News & Updates: Port Bureau News: October 2019

Port Watch: Fall Ball Trumps Fall Stall

Monday, November 4, 2019  
Share |

By  Tom Marian, Buffalo Marine Service, Inc.

Cooler temps, shorter days and fall baseball punctuates the air with excitement; elicits a yearning for something savory; or simply creates the expectation of resting one’s weary bones before a crackling fire. It’s a time to take stock of things; a time to prepare for the holidays; a time for that final burst of energy prior to winter’s solstice. Some years there is no ball to be had or the Indian Summer refuses to yield its sultry grip or – commercially – the flow of commerce from beyond the horizon suddenly subsides. Perhaps it is temporary, and tonnages will rebound when the Trick or Treaters descend upon suburbia. Whatever the situation, only one port in the state saw positive monthly arrival numbers in the wake of a 6.8% overall wane. Fortunately, irrespective of that softening, Texas remains in positive territory compared to last year.

Paradoxically, Texas City was the sole positive percentage port after 4 months of arrival declines. Unfortunately, the 8% bump follows a month that saw the fewest number of arrivals. To date, the port remains near the bottom of year-over-year performers as reflected in its current 7% deficit. While it is unlikely that Texas City will best its 2018 arrival count, there is much dredging in store for this port next year. This better positions Texas City to handle more tonnage. The nearby Port of Galveston may not have posted a monthly gain, but it retains the top slot for the highest year-over-year percentage rise at over 23%. Granted, its steady diet of cruise ships has gone a long way in keeping the port busy; however, the port’s recent success in attracting new business has served it well in light of the moribund state of the offshore oil industry.

Focusing on activity to the southwest, the Port Freeport hit a bit of a shoal with its largest monthly percentage drop of the year at nearly 19%. Nevertheless, as all mariners know, one can navigate around such impediments. True to form, Freeport continues to do so on a year-over-year basis V – 2019 is outperforming 2018 by 9%. Corpus Christi is also ahead of the game in 2019 by 1.7% following a 2.2% monthly downtick. Meanwhile, down by the Rio Grande, the Port of Brownsville experienced its most pronounced monthly setback of the year at over 33%. This border port remains 7.5% behind its previous year’s performance due to trade instability with Mexico.

Leapfrogging to the other Texas border – the Louisiana state line – the port of Sabine chalked up the second-highest monthly deficit for Texas ports at nearly 21%. A 37% decrease in LPG arrivals and 50% fewer bulker moorings certainly did not help the monthly numbers. Like Freeport, this port remains undaunted in terms of building on 2018’s numbers given that it is outpacing last year by 5%. A remarkable feat when one considers the port has logged four consecutive monthly arrival decreases. It, too, stands to take its trade numbers to the next level when the deepening and widening of the Sabine-Neches waterway is completed.

Houston is also confronted by a dredging problem. Its years of success and vast investment in terminal expansions has fueled the arrival of ever-larger ships. Hence, there are times when commerce is hamstrung by daylight-only transits and one-way traffic restrictions due to a channel in dire need of expansion. Albeit, the channel was not overly taxed in September on both the bluewater and brownwater front given that 7% fewer inland tows and 2.6% fewer deep drafts navigated the Houston Ship Channel. Of course, tropical storm Imelda’s several-inch-per-hour deluge did not help matters; particularly on the upper reaches of the ship channel which experienced Harvey-like flooding.

The month’s biggest arrival losers – percentage-wise – was not limited to any one particular shipping sector. Bulkers lead the deficit pack at 29% followed by tankers at over 14%. While tankers remain in the red for the year by over 5%, bulkers have managed to hold their own vis-à-vis last year with a 7% positive arrival yield. Car carriers have been particularly hard hit in the last quarter. This category of vessel saw its fewest number of arrivals for the year – 6 – foreshadowing flagging demand for new imports. General cargo and LPG posted rather robust monthly increases – 19% and 11% respectively; however, both remain off on a year-to-date basis. Chemical tankers bested every other category – save general cargo vessels – eclipsing last month’s arrival tally by over 18%; maintaining a 3% lead over last year.

Foul weather aside, the final month of the third quarter could have been better. Historically, it is a month where trade breaks out of the summer doldrums. Yet, at least half of the ports are faring better on a year-to-date basis. Thus, the fall stall has not been too enervating. Mind you, unless you hail from the Big Apple, all that really matters this year is that the fall ball season will end on a high note in Houston.

About the Author

Tom Marian is the General Counsel of Buffalo Marine Service, Inc. He also serves on the Executive Committee of the Port Bureau Board of Directors.