Trade Update-Waterborne Foreign Trade Statistics: 2017

Top U.S. Ports in 2017

U.S. waterborne foreign trade in 2017 was a welcome improvement over 2016, ending the year with an increase of 8.6% in total waterborne foreign trade by value at $1.6 trillion according to the statistics published by the U.S. Census Bureau in February 2018. Total waterborne foreign trade, more simply referred to herein as total trade, includes exports and imports that leave or enter the U.S. via vessels. Total trade by tonnage was also up in 2017, finishing at 1.4 billion metric tons, an increase of 8.1% over 2016.

All but one of the top ten ports by total trade value improved in 2017. Houston, the only port in Texas to make it into the top ten, increased by 16.8% in total trade value, up to $131.5 billion. Houston’s trade represents about 8.2% of the U.S.’ total trade. Los Angeles came in first by total trade value with $284.1 billion, up 4.4% from 2016. The only top ten port that saw a decline in 2017 was Tacoma, which fell by about 7.8% by total trade value.

When considering total waterborne tonnage, Houston ranked first with 165.0 million metric tons, up 7.2% from 2016. This was 11.9% of the U.S.’ total tonnage. Five of the top ten and eleven of the top twenty ports by total tonnage are in the Gulf of Mexico. Port Arthur was the only top ten tonnage port to see a year-over-year decline in tonnage, but only by less than 1%.

Texas Ports in 2017

Statewide, Houston accounts for 63.3% of total trade value and 47.3% of total tonnage. Corpus Christi comes in a distant second with 10.9% of total trade and 16.4% of total tonnage. Despite Hurricane Harvey, which impacted almost the entire Texas Coast, statewide total waterborne tonnage was up by 12.2% over 2016.

The big story in Texas and the Gulf Coast for 2017 was crude exports. Corpus Christi, Beaumont, and Houston, in that order, were the top three waterborne crude oil exporting ports in 2017. By cargo value, this equated to approximately 103 million barrels through Corpus Christi (valued at $5.8 billion), 80.4 million barrels through Beaumont ($4.7 billion), and 56.6 million barrels through Houston ($3.2 billion).

The share of these crude oil exports compared to the ports’ total exports shows the scale and diversity difference between Houston and the other ports in Texas. Houston’s crude oil exports represent just 4.4% of exports by value, but they represent 36.9% and 42.6% by value for Corpus Christi and Beaumont, respectively. During the oil downturn a few years ago, Houston fared better than its Gulf Coast neighbors due to its cargo diversity.

Houston’s Top Commodities

Houston’s top exports and imports are dominated by petroleum and chemical products. Oil, crude oil, and petroleum gas exports all continue to grow. The differences in the 2016/2017 percent change by price and by tonnage indicates how much crude oil prices recovered on 2017.

Houston’s imports of iron and steel tubes, seamless or otherwise, had their best year since the oil crash in 2014. Houston is the key destination for these imports, bringing in 84% of the seamless tube and pipe and about 69% of welded tube and pipe.

Houston’s imports of unwrought aluminum were the highest recorded in the U.S. Census’s database beginning in 2003, although Houston’s imports of this commodity are only about 10% of total imports.

As of this writing, the just-announced tariff on steel and aluminum imports is not fully defined, and therefore, its impacts are as yet unknown. However, based on historical and economic evidence, Houston can expect a decline in these and other related imports as some of the projects relying on these products become infeasible under the increased price.

Top Houston Trade Partners in 2017

Houston continued to maintain a trade surplus in 2017 with a $12.0 billion surplus, a decline of 8.9% from 2016. The U.S. ports as a whole ran a trade deficit of $549.7 billion. The trade growth with China is driven by exports of petrochemicals and imports of finished goods, such as ceramic tiles, toys, furniture, and electronics. While the number one national containerized export (or backhaul) to China is recycled waste paper, Houston’s top two containerized exports to China were polyethylene and petroleum gases, and 99% of the polyethylene exports were containerized. China enacted a ban on post-consumer recyclables on January 1, 2018, that includes waste paper and plastics. Industry analysts expect this ban will drive up demand of new plastics to absorb most of the U.S. polyethylene supply coming online in 2018 – about 62% of which is coming from the Texas Gulf Coast. So, while other ports’ top backhaul was just banned, Houston’s has become more in demand.

Christine Schlenker, GHPB

  • Date March 19, 2018
  • Tags 2018 March