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SMALL BUSINESS

Asian Imports Jump 34% at Long Beach

Trade: Port's March increase is the first strong evidence of the impact of the region's economic woes in the U.S.

April 22, 1998|EVELYN IRITANI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The long-awaited export push from Asia's battered economies got underway in March as shipments from that region through the Port of Long Beach, the nation's biggest container port, jumped more than 34% over the same month last year.

Until now, the strongest evidence of the impact of the Asian woes on the U.S. has been a steep fall in U.S. shipments to the region. Despite anecdotal evidence of heavy demand for shipping capacity out of Asia, the statistical rise in inbound merchandise had been modest.

"We're finally seeing it," said Don Wylie, the port's director of trade and maritime services. "To see this strong growth this early in the year is unusual."

Because the collapse of Asian currencies makes products from Japan, South Korea, Thailand and other Far East nations cheap for Americans, U.S. policymakers have warned Asian nations against trying to export their way out of the crisis at the expense of U.S. jobs.

The latest port figures--more current evidence than trade deficit statistics--are the first strong indication that Asian manufacturers, enjoying sharply reduced production costs, have geared up sales to the United States.

In recent months, economists were saying that the impact of the Asian economic slowdown would be more modest than first believed, in part because the U.S. economy is in such strong shape. But delays in reporting of data have made it difficult to measure.

Dick Courtney, vice president and director of East Asia research for Bank of America, said the trade deficit is probably much worse than it appears because "the imports coming in are lower-priced than they would be otherwise" due to depressed currencies.

He predicted that the widening trade deficit would start to have a dampening effect on the robust U.S. economy later in the year, when the import surge picks up steam.

Last week, the Commerce Department reported that the foreign trade deficit grew to its highest level since 1987, with the U.S. importing $12.1 billion more in goods and services than it exported in February.

The large jump in the February trade deficit was largely due to decreased purchasing by Japan, California's leading trade partner.

But the latest figures for the Port of Long Beach indicate that Asian exporters are overcoming the credit squeeze and raw material shortages that had crippled them in the first few months of the currency crisis, which began last July in Thailand and spread throughout Southeast Asia to South Korea.

In March, the Port of Long Beach handled 167,713 containers of products from Asia, up from 106,556 a year earlier. U.S. exports to the region fell 16.9%, thanks to the weakened buying power of Asian consumers.

This imbalance in the shipment of goods across the Pacific is an increasingly expensive headache for ocean shipping lines, which have containers piling up in the United States and face a shortage in Asia. More than one in five containers shipped to Asia through the Port of Long Beach in March were empty.

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