Port Watch – Deja Vu All Over Again with a Dash of Optimism

By Tom Marian, Buffalo Marine Service, Inc.

In a rather strange coincidence, the total number of vessel arrivals in February 2017 was identical to that of the previous year. Granted, 2016 was a leap year but the fact that they mirrored one another was a somewhat odd result. The overall picture was a bit more positive given that 2017 is tracking 2% ahead of the first two months of last year and the month-over-month results were off by just over 8% – statistically a drop of less than 10% is positive when comparing February to January.

Overall, things appear to be boding well. Starting with “The Port That Works”, Brownsville registered a very healthy 30% monthly bounce. Things are certainly stirring in this port with three LNG facilities on the drawing board; major expansions at the liquid cargo docks; and additional infrastructure under development. Undoubtedly, the relatively inexpensive extraction of natural gas and shale crude has created a bullish environment in the vicinity of the Rio Grande. Corpus Christi is also stirring from its 2016 slumber with a 3% year-to-date gain after factoring in last month’s 1% wane. Steaming up the Texas coast, Freeport continues to add to last year’s gain as it outpaces its current year-to-date arrivals by nearly 27%.
Next door – in a relative sense – the port of Galveston is attempting to cast off the malaise of 2016. At some point, the ravages of the oil patch and acres of cold stacked vessels should come to an end. This February’s arrivals matched the arrivals of last February which netted a 2.4% improvement year-to-date wise. The nearby port of Texas City posted nearly identical arrival numbers as the previous month. Hence, there was a mere 1% month-to-month drop; however, things are more sanguine on year-to-date basis given the 4.5% climb. Sabine fared the worst for the month with a 26% plummet which set the port back over 5% when compared to the first two months of last year.
Houston also posted identical arrival numbers with respect to last February. Fortunately, Houston’s strong showing in January ensured it had a 3% lead over last year – despite a 8% monthly arrival decline. For the most part, the arrival numbers indicate that 2017 is poised to outperform 2016. Containers remain up by over 17% after suffering a modest 4% monthly lapse. The fact that 5% fewer container ships called upon Port Houston in the last month underscores that vessel capacities are on the rise. Bulk carrier arrivals yielded a 6% gain over the last month resulting in an aggregate arrival number that was the same as 2016’s. Unfortunately, on the general cargo vessel front, the bottom fell out as this ship category earned the unenviable most-drastic-percentage drop for the month at 33%. In fact, the arrival tally was so poor that it has not seen this few vessels since the dark days of early 2009. Car carrier arrivals were not quite as abysmal for the month (i.e., 30% plunge) as its general cargo cousin but at least the first two months of this year produced the same vessel count as the year before.

The energy-play vessels were also subdued but, for the most part, are slightly better positioned to build on the year-end momentum of 2016. Chemical tankers took a monthly hit to the tune of a 15% loss. Nonetheless, while the year is very young, 37% more of these ships called upon the port’s far reaching petro-chemical corridor year-to-date. LPG was very soft over the last month with 19% fewer vessels but is still even against last year. Tankers fared the best over the last month with a 3.6% wane but fared the worst of the energy trio year-to-date wise with a 8% vessel arrival fall. Blue water tows outperformed all over vessel categories this month with a 32% leap and 59% year-to-date gain. Finally, its brownwater peer, inland tow movements, also had a positive month – over 6% more movements. Yet, these denizens of the inland waterway system are slightly behind last year’s pace. It is of note that preliminary indications for the final month of the first quarter indicate a substantial surge in activity.
With the end of the fog season in a year where the Texas coast only experienced two days of winter, February’s mostly positive showing reflected the arrival of an early spring and more optimistic maritime trade picture. Preliminarily, the pattern is stubbornly holding and the promises of a more robust economy may well be at hand.

  • Date April 18, 2017
  • Tags April 2017