March 2023 issue contents
Container Trade and the U.S. Recovery

Lutz Kilian,a,b Nikos Nomikos,c and Xiaoqing Zhoua


Since the 1970s, exports and imports of manufactured goods have been the engine of international trade, and much of that trade relies on container shipping. This paper introduces a new monthly index of the volume of container trade to and from North America. Incorporating this index into a structural macroeconomic VAR model facilitates the identification of shocks to domestic U.S. demand as well as foreign demand for U.S. manufactured goods. We show that, unlike in the Great Recession, the primary determinant of the U.S. economic contraction in early 2020 was a sharp drop in domestic demand. Although detrended data for personal consumption expenditures and manufacturing output suggest that the U.S. economy has recovered to near 90 percent of pre-pandemic levels as of March 2021, our structural VAR model shows that the component of manufacturing output driven by domestic demand had only recovered to 59 percent of pre-pandemic levels and that of real personal consumption only to 76 percent. The difference is mainly accounted for by unexpected reductions in frictions in the container shipping market.

JEL Code: E32, E37, F47, F62

 Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas
b  ´╗┐CEPR 
c  ´╗┐Bayes Business School, City, University of London 

Online appendix (PDF)