Waterborne Foreign Trade Statistics: Fourth Quarter of 2015

By Christine Schlenker, GHPB

U.S. Trade Overview

U.S. total trade ended 2015 10.6% below 2014 by total waterborne foreign trade by value, a decline from $1.75 trillion to $1.56 trillion. The obvious culprit of the decline is the fall-off in the price of oil. Approximately $146.6 billion of the $185.7 billion decrease was attributed to crude oil and refined products. Cars and passenger vehicles led the commodity groups that experienced value growth in 2015, increasing by $6.5 billion to reach $141.1 billion total value.

2015 Q4 Graphs us value
Total trade by waterborne foreign tonnage declined only slightly, 1.7%, from 1.29 billion metric tons in 2014 to 1.26 billion metric tons in 2015. The largest commodity contributors to the 21.6 million metric ton decline were coal, which fell 20.9 million metric tons, and crude oil down 10.6 million metric tons. However, the 13.2 million metric ton increase in refined products and 6.5 million metric ton increase in petroleum gases mitigated the impact of the tonnage decline.

2015 Q4 Graphs us tonnage

Texas Ports

2014-houston-pilots-ad-yellow-roseThe only Texas marine port to see an increase in annual foreign waterborne trade value was Brownsville; all other Texas ports experienced double-digit declines. However, at $1.2 billion in total trade, Brownsville contributed less than a percent to the total trade value of Texas ports, valued at $204.7 billion for 2015, a decline of $67.6 billion from 2014. Houston’s total trade of $136.0 billion for 2015, about 66.5% of Texas total trade, fell 18.6% from 2014’s $167.1 billion. Houston was the only Texas port to rank in the top ten U.S. ports by value. Corpus Christi, Port Arthur, and Texas City ended in the top 25, though, ranked 20, 21, and 23, respectively.

When considering tonnage rather than value, the picture for Texas is not as gloomy. Total waterborne foreign tonnage for Texas ports increased by 6.2 billion metric tons over 2014, ending 2015 at 321.7 billion metric tons. Houston, Port Arthur, and Corpus Christi represented Texas in the top ten U.S. ports by tonnage. The distribution of tonnage across Texas ports is more balanced than value, with Houston bearing 41.9% of the load.

texas ports

Houston Exports

Houston’s import tonnage declined 8.2% in 2015, ending at 63.8 million metric tons. The value of imports dropped over 20% from $75.0 billion to $59.5 billion. The entries into the list of Houston’s top ten commodity imports have been fairly consistent over the past few years. Crude oil imports continued to top the rankings of value and tonnage in 2015, despite declines of 59.0% by value and 19.7% by tonnage from 2014 totals. Break bulk cargos often used in the oil field, such as steel pipes, suffered double-digits losses as well. Imports by tonnage were buoyed by increases in refined products and cement.

Houston exports

Houston Imports

Houston’s exports grew 9.1% by tonnage in 2015, though they declined 16.9% by value. Several bulk commodity categories saw large reductions in exports by tonnage. Particularly, pet coke (the third ranked export by tonnage) and wheat (fourth ranked by tonnage) fell 12% and 59%, respectively. Tonnage declines were offset by strong performances of refined products, petroleum gases, ethers, crude oil, and polyethylene.

Many of Houston’s top exports declined by value, driven down by the price of oil. Despite that, the volumes of polyethylene and crude oil exported increased enough to experience growth by value over 2014 as well.

Houston imports

Houston Trade Partners 

Houston trading partners map_1

Houston trade partners

Houston, commonly acknowledged as an export port, maintained a trade surplus $16.9 billion through the end of 2015. The U.S. as a whole experienced a trade deficit of $539.5 billion in 2015, down from $550.9 billion in 2014. Mexico remained Houston’s top trading partner by value and tonnage. However, the value of Mexico’s trade has fallen from $20.6 billion in 2014 to $12.4 billion in 2015 due to the price of oil, and China’s increased imports to Houston have placed China in a close second at $12.1 billion. The tonnage exchanged with Mexico, 29.5 million metric tons, continued to outstrip the other countries by a large margin. China ranked second with 10.2 billion metric tons.Vopak-GHPB_Ad-PRESS-012115

Looking Forward

While the volatility of the price of oil continues to impact Houston’s economy, the chemical industry is preparing for a renaissance. Two of the Port Bureau’s monthly Commerce Club luncheon speakers this year will address the impacts of the chemical industry on the regional economy and port of Houston, so stay tuned for the luncheon recaps in future editions of the Port Bureau News.


  • Date April 12, 2016
  • Tags April 2016