Driven by a surge in furniture and auto parts shipments to the U.S., containerized imports in March rose 7.3% over 2011. This increase to 1.37 million 20-foot-equivalent units came on the heels of a 5.9% decline in February.

On a month-to-month basis, overall imports climbed 15.2% in March, following a contraction of 19% in February. For the first quarter, overall imports advanced 2% year-over-year to 4.03 million TEUs, which compared favorably to the 1.5% forecast in the March 2012 issue of JOC Container Shipping Outlook.

"Latest TEU data supports my view of very modest imports growth through the second half of the year," says Mario O. Moreno, economist for The Journal of Commerce/PIERS. "Although the U.S. economy is showing signs of deceleration, it will likely be momentary, as the Fed has made it clear it is prepared to do more if conditions worsen. Imports growth should regain speed in the second half of the year."

Imports from Asia for the first quarter barely rose 0.5% versus Moreno's forecast of 1%. On a country level, shipments from China showed the most gains, up 13%, or 66,681 TEUs, to a total of 579,181 TEUs. This sharp jump in shipments from China is mostly owed to an easier year-over-year comparison with March 2011 base as the 2012 Lunar New Year came early, Moreno said.