Long-Term Trends in Container Throughput

Long-Term Trends in Container Throughput

Despite recent economic uncertainties and fluctuations in annual merchandise trade, the United States remains the world's largest trading Nation, with the world's biggest economy. Today, 1 container in every 11 that carries global trade is bound for or originates in the United States, accounting for 9 percent of worldwide container traffic.

In 2009, world maritime container traffic (loaded and empty) was estimated at over 432 million TEUs, down 15 percent from the 510 million TEUs transported in 2008 (table 2). This decline was the largest year-on-year percent drop in world container freight in more than a decade, making 2009 a difficult year for the global container industry.

The global container shipping industry experienced a 15- percent decline in world TEUs in 2009

Despite this recent decline, world container traffic more than tripled in volume between 1995 and 2009, from 137 million TEUs to 432 million TEUs, growing at an average annual rate of about 9 percent (table 2). That extended record of growth in maritime container freight shipments reflects relative expansion of U.S. and global economic activity. For example, U.S. total container traffic more than doubled in volume between 1995 and 2007, from 22 million TEUs to an estimated 45 million (although it fell to about 43 million in 2008 and to 37 million in 2009, the lowest level since 2004). From 1995 to 2009, U.S. total TEUs rose at an average annual rate of 4 percent (table 2). The primary factors underlying the long-term growth in U.S. maritime container traffic are rising trade with Asia-Pacific trading partners, particularly China; the increasing importance of merchandise trade to U.S. economic activity, and the proportion of merchandise trade transported in containers.9 Table 2 also shows that between 1995 and 2009, U.S. share of worldwide container traffic dropped by about half, from 16 percent to 9 percent. This drop was due in part to faster growth in container trade between Asian and European countries and among Asian countries.

Looking ahead, the volume of containers that U.S. seaports will handle in the coming years will be determined mainly by how much the United States continues to rely on imported manufactured goods, which countries it trades with the most, and which products it imports rather than produces domestically. Rising demand for foreign manufactured products would likely mean that even more post-Panamax container vessels would carry such products to the Nation's seaports, enabling continued growth in containerization.

Globally, the United States ranked second in container traffic in 2009, a position it has held since China took over the lead position in 1998. Nonetheless, the United States remains the world's leading trading nation, accounting for 11 percent of total world merchandise trade in 2009 (figure 5). U.S. total imports ranked first, accounting for over 13 percent of global imports in 2009. With 9 percent of total global exports, however, the United States lags both China, the new leading world exporter, and Germany (WTO 2010). In 2009, China became the top world exporter, with 10 percent of the value of traded merchandise. Overall, though, the United States remained the world's largest economy, accounting for 24 percent of world GDP in 2009 (table 2).

From 1995 to 2008, the volume of containerized cargo moving through U.S. seaports grew at a faster rate, 5 percent, than U.S. real GDP growth, which stood at 3 percent (figure 6). 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, resulting in greater demand 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 container maritime industry trends and general economic conditions (figure 7). This comparison shows the effect that economic cycles have on U.S. container trade, as evidenced by declines in TEUs during the 2001 and 2008–2009 recessions. As figure 7 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 fully recovers and the volume of merchandise imports and exports rebounds to pre-recession levels, U.S. container ports are likely to see a continuation of the 2010 increase in container throughput.

8 As the term suggests, doubled-stack trains permit containers to be stacked two-high, effectively doubling carrying capacity.

9 Asia-Pacific refers to Australia, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, and various Pacific islands.