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BRIDGETON, MO & WASHINGTON, DC-Though a widely followed index of US shipping activity declined in October after rising in September, a major research source projects import cargo volume at the nation’s major container ports could soon see the first year-over-year increases in more than two years. The Cass Freight Index from Bridgeton-based Cass Information Systems Inc. dropped to 1.52 in October from 1.55 a month earlier, but the most recent Port Tracker report from the Washington-based National Retail Federation (NRF) and IHS Global Insight says year-over-year declines in monthly shipping volumes should begin to reverse in February.

Both sources agree the remainder of 2009 is likely to see a continuation of year-over-year declines. Thomas M. Zygmunt, who manages the Cass index, notes the index has dropped in November and December for the last three years and says there is little reason to expect the pattern to change now. Port Tracker, released Nov. 23, forecasts that volume for October, traditionally the peak month of the year, will come in 15% percent below last year’s level, while November’s will be 11% down. However, it predicts December’s level will be even with last year’s level and January’s will fall only 3%. The organization reports that September, the most recent month for which actual numbers were available, saw a 3% drop from August and 16% drop from September ’08.

But both Cass and the NRF also anticipate a positive shift in the near future. In Zygmunt’s opinion, “The (October) decline might be more a reflection of the past than a window on the future.” Meanwhile, IHS Global Insight economist Paul Bingham observes, “The second half of 2009 has continued to see declines from 2008′s levels, but not as large as we saw during the first half of this year. These ‘less bad’ numbers are evidence that the industry is seeing early signs of recovery.”The NRF projects a February cargo total of 973,872 20-foot-equivalent-units (TEUs), a 16% increase over February ’09. March is forecast at 1.02 million TEUs, a 5% increase over March ’09. Jonathan Gold, NRF vice president for supply chain and customs policy, says of the projected February reversal, “This could be the turnaround we’ve been waiting to see for a long time. There’s not enough data yet to establish a clear trend, but we’re hopeful that this is a sign of recovery.”

The Cass index Cass is based on the expenditures and shipments of the company’s clients. Last year, Cass audited about 26 million shipments representing roughly $17.5 billion in shipper expenditures. Port Tracker covers container import activity at nine US ports: Los Angeles/Long Beach; Oakland, CA; Seattle; Tacoma, WA; Houston; New York/New Jersey; Hampton Roads, VA; Charleston, SC; and Savannah, GA.

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