Exports from the Port of Long Beach--the nation's busiest--increased for the fourth consecutive month in December as demand for raw materials and other U.S. products rose in Asian countries that are slowly recovering from months of economic turmoil, port officials said Tuesday.
"I think this shows that the worst may be over in Asia," said Don Wylie, the port's trade and maritime services director.
December exports jumped 4% from November's total, and Hal Hilliard, the port's manager of marketing, said much of the increase was pegged to growing demand across the Pacific for U.S. cotton and wastepaper.
"The shippers have been telling us that raw materials are getting in short supply overseas," Hilliard said. "The Asian economies seem to be on the road to recovery, although it will not be a fast recovery."
Indeed, despite month-to-month growth, December exports were still down 4% from December 1997.
Port officials also said the darkest days of financial tumult in Japan, South Korea and other East Asian nations had sparked a yearlong rush of Asian imports through Long Beach, helping push the number of cargo containers handled at the port to a record level.
Nearly 4.1 million cargo containers moved through the port in 1998, a 17% increase over the number crossing its docks in 1997. Port officials said the number makes Long Beach the first port in North America to surpass the 4-million mark in containers handled.
Year-end figures for the Port of Los Angeles--the nation's second-busiest--were not available Tuesday.
Among the reasons cited for Long Beach's record, which marks the port's fifth consecutive year as the U.S. leader, was last year's 16% jump in imports. Long Beach harbor handled nearly 2.1 million import containers as a strong U.S. dollar acted like a magnet for Asian consumer goods, made cheap by the region's financial devaluations. December imports underscored the trend, posting a 14% increase over last year.
The import crush, however, was also responsible for an odd turn of events last year in which nearly the same number of empty cargo containers were shipped from Long Beach to Asia as those actually containing export goods.
Cool demand for U.S. products in Asia caused year-end totals for outbound cargo to fall 12% over last year. At the same time, the number of empty containers handled rocketed an unprecedented 74%.
Demand for empty containers soared in Asia last year, port trade analyst Matt Plezia said, as shippers scrambled to secure the giant metal boxes to keep up with the flood of Asian exports. Plezia said nearly all the 1.02 million "empties" that moved through Long Beach were bound for Asia.
Plezia and other port officials predicted that this year could be another record-breaker for the port, given the continued health of the U.S. economy and the improvement in Asia. Plezia said the current financial meltdown in Brazil shouldn't affect the port much, since less than 5% of its business is with Latin America.
"Direct trade with Brazil is very, very small," Plezia said.
Meanwhile, Jack Kyser, chief economist at Los Angeles Economic Development Corp., said last year's record container volume was a sign of a strong local economy.
"Basically, this means a lot of people are working, from truckers to longshoremen," he said.