“Incoming goods are down so much that the twin ports are on pace to record their second straight year of declines in overall international trade.”

Exports jump at L.A., Long Beach ports but imports falter
By Ronald D. White, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer 
September 2, 2008

Forget scrap paper, plastics, scrap metal and the bounty of agricultural harvests. Until this year, the biggest U.S. contribution to the international supply chain were vast mountains of empty cargo containers outbound on ships to China, where they were quickly refilled with the imports on which American consumers have come to depend.

“For the longest time, we used to joke that our biggest export was our fine California air,” said Eric Caris, assistant director of marketing for the Port of Los Angeles. “The good news for us in 2008 is that we are finally exporting more loaded containers than empties.”

From January to July, exports jumped about 23% compared with the same period of 2007 at the nation’s two busiest container ports, Los Angeles and Long Beach. But the export boom overshadows a deep pullback in U.S. consumer spending.

Imports are down so much that the twin ports are on pace to record their second straight year of declines in overall international trade. That hasn’t happened in at least 30 years, despite a handful of national recessions along the way.

The slowdown has hit almost every harbor in North America.

Of the 10 busiest seaports that are tracked every month by the nation’s largest retailers for signs of congestion, only two are doing more business than last year. One is Vancouver, Canada, which is serving an economy much healthier than that of the U.S. The other is Savannah, Ga., which is winning market share as the first big East Coast stop for cargo headed north from the Panama Canal.

Weakness in the U.S. economy is mirrored on the docks, said Paul Bingham, managing director of trade and transportation markets for the Washington-based forecasting firm Global Insight.

“You can find all of the economic symptoms of the downturn in these numbers,” Bingham said. “Unfortunately, this is a bad-news story. We haven’t even found the bottom yet.”

Bingham and other economists even can glean from the port statistics the effect of the Bush administration’s economic stimulus checks, which was minor. Many observers hoped for a turnaround in the second half of 2008, but now they don’t see one happening before the second quarter of 2009.

At the five top West Coast ports — Los Angeles, Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle and Tacoma, Wash. — imports were down by as much as 13% through the first seven months of the year.