As of Sunday, around 87 container ships were classed as inport, meaning they are within 40 miles at the two sites, according to the Marine Exchange of Southern California. About 60 of those were physically anchored, several at the docks themselves, and the rest adrift. The maritime NGO said the ports’ anchorages are “essentially full”.
The delays are part of an ongoing nightmare for US importers, which have suffered from a surge in the rate paid for shipping from East Asia over the past year.
According to Freightos, a Hong Kong-based company which tracks container prices, moving a forty-foot container from East Asia to the US West Coast costs about $16,000, roughly ten times the typical pre-pandemic rate. It broke $20,000 over the summer, but pressures have softened in the past few weeks.
More than 70pc of US goods arrive by sea, but a shortage of truck drivers means they are stuck in port. Delays getting containers on to trains mean containers cannot be quickly moved out by rail either.
Some delays are specific to the US. The country’s ports’ gates close for several hours most days, and it is closed on Sundays.
But on the Chinese side (as in Europe), ports operate all day, almost every day.
With Chinese manufacturing exports rebounding at a staggering pace over recent months, the imbalance that creates has become increasingly visible.
Toy companies have told parents to shop early for Christmas. Some goods, such as toilet paper, are already being rationed.
The International Monetary Fund pins the blame for the global ructions on Covid, which shut factories and ports around the world last year and intermittently even now, slashing trade volumes. Demand has roared back, but is poorly matched by production levels, while ships and containers are left in the wrong place.
“The world distribution of shipping containers became highly distorted during the pandemic, leaving many stranded off their usual routes,” said the IMF in its World Economic Outlook.
“Temporary disruptions (such as the closure of the Suez Canal, restrictions in ports in China’s Pearl River Delta following Covid-19 outbreaks, and congestion in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach) exacerbated delays in delivery times.”