Port Watch – Donning the Veil of Hope

The deck has been cleared, the slate has been wiped clean and all that has happened remains in the past. After a nadir of an end to 2016, 2017 posted a respectable beginning with a 4% improvement over the previous January and a 9% climb against last month’s aggregate vessel arrivals for the state. It was – for the most part – a heartening start to a year where optimism continues to gain momentum. Not unexpectedly, all ports were not “in clover” on a year-to-date basis or when compared against last month.

At the farthest reaches of the coast, the Port of Brownsville stumbled a bit during the opening month of the year. Its January arrival count equaled its lowest arrival number of 2016 resulting in a fall of 9% from an already poor December showing and a dramatic 29% plunge from the prior year’s January. To the northeast, the next port of entry – Corpus Christi – also chalked up arrival numbers that were off for both the month and the year; albeit, its January 2017 count was a mere 0.5% below (i.e., 1 vessel) that of 2016’s first month. Nonetheless, the port was still over 3% below the prior month’s vessel count. Moving further to the east, Freeport also experienced a percentage decline of 6% during the month; however, compared to last year, the port is off to a torrid start with a 24% jump in arrivals.
Next door – so to speak – Galveston also enjoyed a busier start of the year when weighed against 2016 with 5% more arrivals. Unfortunately, the offshore drilling malaise continues to plague the port’s overall activity as reflected by 8% fewer arrivals for the month. Less than a dozen miles to the north, the port of Texas City enjoyed identical percentage gains for both the year and the month at slightly above 3%. This is a nascent indication that the uptick in crude imports is benefiting Texas City. To a lesser extent, Sabine is also a beneficiary of the greater flow of imported crude into the Gulf Coast refinery infrastructure as shown by its highest arrival count in nearly two years.

Interestingly, Sabine’s January 2016 arrival tally was one of its best months for last year. Yet, this year, the percentage of arrivals exceeded the beginning of last year’s by 5% and the final month of 2016 by 15%. Granted, there were high hopes that Sabine’s ever-growing energy exports would result in more commerce in 2016 vis-à-vis 2015 based on a strong start to the year – which was not the case. Hopefully, the start of 2017 bodes much better for the port.
On an equally sanguine note, Houston’s arrival numbers were both robust and heartening as evidenced by a 6% rise over last January’s and an impressive 16% monthly climb. On a month-to-month basis, all specific vessel categories were up and, year-to-date wise, the vast majority also logged percentage gains. As usual, the energy-derived commodities dominated. Chemical tankers – in particular – eclipsed all other categories in terms of percentage gains. The January vessel count was among the highest in recent memories and exceeded the prior month by 31% and last January by over 35%. LPG carriers also had a great month as an additional 21.5% arrivals plied the ship channel. Indeed, the 5% year-to-date improvement resulted from the highest monthly vessel count over the last several years. Tankers had a tad weaker start to the year – 2.6% off of the previous start – but vaulted 17% over the last month. Piloted barges – typically another energy-centric vessel play – rose 9% for the month and a staggering 48% year-to-date.

On the consumable front, cars and containers also enjoyed a healthy rebound from the prior month’s stats. The former saw 2 more or 25% more vessels for the month and the year while the latter registered a 7% rise across the board. With respect to the raw container count, things were even more impressive with 14% more containers over the last month and 26% for the year. Even the laggard vessel categories from last year had a reason to smile over the last month. General cargo ships eked out a 2% monthly gain and bulkers posted a more sizeable 6% positive showing. Nevertheless, both were off of last year’s starting pace by 15% and 1.5% respectively; indicating that these particular vessel movements will remain in the doldrums in 2017. On the brownwater front, inland tow movements also enjoyed a robust month across the Houston ship channel with a 12% gain. Yet, this year’s start was a tad off of last year’s. Thus, tow moves were 3% slower for the first month of 2017.
Overall, it appears the start-of-the-year optimism on the waterfront reflects the burgeoning consumer confidence as of late. Of course, it does not hurt that the Dow has logged double-digit records as stock prices head for the stratosphere. Perhaps this is a vote of confidence for the Trump administration’s business approach to governing or maybe it simply reflects the realities of inflation attributable to several years of cheap money. Regardless of the explanation, the early arrival of Spring and concomitant farewell to the fogs of winter are reason enough to be optimistic about 2017.

  • Date March 14, 2017
  • Tags March 2017