Monthly Container Traffic at the Port of Los Angeles, 1995-2021

Monthly Container Traffic at the Port of Los Angeles, 1995-2021

Source: Port of Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles / Long Beach port cluster (also known as the San Pedro Bay) is the most important center of container port activity in the Americas. As of 2020, they jointly handled more than 17.3 million TEU, of which Los Angeles accounted for 9.2 million. Like many North American container ports, the Port of Los Angeles has the following characteristics:

  • Imbalanced flows. As a reflection of negative trade balances maintained by the United States, particularly over the Pacific Trade, the amount of inbound loaded containers far exceeds outbound loaded containers. There are about 2.5 to 2.7 times more inbound containers than outbound containers.
  • Seasonality. The consumption of retail goods has a substantial impact on container port volumes. Retail cycles result in peak periods of activity between August to November and low periods of activity between February and March.
  • Economic cycles. During periods of recession the level of port activity declines, such as for the financial crisis of 2008-09. For instance, comparing February 2008 and February 2009, traffic declined by 33%. The Covid-19 pandemic initially had a strong negative impact on traffic (a dcline of 23% between March 2019 and March 2020). However, this decline was counterbalanced by a rapid surge in traffic in the second half of 2020 as the economy recovered and with deferred demand effects.

The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on port activity are apparent. First, volumes dropped significantly as lockdown measures were imposed in China and then in the United States. Then, traffic resumed and accelerated through a combination of shifting demand patterns (more household goods that are dominant in the transpacific trade) and financial stimulus. However, shipping lines and terminals had challenges to bring capacity back, a challenge exacerbated by container shortages. Exports of empty containers surged, apparently to the detriment of loaded exports, as empty containers were repositioned to Asia as soon as unloaded.