America’s biggest ports face a new kind of paralysis

Rather than too much cargo as last year, ships are now bringing in too little

IT WAS CALLED the tweetstorm that saved Christmas. In October 2021 scores of freighters idled at anchor off the west coast of America unable to deliver imports to docks already choc-a-bloc with containers. To find out what was wrong Ryan Petersen, founder of Flexport, a logistics firm, took a boat tour of America’s biggest port complex. He concluded that the adjacent ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach were at a standstill largely because of a shortage of space, which meant empty containers could not be removed from the dock. “OVERWHELM THE BOTTLENECK!” he tweeted. The thread went viral. Politicians were stung into action. Long Beach relaxed restrictions on how high containers could be stacked. Goods moved again. Santa Claus heaved a sigh of relief.

In recent days your columnist took a similar boat trip. Rather than the pre-Christmas bustle, he witnessed another eerie paralysis. Except this time the cause was not surfeit but deficit. Only four container ships were docked at the Port of Los Angeles. Last year there would have been more than three times as many. There was hardly a longshoreman in sight, or crewmen on the ships. The cranes stood silently, like Ghosts of Christmas Past. The only vessel anchored offshore was an antiquated brigantine.

The languor reflected a staggering drop in cargo volumes to the two southern Californian ports, which normally welcome 37% of imports to America. On December 14th the Port of Los…