Port Watch – Where Will Cupid’s Arrow Fall?

By Tom Marian, Buffalo Marine Service, Inc.

Buffalo 2016During Hallmark’s favorite month as Cupid’s quiver empties, Mardi Gras revelers live for today. Those in colder climes yearn for a respite from the ice and cold, and the expectation of new beginnings fuels optimism. It is an optimism filled with hope that eclipses uncertain markets, faltering commodities, and a less-than-secure job landscape. Besides, if events and indices are faltering in the year’s shortest month, it will pass quickly and all will be well when the vernal equinox arrives. So, given the eternal nature of hope, the Texas maritime trade picture will only get better after February’s rather subdued performance.

How subdued were things? Only the Port of Galveston could boast about a modest monthly gain – a gain that was less than 2%. Not unexpectedly, this was of little solace since the port is more than 27% off of last year’s start and its average ship count is well below 2015’s low. Several miles to the west, Port Freeport fared far better on a year-to-date basis as it posted a 7% gain despite a nearly 2% monthly decline. This is somewhat heartening for the port in the wake of last year’s lackluster performance.

2016 FEB GHPB Vessel Movement Database TexasPorts
As a whole, the Port of Texas City’s arrival numbers for the month were consistent with the exception of two terminals that suffered substantial drops. Nonetheless, Texas City’s monthly fall was 3.3% which pulled down its 2016 aggregate vessel arrivals to 7.3%.

The southern end of the state experienced some of the poorest results for the month. Brownsville’s arrivals plummeted by over 28% but, surprisingly, the port remained in the black on a year-to-date basis to the tune of 2%. Corpus Christi was not as fortunate as it ended up in the red for both the month and on an aggregate basis – 8% and 7% respectively. Both ports continue to reflect the realities of steeply discounted oil and the concomitant inverse-economic ripple effect. Mind you, the recent uptick in oil prices resulted in a slight increase in the regional well count. On the opposite side of the coast, Sabine’s monthly arrival numbers were off by 7.5%; however, the port’s January numbers were solid enough so that it remained 6% to the good vis-à-vis last year.

2015 Sixth Page Wortham
Houston’s performance followed the trend of its neighboring ports with 2.5% fewer arrivals for the month and almost 4% less arrivals over the last two months. There were a few bright spots with respect to the types of vessels that called upon the nation’s busiest petrochemical port. Tank vessels had their best performance since last September which translated into a 7% monthly gain and a 4% rise since the beginning of the year. Car carrier movements remain ahead of last year’s vessel calls at the end of the ship channel by one for the month and three for the year. Thus, car sales seem to be holding their own in the region. Container ships also put up modest monthly gains but still remain a bit off of last year’s pace. Bulkers saw a cautious monthly improvement of 3% but remain several arrivals below the previous year’s start which translated to a 5% wane. Even ro/ro vessels managed a surprise comeback as more of these ships arrived in Houston than the previous several months combined. Specifically, the average monthly arrival count for ro/ros has been one-per-month for the past two years; yet, four arrived in February.

The remainder of the Houston picture was a bit bleak starting with chemical tanker arrivals. This ship type has not seen a double-digit arrival number for nearly two years and started the year down 19% after an 18% monthly drop. As further evidence that the manufacturing pipeline on both the export and import side remains soft, general cargo arrivals have fallen another 21% over the last month and remain 21% off of last year’s pace. LPG exports remain up for the year by a torrid 30% even after registering a 9% loss for the month. Last, but certainly not least, oceangoing barge arrivals managed a 16% monthly jump; however, it too is 17% below 2015’s pace.2016 FEB GHPB Vessel Movement Database Houston

In sum, the end-of-winter pace was nothing to crow about; particularly when compared to last year. That said, non-incumbent election years tend to usher in periods of uncertainty. Hence, some of the diminished trade pace may be attributable to what party is handed the keys to the White House next January. Whatever the reason, the consumer will ultimately drive the direction of the commerce and maybe, just maybe, enough of cupid’s arrows will land amongst enough uncertain spenders so that they will blissfully open their wallets and buy lots of stuff!

  • Date April 12, 2016
  • Tags April 2016