News & Updates: Port Bureau News: May 2020

Port Watch: What Would Alice Think?

Thursday, May 28, 2020  
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By Tom Marian, Buffalo Marine Service, Inc.


“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”


“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat. “In that direction,”

the Cat said, waving its right paw round, “lives a Hatter: and in that direction,” waving

the other paw, “lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they’re both mad.”


“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.


 “Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat, “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”


“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.


“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”


A mere year ago, everything before us today could only be explained as a chapter out of the Twilight Zone or a Black Mirror episode. Where solo drivers donning masks speed past empty businesses enroute to liquor stores; where bandana-faced shoppers handle multiple items and never place them in the shopping cart; where countenance-covered customers offer well-worn cash to cashiers hunkered down behind plastic shields. Surely King John would compare these bizarre scenes to the “foles of Gotham” where inhabitants were attempting to drown an eel in water; dragging carts upon a large barn; and shading the forest from the sun. In the end, the king lodged in another village and never dared to visit Gotham to lay claim to its road or – for that matter – spend a farthing.


There are far fewer farthings being spent these days in the United States. This is evident in the substantial decrease in the number and velocity of transactions; the dramatic reduction in manufacturing; and unprecedented rise in the nation’s unemployment numbers. The jump in e-commerce may be viewed as a bit of a salve but things are certainly slowing down from coast to coast. Even the ports of Texas are beginning to feel the impact of an anemic economy. Regional inland tow movements plunged 11%, state-wide arrivals dropped by 9.5% and all but two of Texas’ largest ports posted negative monthly arrival numbers.


Things were not all bleak when viewed through the year-to-date lens with all but two ports outperforming their 2019 pace. Not surprisingly, given Galveston’s cruise-ship centric business, the most recent monthly collapse of over 30% pulled 2020 below 2019’s arrival percentages by 3.5%. Unfortunately, corona virus concerns will most likely chill cruise ship demand for the foreseeable future. Hence, 2020 will have a tough time building upon the port’s gains in 2019. The other port that has fallen behind last year’s tempo is Sabine. The explanation is boiled down to one word – oil; not many takers for the what used to be known as “black gold”. In April, the port saw its fewest arrivals for the year with 3.5% fewer arrivals resulting in the arrival count falling 8% into the red for the year.


Ironically, the port with the most massive monthly arrival decrease continues to outdistance all other Texas ports with respect to bettering 2019’s arrival results. Freeport chalked up a 33% dive in arrivals over the course of the last month. Yet, it is still a torrid 28% ahead of the previous year’s tallies due to solid gains in LNG and LPG exports, RoRo transits and general cargo movements. Despite the drumbeat of economic pessimism, Freeport is full speed ahead. Brownsville also posted an enviable year-to-date count at nearly 25% higher than the first four months of 2019, no doubt aided by its highest arrival count for the year, resulting in 17% more vessel calls into this port on the border.


The nearby Port of Corpus Christi is also the beneficiary of double-digit gains over 2019’s vessel activity despite recording its lowest vessel count for the year. While the monthly arrivals were off by over 6%, the port remains solidly in positive territory on a year-to-date basis by more than 18%. It will remain to be seen if this trend continues in light of the rapidly decreasing demand for crude given that there may be many more months of retrenchment in the offing. Texas City’s monthly wane was less pronounced than that of Corpus Christi at negative 16%; however, April’s arrival count was one of the lowest in a number of years. Despite the port clinging to a 1.7% year-to-date arrival gain, the next several months do not bode well as crude exports slow to a trickle and the demand for petrochemical constituents languishes.



Houston’s economic diversity and burgeoning population certainly insulates the nation’s largest petrochemical port from the fate of the legendary Gotham. Yet, there are some chinks in its marine portfolio. The most recent monthly arrival tally fell by nearly 6% but the Queen of the Texas ports is outperforming 2019’s figures by just shy 2%. The arrival decreases were distributed across the entire spectrum of vessel categories, with the exception of ocean-going tows which bounced up 20% over the last month. Car carriers were down to their lowest level in recent history with only 5 arrivals. This category is off by 20% for the year. Bulkers have also been hard pressed to approach 2019’s numbers with 22% fewer arrivals on a year-to-date basis after another monthly lapse of 5%. General cargo is suffering a similar fate as bulkers; albeit, the numbers are a bit rosier with a 7% monthly and 5% year-to-date wane respectively. Container vessels, on the other hand, exceed last year’s activity by over 10% following April’s 6% arrival drop.


All of the energy transporters were in the red for the month but at least LPG and chemical tankers continue to enjoy a more robust 2020 vis-à-vis 2019. Tankers had been holding their own on a year-to-date basis but, unfortunately, the latest monthly stumble of 10% pulled the category into the red compared to last year. Granted, it was less than 1%. Unfortunately, the trends of today do not favor tomorrow’s numbers. After all, it’s all rather elementary. No demand, no need for supply. Consequently, the wheels of industry slowly grind to a halt.


So, as Alice munches on her cakes and argues with the Queen of Hearts on the merits of rendering verdicts before the fact are presented, one wonders what would she think about ceasing all that was? Admittedly, when one wanders down the rabbit hole, the unfamiliar surroundings render what was once clear murky. Yet, the inhabitant of that particular abode probably summed up the situation best when he ruminated, “when I used to read fairy tales, I fancied that kind of thing never happened, and now here I am in the middle of one!”


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.