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July import volumes continue to mirror pre-COVID ‘normal’

“Imports still plunging, down 14% year on year” sounds alarming for the U.S. economy. But July’s percentage drop is an artifact of the COVID-driven import boom, a one-off event that ended in late 2022 that is no longer news.

“Imports unchanged versus pre-pandemic levels” is a less dramatic headline with no double digits, ominous undertones or “plunging” involved. Yet that is the real news: The volume of containerized imports to the U.S. is normal and healthy. There is no sign yet in the import data of consumer weakness or an impending recession.

Descartes reported Wednesday that imports to all U.S. ports totaled 2,187,810 twenty-foot equivalent units in July. That’s down 14% year on year, up 5% sequentially from June and effectively unchanged versus July 2019, pre-COVID (down 0.5%).

chart of import volumes(Chart: Descartes Datamyne)

U.S. imports are up 1.7% over the first seven months of this year versus the same period in 2019. “Volumes continue to track 2019 performance,” said Descartes.

U.S. imports from China increased the most in July versus June, up 36,818 TEUs month on month, with volumes from South Korea posting the second-largest gain, up 11,418 TEUs.

Among U.S. ports, Savannah, Georgia, saw the biggest gain, up 47,900 TEUs in July versus June, followed by New York/New Jersey, up 43,169 TEUs. Los Angeles had the steepest month-on-month drop, down 68,874 TEUs, according to Descartes.

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