipping rates surge as Red Sea fallout goes global

As Red Sea disruptions intensify, container shipping spot rates are rising on the other side of the globe: for cargo shipped from Asia to the U.S. West Coast.

The Red Sea crisis coincides with drought restrictions in the Panama Canal. Asian cargo bound for East and Gulf Coast ports had previously been switched from Panama to the Suez Canal, and is now being rerouted on even longer voyages around the Cape of Good Hope.

The much shorter route from Asia to the West Coast is looking increasingly attractive.

At 14 knots, a direct voyage from Shanghai to New York via the Cape of Good Hope takes 43 days, according to A direct voyage from Shanghai to Los Angeles takes only 17 days (plus additional time for cross-country land transport).

The question now is how long Panama and the Red Sea disruptions will persist, giving new strength to Asia-West Coast spot rates.

Annual trans-Pacific contracts generally run from May 1-April 30 and are negotiated in February-April. If trans-Pacific spot rates are supported for months, not weeks, disruptions could push annual contract rates higher.

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