News & Updates: Port Bureau News: August 2020

Port Watch: Begone Sisyphus

Thursday, August 27, 2020  
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By Tom Marian, Buffalo Marine Service, Inc.

Condemned by the gods to push a boulder to the top of a mountain, one can only imagine Sisyphus’ torment as the boulder rolled back to where he had commenced his toil. Particularly given the fact that he was “sentenced” to this existentialist horror for all eternity. Regardless of Sisyphus’ effort, this mythic millstone would never remain at the mountaintop. It was the most meaningless of tasks, with the intent of destroying all hope since progress would never truly be attained. Hoping for a recovery during these tumultuous times occasionally takes on a Sisyphean tone as every gain is suddenly erased by a setback. Pronounced drops in unemployment claims are followed by discussions on permanent job losses; optimism engendered by lower than expected virus mortality rates, is sapped by reports on the rapid fading of antibodies of the previously infected; and rebounding maritime trade is suddenly undermined by economic headwinds from across the globe.


July throughout Texas’ ports was laced with some degree of hope as the overall arrival count was up 2% for the month. Unfortunately, the aggregate year-to-date vessel tally fell a bit more to nearly 4%. The regional brownwater component of maritime trade was slightly rosier, with its first gain in 4 months which resulted in a near 6% monthly rise. Yet, the tow count still lags 2019’s numbers by about 1%.


Despite the overall arrival gains in July, half of the Texas ports finished the month in the red. Brownsville’s strong second quarter gave way to a weak start to the third quarter. Thus, tying its arrival low for the year with a 3.8% wane. Yet, the port still retains the lead for most improved as compared to last year with 32% more arrivals than the previous year. On the other end of the trade spectrum, the port of Galveston has the dubious distinction of the most significant percentage year-over-year drop at over 17%. No amount of lay berth moorings can offset the demise of the cruise ship business as reflected in July’s 13.8% downward spiral. Texas City’s lackluster 2020 performance is not as bleak as Galveston’s, but it still remains 13.4% behind that of last year. Its fate has been tied to the languishing trade of petrochemicals and export of crude with several of its major terminals seeing no less than 30% fewer vessels. Texas City did shake off a bit of that malaise with a 5% uptick in July.


If ever a port felt that the curse of Sisyphus was hanging over its head, it would most likely be Sabine. Another month, another fall in the vessel arrival count. It is a port toiling to achieve some semblance of a monthly gain after ending 2019 on a high note. July’s 3.7% monthly loss heralded a new nadir for the year as the port fell further behind 2019’s pace by over 16%. The port of Freeport was the final port to close out the month of July in the red with its second lowest arrival count for the year. Despite the most recent 3.4% dip, Freeport is faring quite well, year-to-date wise, given its current 15.2% improvement over the previous year’s arrival figures. Corpus Christi is also solidly ahead of last year’s arrival activity by more than 13%. In fact, July was the port’s most pronounced percentage gain for the year at 20.5%. Perhaps this level of commerce will hold fast rather than rapidly subside.



There was not much positive to reflect upon with respect to Houston’s trade activity other than the fact that it eked out a somewhat modest gain during what is normally one of the slowest trade months of the year. That aside, three more vessels over the course of the last month will only add to the year-over-year doldrums which currently stand at minus 4.2%. A few bright spots persist with respect to the vessel type arrivals. LPG moves are enjoying a prosperous year with 13% more arrivals on a year-to-date basis following the most recent monthly gain of 7%. General Cargo enjoyed a healthy 22% rebound in July. Regardless, it remains roughly 6% behind last year. A greater number of container ships transported 11% more TEUs over the last month. This was consistent with the 10% increase in container ship callings in July. Nevertheless, while 2020 is ahead of 2019 arrival account by over 5%, the container count is only up a mere 1%. From an economic perspective, the more telling number is the fact that full import container movements are down 6% for the year. On a positive note, full export containers are up 1% for that same period.


Chemical tankers remain off by 5% for the year after tying its arrival count low for the year with the most recent 5.4% decrease. Tankers squeaked out a 1% monthly gain but continue to lag 2019’s arrivals by just shy 12%. Car carrier traffic continues to remain rather bleak in 2020 as it now stands 36% below 2019’s vessel calls. Bulker traffic to and from the port of Houston are not as nearly moribund as that of the car carriers; however, there are still over 16% fewer calls of this vessel type over the course of the last month and the year.

In a state that is as economically diversified as Texas, setbacks on the waterfront are part of the economic cycles that accompany the ebb and flow of international trade. Such highs and lows or bullishness followed by bearishness inexorably yields net positive gains in the long run. This is the story of progress and the dividend of hope that it yields. Sisyphus, on the other hand, was doomed to march down the mountain again and again and again with no hope of ceasing such fruitless toil. Albert Camus would argue that Sisyphus’ awareness of such an absurdity would lead to a state of contented acceptance - regardless of its hopelessness. Perhaps that would be an acceptable state of things in the dark world of Communism but, in a nation of the free, the hope for a better future focuses on the positive rather than wallowing in the gloom of failure. So, begone Sisyphus, and let us return to the task of living a life filled with hope and opportunity.

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.