Busiest U.S. Port Had Fourth-Best Year in 2020 Despite Covid-19

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The U.S.’s busiest port reported the fourth-best year on record in 2020 as a surge in demand for goods ahead of the holiday season countered a Covid-19-induced plunge in volumes earlier in the year.

The Port of Los Angeles handled 9.2 million 20-foot equivalent units, or TEUs, about 1.5% less than a year earlier, Executive Director Gene Seroka said on a webcast Thursday.

“Our container business, the port’s primary economic driver, was the most erratic that we have seen to date,” Seroka said in an annual address. “By May of 2020, our volume had plunged nearly 19%. Then, in the second half of the year, American consumer demand created a pandemic-induced buying surge that our economy has never seen before.”

In the week before Christmas, the port handled twice as much cargo as it did in the same week of 2019, he said.

Shipping rates have surged during the Covid-19 pandemic as a shift consumer habits has raised demand for some products. With widespread social distancing and lockdowns, people have diverted spending for categories that are largely off limits -- like vacations and restaurant meals -- toward purchasing physical goods. Container shipping is struggling to keep up with demand amid bottlenecks at ports across the world, contorting supply chains for everything from car parts to cosmetics and medical equipment.

Los Angeles and Long Beach are a major entryway of goods from Asia to the U.S. At the start of 2020, thousands of containers were sitting empty at the dock in Los Angeles, a symptom of the U.S. trade war with China, as well as the initial disruption caused by Covid-19. But by the end of last year Los Angeles faced significant backups as goods flooded in.

The backlog of container ships waiting to offload cargo at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach grew in December to almost 20, up from about a dozen at the end of November. Globally, just half of container vessels arrived on time in November, down from 80% a year earlier and the lowest level in records dating back to 2011, according to a service reliability index compiled by Copenhagen-based Sea-Intelligence. From Asia to North America, on-time arrivals dropped below 30%, less than half the long-run average globally.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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