Waterborne Foreign Trade Statistics: First Half of 2018

Top U.S. and Texas Ports

U.S. waterborne foreign trade through the first half of 2018 improved year-to-date over 2017 by 10.5% in total waterborne foreign trade by value to reach $848.2 billion according the statistics published by the U.S. Census Bureau. Total waterborne foreign trade, more simply referred herein as total trade, includes exports and imports that leave or enter the U.S. via vessels. Total trade by tonnage was also up from 678.8 million metric tons (MMT) to 708.5 MMT, a year-to-date increase of 4.4%.

The ranking of top 10 ports by both value and tonnage changed little between the 2017 and 2018. Houston retained its ranks: 1st by tonnage with 89.6 MMT and 3rd by value with $76.0 billion. These increased over year-to-date 2017 by 7.4% and 17.9%, respectively. Los Angeles sported the reciprocal of Houston’s rankings: 1st place ranking by value with $140.8 billion in total waterborne trade and 3rd place by tonnage with 35.6 MMT. The only top 10 port to experience a decline in total trade value was Tacoma, down about 3.5% from $25.0 billion to $24.1 billion, which allowed New Orleans to push ahead for 9th rank.

While no other ports from Texas joined Houston in the top 10 by value, Corpus Christi, Port Arthur, and Beaumont ranked in the top 25. By tonnage, Corpus Christi and Port Arthur also made it into the top 10, with Beaumont, Freeport, and Texas City landing in the top 25. In total, Texas represented 30.7% of total tonnage (218.1 MMT) and 17.3% of total trade by value ($146.4 billion) for the U.S. Within Texas, Houston outstripped the other ports by a large margin, representing 48.4% of total trade by tonnage and 61.7% of total trade by value. The next largest port, Corpus Christi, contributed 16.2% of tonnage and 11.3% by value.


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 in value by double-digit percentages. While the top 10 exported commodities by value are primarily liquid bulk cargoes, some of these cargoes are mostly containerized. 99.1% of polyethylene, 99.6% of PVC, and 89.6% of motor vehicle cabs and bodies were transported via container during the first half of 2018.

Houston imports of crude declined by 22.7% by tonnage, but increased in value by 2.7%, likely due to the increasing price per barrel of oil. Two import categories that were targeted by tariffs this year, seamless and welded iron and steel pipes, both retained their usual top-10 positions in Houston’s imported commodities. However, the values per ton increased significantly over the year-to-date values from 2017. It is important to note that the dollar values reported by the Census Bureau are the customs value before fees and tariffs.


Houston’s Top Trade Partners

Houston maintained a $8.9 billion trade surplus for the first half of 2018, an increase of 18.3% over 2017 year-to-date. As during 2017, Mexico just slightly beat out China as Houston’s top trading partner. Between NAFTA reform negotiations with Mexico and escalating tariffs on goods imported from China, Houston’s trade is bound to be impacted. Look for future articles from the Port Bureau exploring potential trade impacts.

Christine Schlenker, Director, Special Projects & Communication, Greater Houston Port Bureau



  • Date September 26, 2018
  • Tags 2018, 2018 Sept