July's container volume at the Port of Charleston rebounded to a level not seen since the financial market meltdown two years ago, but the head of the State Ports Authority cautioned that the uptick might be short-lived.
The SPA handled nearly 74,000 containers in July, a 26 percent increase over a year earlier and the port's best month since October 2008.
Jim Newsome, the SPA's president and chief executive officer, said he expects August and September to show good container numbers, but he warned that volume could taper off in the uncertain months ahead.
"I think we are at the peak of the cycle," he said. "I'm very concerned about the second half of the year because the economy is slow."
Port officials pointed out that some signs suggest that business expansion could slow in coming months.
"It remains unclear if the economy is truly on the rebound and can be sustained or if recent increases are more of a reflection of inventory restocking and other short-term drivers," the agency said in a statement.
For the fiscal year that ended June 30, container volume was off just over 5 percent from the previous year. However, July was the fifth straight month of double-digit increases in volume compared to the same period of 2009.
"I don't extrapolate easily a trend," Newsome said. "I think we have to be very cautious about watching what is going on with the economy."
He said it appears that shipments from Asia, many of them consumer goods for the holidays, came early this year. Generally, those shipments arrive in late summer and the fall.
"Last year there were no shortages of anything because the economy was down," he said. "This year people had to restock. There were shortages of containers and shortages of vessel space, so a lot of people hedged their bets and shipped early."
Newsome said the early holiday shipments are reflected by the recent increase in port volume.
"I think there will be a leveling-off in demand," he said.
Newsome said the expansion of the cruise business in Charleston to a year-round season this year also has helped the port. The Carnival Fantasy now calls the city its home port.
"It's very important for us to diversify our business base," Newsome said. "We were way too dependent on container freight."
He added that while the cruise business accounts for only about 10 percent of the authority's revenue, "it's an important component of our revenue."
"It's reliable, it comes every week and we have a home port, which is different than before," he said. "And this business puts a lot of people to work."
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach Warren Wise at 937-5524 or firstname.lastname@example.org.