Negative trends at West Coast ports are starting to reverse. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

USA - East Coast vs. West Coast: More imports shift back to Pacific ports

Asia-West Coast spot container rates outperforming Asia-East Coast rates

In the perennial tug-of-war between West Coast and East Coast ports, the momentum has shifted yet again. Imports from Asia are starting to head back to America’s Pacific gateways.

East and Gulf Coast ports increased their market share in the years prior to the pandemic as the expanded Panama Canal allowed more cost-effective shipping service to Eastern states, which boast the highest population of consumers.

Asian cargo flows shifted toward Los Angeles and Long Beach, California, in the early stages of the pandemic due to shorter transit times. Then, after congestion clogged those ports, the pendulum swung back to the East. That trend was accelerated in the first half of this year by concerns over West Coast port labor unrest.

Now, the labor issue is resolved, Panama Canal water levels are restricting capacity utilization on transiting container ships bound for East and Gulf Coast ports, and both spot rate data and import data imply the West Coast is regaining some lost ground.

Spot rate trends diverge by coast

Trans-Pacific spot rates to both coasts have fallen double-digits from August’s peak-season highs, but rates to the West Coast have held up better than rates to the East Coast. The West Coast route has retained much more of the peak-season rate run-up that began July 1 and peaked in the third week of August.

This spot-rate differential is a positive indicator on volume flows to the West Coast, to the extent it’s not caused by differing levels of “blanked” (canceled) sailings to each coastline.

According to the Freightos Baltic Daily Index (FBX), China-West Coast rates averaged $1,563 per forty-foot equivalent unit on Friday, up 31% from June 30. In contrast, the FBX assessment of China-East Coast rates, at $2,213 per FEU on Friday, was essentially flat (up 1%) versus June 30.

The Drewry World Container Index (WCI) put average Shanghai-to-Los Angeles spot rates at $1,961 per FEU for the week ending Thursday, still up 19% from the week ending June 29, prior to the seasonal upswing.

The WCI put average Shanghai-to-New York rates at $2,552 per FEU in the latest week — all the way back down to late-June levels.

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