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Despite dim outlook, January imports grew at fastest pace in 7 years

With geopolitical tensions rising around the Suez Canal and water levels dropping at the Panama Canal, one could be forgiven for expecting U.S. imports to fall in January. But, according to new data from Descartes, they were shockingly robust.

The U.S. imported 2,273,125 twenty-foot equivalent units of containerized goods in January, up a surprising 7.9% from December and 9.9% year over year, said Descartes (NYSE: DSGX) on Thursday. This 7.9% gain marks the largest month-over-month growth for January since 2017.

January is not typically the most active month for containerized imports, though it does benefit from the run-up to China’s celebration of Lunar New Year. During the two-week holiday, which began on Saturday, nearly all manufacturing plants and port facilities shut down.

In the weeks leading up to Lunar New Year, then, there is a rush to get goods from China closer to their final destinations. A 14.9% m/m rise in Chinese imports indicates seasonal trends are playing out as usual, very much unlike 2023’s anemic performance.

It stands to reason that West Coast ports would benefit most from this surge of Chinese imports, as in fact they did. But with the Panama Canal struggling to ramp up its number of transit slots amid an ongoing drought and dry season, it also stands to reason that volumes at East and Gulf Coast ports would suffer.

This inference, however, was not wholly true to reality.

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