Port Watch – Slogging Through a Trade Coma

Tom Marian, Buffalo Marine Service, Inc.

Some may consider it an urban legend, while others insist that tryptophan – the amino acid found aplenty in turkey – induces lethargy and drowsiness after the Thanksgiving feast. Whatever the scientific reality when it comes to eating turkey, a table loaded with carbohydrates will most likely make you sluggish as the belly fills. So it was in November; after a white hot trade month in October, not a single Texas port saw a monthly percentage gain. In fact, the month was the polar opposite of the one before it.


How sluggish were things in the vessel-arrival department? Only February saw a poorer performance as the overall ship count was off by nearly 8% for the month and 3.4% for the year. The Port of Brownsville’s monthly arrival count plummeted by 32%; however, the steep descent was attributable to the fact that the port was coming off its best month of the year. Brownsville remains 8% above last year’s arrival totals. At the opposite end of the coast, the port of Sabine posted a near 10% fall for the month. Depressingly, Sabine has not seen a positive month-to-month arrival percentage since May. Needless to say, after six consecutive months of decline, it is unlikely this port will shake off the malaise of 2016 since it is currently 6% behind 2015’s arrival tally.

Heading west, the port of Galveston was the “least ugly” monthly performer with a 1.3% wane. Unfortunately, it continues to retain the ugliest arrival year-to-date figures as it weighs in 14% below 2015’s performance. Corpus Christi is also experiencing a double-digit percentage decline in the realm of vessel arrivals which currently stands at over 12%. Fortunately, November was not too harsh on the port since its monthly arrival count was only off by 2%. A few nautical miles to the north, with five straight triple-digit vessel arrival numbers under its belt, Texas City is not faring too badly compared to last year. It currently stands a mere 1.5% behind the previous year’s arrival totals. Nonetheless, the glimmer of hope that Texas City would end up in the black for the year became more remote after its most recent 5.6% monthly drop. To the southwest, despite 9.5% fewer vessel arrivals at the nearby port of Freeport, the port is clinging to a modest 3% uptick on a year-to-date basis.

Can Houston stick a positive landing with its 2016 arrival numbers given that it trails 2015 by a mere ½ of one percent? It certainly will do so with respect to the flow of containers which remain up 2% on a year-to-date basis despite a monthly downward creep of 3%. Granted, that was far better than Houston’s overall arrival picture which slogged through a 8% monthly dip. Overall, every vessel category - save one - was down for the month.

From best to worst, bulk carrier arrivals ticked up 1.4% for the month but remain more than 5% off last year’s pace. This should not come as any surprise given that Port Houston’s imports are down 10% for the year. On the opposite end of the spectrum for the month, car carrier arrivals hit a low for the year which resulted in a 30% plunge; however, 2016’s numbers are currently identical to 2015’s. General cargo’s monthly figures were down abruptly 21% and remain well behind 2015’s activity to the tune of 17%. Chemical tankers logged an uncharacteristic double-digit monthly dip – 14%. This vessel type will most likely finish below 2015’s arrival data since it is currently off last year’s mark by 5%. No matter, one should find solace in the fact that a number of chemical terminals are coming on line that can accommodate very large vessels. This was underscored this month when the world’s largest class of ethane carrier (i.e., VLEC) sailed from a Houston terminal laden with ethane.

LPG remains a bright spot in the regional trade picture as reflected by 7% more of these vessels calling upon Houston compared to last year. Nonetheless, there were 4% fewer arrivals over the course of the last month. Tanker activity also remains ahead of last year’s pace by nearly 6% in the wake of a 3.4% monthly decline. On the ocean-going tow front, 2016 portends to be a banner year with 17% more arrivals in 2016 even when one factors in the most recent 10% monthly drop. Closer to shore, the inland tow movements were just shy above break-even over the last month. While it will be quite close, the brownwater activity may chalk up a positive year vis-à-vis 2015 based on where the numbers currently stand - 0.7% to the good.


If all of that parsing of numbers did not put you to sleep, the mighty fall from October’s zenith to November’s nadir most likely did. It is never pleasant to come off of a trade high so abruptly. Yet, December’s numbers should shake off some of November’s duldrums. At least that is how things looked before the record warm weather generated a week’s worth of fog. In light of the misty murk that enshrouded the coast, we may not emerge from our somnolence until 2017.

  • Date January 13, 2017
  • Tags January 2017