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Port Traffic Is Heavy, but It's Mostly One-Way

Trade: Imports flood Southland while dearth of exports causes empty shipping containers to stack up.

October 23, 1998|STEPHEN GREGORY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A record number of imports are expected to stream through the Port of Long Beach--the nation's busiest--this month as retailers, who earlier this year fretted about a potential container shortage, bulk up their holiday season inventories, port officials said.

But exports from Long Beach and neighboring Los Angeles harbor are expected to fall as the dollar's recent strength and ongoing financial turmoil in Asia continue to stifle demand for U.S. goods to the region.

"I've never seen the market so upside-down on imports versus exports," said Al Fierstine, director of business development for the Port of Los Angeles.

The imbalance has meant more empty cargo containers are moving west across the Pacific than actual cargo--a clear illustration of the widening trade deficit between the U.S. and Asia as global economic tumult pushes up prices on American exports.

Indeed, both ports in September shipped at least 19% more so-called empties than full export containers. The figure in Long Beach alone reached more than 90,000. The empties have become an increasingly hot commodity in the Far East as shippers scramble to meet the voracious demand by U.S. retailers and other importers for low-cost Asian-produced goods. As a result, ports from Jakarta to Yokohama have a dearth of empty containers.

"They don't have any containers in Asia right now," said Alex Krywenko, vice president of Los Angeles-based Container Works, a container maintenance and storage company. "The demand for containers is not being met by the empties shipped."

However, the need to get empties back to Asia is being met in part by container leasing companies, which have been booking more space for empties on ships bound for Asia. Last week, for instance, Transamerica Leasing Inc., a subsidiary of San Francicsco-based Transamerica Corp., loaded 500 empties on a freighter about to depart Los Angeles harbor, company spokesman Bill McClave said.

Meanwhile in Asia, space on U.S.-bound ships has become increasingly tight. But big retailers have still been able to squeeze their shipments aboard because shipping lines have been scrambling to accommodate their more lucrative customers, said analyst Elizabeth Pierce with Los Angeles-based Seidler Cos. brokerage.

The flip side, however, is that some merchandise ordered by smaller retailers has been bumped off cargo manifests and stranded in Asia for weeks--even though some freighters have been fitted with an extra tier of containers to increase capacity by 20%.

Carson-based King Plush Inc., manufacturer and distributor of stuffed toy animals, has been suffering delays in shipments for the past four months.

"We're being bumped off the ships because the big companies have the priority," company owner Pat Klasno said. "We're on the outside looking in."

Klasno said that last week he received a shipment of Halloween toys ordered in February that should have arrived in August. "It's too late to send them out to stores now," he said. "I got to sit on them for a year now before I can use them."

But in an indication that delays for even small retailers have been alleviated, Klasno said he has received four of 10 containers of Christmas merchandise.

Meanwhile at Long Beach harbor, import volume this month could easily exceed 200,000 cargo containers for the first time ever, port marketing manager Hal Hilliard said, as Asian manufacturers continue to mine the U.S. consumer market to make up for depressed sales in their economically troubled countries.

The Port of Los Angeles is also expecting a high volume of imports this month, largely consumer goods such as televisions, videocassette recorders and computer parts. Projected inbound container volume for October, Fierstine said, should beat last month's mark of 147,915--itself an increase of 11% from a year ago. September import volume, however, was down

9% from August.

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