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US container import volumes continued to show surprising strength in May, according to new data from shipping analyst John McCown.

Mr McCown said inbound boxes last month were up some 5.6%, year on year, although the increase was more muted than the 13.4%, 19.9% and 26.5% increases seen in April, March and February, respectively.

“It represents the strongest performance since the pandemic, and a continuing sign of robust inbound volume strength,” Mr McCown wrote.

“Those increases follow 15 straight months of generally double-digit year-on-year decreases resulting from prior pandemic volume spikes.

“There has been a generally upward trend, year on year, inbound since September that has tempered only recently,” he added.

A total of 1.93m teu passed US container berths last month, which was 1% more than in April and represented the highest US import volume for 21 months – however, it was some 15.5% below May 2021, which remains the highest month on record.

“May is traditionally the busiest month of the year for inbound volume for the US, as well as overall container volume worldwide. The reason for both relates to the importance of the holiday season for retailers and the beginning of the build-up in inventories for that season,” explained Mr McCown.

Last month also saw US east coast ports take greater numbers of imports than their west coast competitors, all the nationwide growth for the month found at the east coast, where import volumes grew 11.8% compared with the completely 0% flat performance on the west coast.

This is a reversal of a ten-month trend of shipper preference for west coast gateways, although Mr McCown suggested that June could the original trend back in favour, particularly for ex-Asia shipments.

“The east/Gulf coast port range typically involves 17 more days at sea than the west coast port range – given the difference in at-sea transit time, sharp divergences in coastal performance will sometimes be a function of this timing difference.

“In that sense, what happens at the west coast one month may often be a prelude to what will happen at the east/Gulf coast ports the next month,” he wrote.

Meanwhile, US exports also had a bumper month with a 4.9% year-on-year increase, meaning the country’s container trade imbalance for the month was 2.26 in favour of imports, with Houston and Los Angeles remaining US exporters’ preferred gateways.

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