Waterborne Foreign Trade Statistics: First Quarter of 2016

Christine Schlenker, GHPB

U.S. Trade Overview
U.S. total waterborne foreign trade, which includes the value of exports plus imports, ended the first quarter of 2016 down 9.0% from the first quarter of 2015, a decline from $378.4 billion to $344.2 billion. Nearly $19.4 billion of the $36.2 billion decline was attributed to crude oil, petroleum oils and fuels, coal, and pet coke. Positive growth was seen in semiconductor trade, increasing by $1.18 billion, and continuing the trend seen last year, total trade of cars and passenger vehicles increased by $972.7 million.

Total trade by waterborne foreign tonnage declined by 1.4% year-over-year from 304.9 million metric tons to 300.6 million metric tons. The reduction was driven by coal: total coal tonnage declined by 6.6 million metric tons, of which 6.3 million metric tons were attributed to exports. Highlighting the impact of the decline in the price of crude oil, all of the other aforementioned commodities that declined by value experienced strong growth by tonnage, which somewhat offset the negative impact of coal.

Top Port Rankings Value

Top Port Rankings Tonnage

Source: GHPB analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data

Texas Ports
Onshore rig counts in Texas were down 58.7% first quarter year-over-year according to the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers, and oil price per barrel was down over 33%. With the prevalence of petroleum-based commodities and oilfield services materials and equipment moving through Texas ports, the value and tonnage declines are not surprising.

No Texas port escaped from the value declines precipitated by the decline in the value of oil: all but one experienced between 22% and 50% first quarter drops. Freeport eked out a mere 3.1% decline due to its increased imports and exports of passenger vehicles and increased imports of large machinery, like excavators.

Based on tonnage, five Texas ports ranked in the top 20 in the U.S., and three placed in the top 10: Houston at first, Corpus Christi at seventh, and Port Arthur at eighth. Port Arthur’s fellow Sabine-Neches Waterway port, Beaumont, moved about half of the tonnage of Port Arthur and ranked 16.

The Port of Galveston, while its waterborne foreign trade in tonnage and value seem to be dwindling, should not be discounted. These statistics do not reflect cruise operations, which is one of Galveston’s key functions. The impact of Galveston’s recently-opened terminal expansion with increased roll-on roll-off cargo from BMW, detailed more thoroughly in this month’s spotlight article, will be seen in the next quarterly trade update.

Texas ports

Source: GHPB analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data

Houston Exports

Houston export commodities

Source: GHPB analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data

Houston’s exports through the first quarter increased 8.2% by tonnage but decreased 19.5% by value. Exports of petroleum gases, polyethylene, ethers, and electric generating sets are contributing greatly to the increase in tonnage and are mitigating the value decline. Crude oil exports by tonnage have surpassed polyethylene and cyclical hydrocarbons as one of the top exports by tonnage.

On the opposite side of the scale, products generally connected with oilfield production – heavy machinery; and taps, cocks, valves; etc. – fell in value by 51.3% and 26.8%, respectively. Declines in tonnage were led by ferrous scrap material, down 170 thousand metric tons, or 71.8%, from its previous 237 thousand metric ton mark, and pet coke, down 109 thousand metric tons, a more moderate 7.9% decline.

Houston Imports

Houston import commodities

Source: GHPB analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data

Houston’s first quarter imports were down by 34.6% by value and 13.4% by tonnage compared to the first quarter of 2015. The increase seen through 2015 of cars and passenger vehicles has plateaued, with only a small increase in tonnage seen through the first quarter and almost no change in value.

Crude oil continued to top the import chart by value and tonnage, despite declines in both. Crude oil and petroleum oil contributed 9.5 million metric tons of the total 15.5 million metric tons. Gravels and cement materials, totaling only $28.9 million in import value together, nonetheless ranked third and fifth, respectively, by import tonnage, with 564 thousand and 514 thousand metric tons.

Houston Trade Partners map

Trading partners chart

Houston Trade Partners
As Houston’s imports have fallen more sharply than its exports, the trade balance (the value of exports minus imports) grew over 150%. This is tempered by noticing that the value of total trade (exports plus imports) dropped by 26.6%. Total trade by tonnage saw an increase of 2.6% over the first quarter year-to-date.

While Houston’s top ten trade partners have been mostly unchanging over the past year, this quarter experienced some interesting changes. China claimed the top trade partner by value spot from Mexico, a position it slowly gained on through 2015. By tonnage, Mexico still trades over twice that of China with Houston. Venezuela fell from the top ten, a consequence of declining crude prices. Japan entered Houston’s top ten trading partners, and shows a remarkably high percent change in trade balance. This was accomplished by over 40% decrease in imports from Japan – led by steel and iron tubes – and over 55% increase in exports to Japan, led by petroleum gases.


  • Date June 14, 2016
  • Tags June 2016