Port growth speaks volumes East Coast ports, including Charleston, outpaced global cargo growth pace in ’15

Containerized cargo volume grew by 10.1 percent at the Port of Charleston in 2015, a new report shows.

North American seaports — including the Port of Charleston — saw far greater growth in containerized cargo volumes last year than their counterparts overseas, according to data released last week.

The amount of containerized cargo passing through the world’s ports grew by 1.1 percent last year, the second-lowest annual growth rate ever recorded, according to industry analyst Alphaliner. Only the 8.9 percent drop during the 2009 financial crisis was worse.

The news wasn’t as bad in North America, where cargo grew at 4.8 percent. Most of that growth came at East Coast ports like Charleston, Alphaliner said.

Cargo in this case is defined as goods shipped in the 20-foot metal containers typically seen at port terminals. Alphaliner bases its data on surveys of 400 ports worldwide.

The Port of Miami had the biggest North American cargo increase at 15 percent, followed by:

The Port of Savannah, 11.7 percent;

The Port of New York-New Jersey, 10.4 percent;

The Port of Charleston, 10.1 percent.

Despite the double-digit increase for the calendar year, the local waterfront has seen monthly declines in containerized cargo volumes for the fiscal year, which began July 1. Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the State Ports Authority, said he expects cargo to pick up during the spring.

“I think we’ll see a trend back up in the next couple of months,” Newsome said. “And, hopefully, March will be significantly stronger.”

Alphaliner is projecting another weak year for global ports, with growth at 1.6 percent forecast in 2016.

“The year got off to a weak start, with initial January port figures showing lower volumes at (Asian ports in) Shanghai, Singapore, Shenzhen, Hong Kong and Busan — all of which point to a difficult year ahead for the industry,” the Alphaliner report states. “Any hopes for a significant recovery in demand in 2016 will rest crucially on a rebound in European container volumes.”

Cargo volumes historically have grown at between two and three times worldwide gross domestic product, but last year was the first time containerized cargo growth trailed GDP.

“The lower GDP multiplier will have a significant implication on the container shipping industry, as it continues to grapple with a persistent oversupply problem,” Alphaliner said.

The number of containerships outpaced cargo by 7.4 percent in 2015. The industry analyst said that gap will be 3 percent this year.

Alphaliner points to several factors that have led to lower growth in containerized cargo passing through world ports, such as the decline in offshoring as many manufacturers relocate factories that had moved overseas — to China, in many cases — back to their home countries. And as the Chinese economy has shifted to domestic consumption, foreign trade growth has fallen, the report states.

Also, many smaller ports that used to rely on transhipments from larger facilities are now being served directly as their facilities improve. That has led to volume decreases at the larger ports because cargo containers that used to be counted multiple times as they arrived and departed various ports now are counted only once.

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_