Trends in Container Throughput

Trends in Container Throughput

Despite the 2008 decline in the nation's economic activity and international merchandise exports and imports, the United States remains the world's largest trading nation with the world's biggest economy. Today, 1 container in every 10 carrying global trade is bound for or originates in the United States, accounting for 10 percent of worldwide container traffic. In 2008, world maritime container traffic (loaded and empty) was estimated at over 387 million TEUs, down from 437 million TEUs transported in 2007 (table 2).

U.S. container traffic doubled over the past decade, and the growth trend is expected to continue.

Between 1995 and 2008, world container traffic more than tripled in volume from 137 million TEUs to 387 million TEUs, growing at an average annual rate of about 8 percent (table 2). This continued long-term growth in maritime container freight reflects sustained U.S. and global economic activity. During this same period, U.S. total container traffic more than doubled in volume from 22 million TEUs in 1995 to an estimated 45 million in 2007, falling to about 38 million in 2008. From 1995 to 2008, U.S. total TEUs rose at an average annual rate of 4.2 percent. The primary factors underlying the long-term growth in U.S. maritime container traffic are the proportion of merchandise trade transported in containers; rising trade with Asia- Pacific trading partners, particularly China; and the increasing importance of merchandise trade to U.S economic activity. Looking ahead, the volume of containers that U.S. seaports handle in the coming years will mainly be determined by how much the United States continues to rely on imported manufactured goods, which countries it trades with most, and what kinds of products it imports rather than produces domestically. Rising demand for foreign manufactured products would mean super-sized container vessels would carry such products to the nation's seaports, enabling continued growth in containerization.4

The United States ranked second in container traffic in 2007, a position it has held since China took over the number one position in 1998. Nonetheless, the United States remains the leading trading nation, accounting for 11 percent of total world merchandise trade in 2007 (figure 4). U.S. total imports ranked first, accounting for over 14 percent of the global imports in 2007. U.S. total exports accounted for 8 percent of global exports, behind Germany, the leading exporter (WTO 2008). The United States also remained the world's largest economy, accounting for 23 percent of World GDP in 2008, down slightly from 25 percent in 1995 (table 2).

From 1995 to 2008, the volume of containerized cargo moving through U.S. seaports grew at a faster rate, 6 percent, than U.S. real GDP growth, 3 percent (figure 5). During most of the 1990s, strong growth of the U.S. economy, rising household wealth and income in the United States, and steady consumer demand at home spurred U.S. international goods trade, which resulted in greater demands for containerized freight transportation services.

A comparison of the year-on-year percent change between U.S.-loaded container TEUs and real GDP shows a correlation between the container maritime industry trends and general economic conditions (figure 6). This comparison shows the effect that economic cycles have on the U.S. container trade, as evidenced by the declines in TEUs during the 2001 and 2008 recessions. As figure 6 shows, the container trade trend is more volatile than the GDP trend. However, assuming that the strong cyclical relationship continues, when the U.S. economy recovers and the volume of merchandise imports and exports rebounds, then U.S. container seaports are likely to see a resurgence of container throughput at their terminals.

Box 1 - Repositioning of Empty Containers

4 Containerization is a form of transportation in which the size and shape of freight is standardized through the use of containers to allow fast mechanical handling of cargo at seaports. It differs sharply from the labor-intensive and time-consuming break-bulk method of handling cargo of varying sizes and shapes.