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Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Port Traffic

This post is really an addendum to CR's post on the surprising August YoY drop in port traffic detailed in this LA Times article. I tried to post the links over there but Halo thought I was spamming or something. As the article notes and as Ryder's results yesterday indicated, the downturn is occurring in more than just construction-related sectors:
The falloff "reflects the consumer-demand-driven weakness in the U.S. economy," said Paul Bingham, an economist with Global Insight, a research firm that monitors cargo movements for the nation's top retailers.
...
"Some of our bank customers who are retailers catering to the Hispanic population -- they are having tough times," Sohn added. "They're ordering less because they're not selling as much."
...
Imports of building materials plunged 20% in the second quarter from year-earlier figures, the most recent period for which detailed statistics are available. Furniture imports fell 17%, clothing declined 10% and footwear was down 8%, he said.
Note the emphasized points. I wanted to clarify what a surprise this has been to industry analysts. Logistics Management is a gripping, can't-put-it-down type of read (and you can get a free print subscription, which can be used in place of sleeping pills for many readers!). Their recent articles on port traffic include analysis of port traffic from the largest ports on both coasts. The Port Tracker report costs over $1,000 for a subscription, so consider this a substitution of the type economists use for the CPI report. See - no inflation at all! Here we go:

July:
Traffic at U.S.-based retail container ports is expected to increase in July and hit a record high in August in the buildup toward the October peak season despite the threat of strike at Los Angeles/Long Beach, according to the monthly Port Tracker Report by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Global Insight.

The ports surveyed in the report—including Los Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland, Tacoma, Seattle, New York/New Jersey, Hampton Roads, Charleston, and Savannah—handled 1.37 million TEUs in May, the most recent month for which actual numbers are available. May’s total was up 3.3 percent from this April but down 0.2 percent from May 2006. July is expected an increase of 5.4 percent over June on container traffic volumes.
August:
Over the course of August, September, and October, traffic at United States-based retail container ports will exceed last year’s record high, as peak season freight is now being loaded onto vessels and moving through the supply chain, according to the monthly Port Tracker Report by the National Retail Federation, a retail trade association, and Global Insight, a provider of economic and financial information.

The ports surveyed in the report—including Los Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland, Tacoma, Seattle, New York/New Jersey, Hampton Roads, Charleston, and Savannah—handled a cumulative 1.45 million TEUs (Twenty-foot equivalents) in June, the most recent month for which traffic is available. June’s total was 2 percent volume improvement over March and was 5.8 percent below April 2006’s output.

This effort was up 3.2 percent from June 2006 and up 6.2 percent from this May. Volume continued up in July, which was estimated at 1.5 million TEU, up 8.1 percent from July 06. August is going to be hectic and is expected to break the last October’s record set last October, and September will be a bit slower but will still top last October, and October will set another whole new record, according to Tracker author and Global Insight economist Paul Bingham.
September:
Traffic at United States-based retail container ports is projected to set another record in October after experiencing what is expected to be a down month in September, according to the monthly Port Tracker Report by the National Retail Federation, a retail trade association, and Global Insight, a provider of economic and financial information.

The ports surveyed in the report—including Los Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland, Tacoma, Seattle, New York/New Jersey, Hampton Roads, Charleston, and Savannah—handled a cumulative 1.46 million TEUs (Twenty-foot equivalents) in July, the most recent month for which data is available. July’s total represented a 4.9 percent improvement from July 2006 and was 0.6 percent ahead of the previous month’s total in June.

The report stated that ports surveyed handled an estimated 1.52 million TEUs in August, which was up 2.3 percent from August 2006 and broke the record of 1.51 million TEUs set in October 2006.
October:
Although traffic at United States-based retail ports was expected expected to be record-breaking this fall due to Peak Season, it appears those projections may ultimately come up short, according to the monthly Port Tracker report by the National Retail Federation, a retail trade association, and Global Insight a provider of economic and financial information.

The ports surveyed in the report—including Los Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland, Tacoma, Seattle, New York/New Jersey, Hampton Roads, Charleston, and Savannah—handled a cumulative 1.46 million TEU (Twenty-foot equivalents) in August, the most recent month for which data is available. The Port Tracker report indicated that surveyed ports were forecasted to handle 1.52 million TEU in August, which would have surpassed the previous record of 1.51 million TEU from October 2007. August’s total was ahead of July’s output by 1.5 percent, but was off 1.4 percent from August 2006, according to the report.

The report also noted that September, which was originally predicted to match September 2006 at 1.48 million TEU, is now expected to hit 1.46 million TEU, which is 1.9 percent less than a year ago.
The peak season is strongly related to holiday retail sales, so the trend here is not only astounding analysts but does have a great deal to say about what retail sales are really like in volume as contrasted to currency measures. I want to emphasize that these figures are related to the intermodal component of rail traffic, and that the trends shown are consistent.

I also want to restate another point - inflation can mask the beginnings of a real recession. However, inflation diminishes in the face of a real recession, so the effect diminishes over time. Inflation or no inflation, when freight volumes decrease YoY there is a real contraction going on, which will eventually show up in jobs. The weakness in private sector jobs which has been evident all this year is a real trend, although we probably won't know the actual numbers for real job creation in 2007 until 2009.

GDP is affected by inflation (especially the import/export component). Since industrial production, retail sales and most other significant reports are all currency denominated, freight volumes are an important integrity check.

Comments:
My take is that the retailers are afraid of holding product in the pipeline and on the shelves purchased with August dollars in anticipation of getting January dollars from the credit card companies. As we see more and more "gift card" shifting to Jan-Feb product delivery it isn't a bad strategy to keep empty shelves durring the Christmas season.
 
There's a limit to everything, Rob. A lot of store overhead is fixed. $/Shelf foot is a very meaningful stat, and since holiday sales can often provide more than 40% of annual revenue, the competition for shoppers' dollars is fierce.
 
Oh, I agree. My point was more to the retailers self actualizing their own weaker holiday sales. I'm thinking "thinner" shelves rather than empty shelves and a willingness to pay a permium for JIT should the need arise rather than try to match demand 5 months in advance. Lower margains but lower risk as well.

I love "Black Friday." I start scouring the rumor sites Nov 1st. Funny thing is that this year I'm not looking for anything. I've got two plasmas, all the big ticket items anyone could want, nothing I can live without. They aren't going to be doorbuster specials on University of California tuition 50% off to the first 100 customers. They aren't going to be offering 0% interest on late model used cars at rock bottom prices. One of those indoor helicopters at $25 or an 8ft fiberglass stepladder (~$0 or less) would be nice. Oh, and two, yes two packages of those nice tube socks with the reniforced heel. No iPods, no Wii, no leather recliner, no rolling stainless toolchest. I am not alone.
 
Halloween is 3 weeks away and I'm already seeing Christmas displays going up in stores. Desperation? I dunno. But with the downturn in retailing this year's Christmas looks like its going to be a memorable one.
 
Rob - I hear you. The psychology is changing. Another way to look at it is that the conservatives appear to still be waiting, and the risk-takers have mostly taken their risks already and now are concentrating on dealing with their debt.

Anon - One of my brothers in the DC area told me that some of the stores put their Halloween displays up in late August. WalMart and Target appear to be cutting early for holiday sales. In tougher times a lot of women do their shopping earlier and I think they are trying to catch more of those sales. If it isn't desperation it is surely something very far from complacency.
 
Rob - I hear you. The psychology is changing.
Good, I was afraid I was being too obscure.

The interesting thing is what "rich thinking people do." We buy ornaments in late January/Feburary just before the Valentines go up.

Our local Target store has the Christmas durables up already. Only 6-8 aisles but still... Anyway. All I'm buying is LED lights to replace existing incandecents if the price justifies by energy savings. Again, I am not alone.

You are correct. The grasshoppers have run out of grass. We ants are already stocked for the winter.
 
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