Foreign waterborne trade through U.S. ports began feeling the pressures of supply disruptions, decreased demand, and low oil prices in the first quarter of 2020. Total trade value (the value of imports and exports) fell 7.3% compared to 2019 year-to-date, from $413.2 billion to $383.0 billion. Total trade tonnage was down 1.5%, falling from 343.7 million metric tons (MMT) to 338.7 MMT. However, the decline was driven by imports, which saw an 11.5% decline by total trade value and 11.0% decline by total trade tonnage. Foreign waterborne exports value increased by less than 1%, but coupled with the decline in imports, the U.S. waterborne foreign trade deficit dropped from $131.8 billion last year to $99.3 billion this year.
Top U.S. Ports Through March 2020
Houston led the nation in foreign waterborne tonnage through March with 48.8 MMT of total trade tonnage, an increase of 2.3% over 2019 year-to-date. This represents 14.4% of total foreign waterborne tonnage imported or exported from the U.S. Corpus Christi jumped several ranks to second by nearly doubling its total trade tonnage from 15.0 MMT in 2019 versus 29.1 MMT in 2020 through March. However, the remaining ports in the top 10 all faced declines from the same time period last year. In terms of total trade value, all ports in the top 10 except for Corpus Christi fell short of last’s years trade values. Houston remained the top export port in the U.S. by a wide margin, with 48.8 MMT of exports through the first quarter of 2020. Corpus Christi ranked second with 29.1 MMT, and New Orleans ranked third with 25.1 MMT.
Crude Oil Exports from Houston and Corpus Christi, January 2018 – March 2020
Houston Top Exports Through March 2020
Houston’s total waterborne foreign exports increased by 5.2% by tonnage but decreased by less than 1% by value. Houston has seen growth in the export of refined products, petroleum gases, and plastics. The first quarter of 2019 was the highest for Houston’s crude oil exports, which makes the current slide appear larger than it would be as compared to the fourth quarter of 2019.
Houston Top Imports Through March 2020
Houston’s total waterborne foreign imports decreased by 5.3% by tonnage and 10.6% by value. As with exports, crude oil imports were down. Steel tubes and pipes suffered the largest drop off, with seamless and welded tubes and pipes down 50% or more by tonnage. These commodities, commonly referred to as oil country tubular goods (OCTG), are widely used in drilling and oilfield applications. An April report by energy consulting firm Rystad Energy estimates that the current economic conditions will cause a 15% decline in OCTG globally this year, led by the U.S. as the largest OCTG market.
Houston Top Trade Partners Through March 2020
Houston remained a net exporting port, ending the first quarter of 2020 with a trade surplus of $8.2 billion. The drop in trade with Mexico was largely driven by the decline of two of the top three imports from Mexico: crude oil (down 13.7% by tonnage and 26.7% by value) and refined petroleum products (down 19.5% by tonnage and 39.3% by value). The total trade decline with China was also driven by lower imports. In China’s case, however, the contributors cover a wide variety of consumer goods, such as toys and furniture, and industrial goods, such as taps and valves used for pipes and storage tanks. On a positive note, exports of petroleum gases more than tripled by tonnage, from 47.8 thousand metric tons during the first quarter of 2019 to 206.1 thousand metric tons through March of this year.