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Exports on the rise at ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach

The ports show gains in November. Imports, however, continue to decline.

December 16, 2009|By Ronald D. White

In a recession-battered year that can't end soon enough for many businesses involved in international trade, Howard Wallace has an enviable set of problems.

Wallace's business, the Los Angeles Harbor Grain Terminal, receives feed grains and byproducts from customers across the nation, which he transfers into cargo containers for shipment throughout Asia.

When those economies are in a buying mood, Wallace is among the first to know. Right now, they are buying more exports than Wallace can handle.

"I'd hire more people, but I've got no place left to put them. We'd be doing more business, but we've run out of rail car space for more grain," said Wallace, whose business is a barometer for the strength of exports out of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Wallace's company is one of the reasons the nation's busiest seaport complex finally had some good news to celebrate from its monthly trade numbers.

In November, exports from Los Angeles rose nearly 18% to 149,148 cargo containers compared with 126,602 during the same month last year.

Long Beach's export gains were more modest, but rose 4% to 114,283 compared with 109,850 a year earlier.

Wallace now employs 50 workers, up from 30 at this time last year. He also works with about 20 truck drivers instead of the 10 to 12 he regularly used a year earlier.

He credited the weak U.S. dollar for making grains more affordable to customers in China, South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia and Vietnam.

"We keep hearing that the Chinese government wants every child to have an egg and a glass of milk for breakfast," Wallace said. "That is going to require a lot of [feed] grain."

Overall, a continuing decline in import numbers during one of the weakest peak shipping seasons in recent memory erased the November gains in exports at both Southland ports.

The Port of Los Angeles received 298,777 containers filled with holiday goods for the region and the rest of the U.S., down 11.8% from the 338,905 in November 2008.

Long Beach's imports were down 14.7%, at 228,347 containers compared with 267,840.

But officials at both ports found some reason for optimism about the future. They noted that the import numbers showed smaller declines in November compared with the average for the first 11 months of the year.

Through November, imports at Long Beach have fallen 22.9% compared with the same period last year. Los Angeles' imports are down 15.6% for 2009.

"This is hopefully a sign of a turnaround in the months to come," said Phillip Sanfield, a spokesman for the Port of Los Angeles. Art Wong, his counterpart at the Port of Long Beach, said, "The worst is behind us. Now we'll be looking for the numbers to edge up in 2010."

Some parts of the cargo movement industry are anticipating stronger trade numbers in the coming months, Inland Empire economist John Husing said. He said the most recent California job figures for the category that includes transportation and warehouse workers showed an increase of 900 workers statewide.

Husing said it was the first significant increase in that job category since February 2008, when more than 4,300 jobs were added.

Still, Jack Kyser, chief economist at the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., said there might not be a lot of strength until March. "We're not expecting the January and February numbers to be much better," Kyser said.

But the exports figures in November were positive signs, he added. "This is good news for a long line of people who work on the export food chain of dockworker, trucking and railroad jobs."

ron.white@latimes.com

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