Trade at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach continued to rebound in April, marking the fifth straight month of cargo gains at the nation's busiest seaport complex.
And one of the most encouraging signs might have been the sharp rise in the number of containers that were not carrying goods of any kind.
The number of empty containers shipped out through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in April rose by 20.2% and 15.8%, respectively, compared with the same month in 2009. The empties are bound mainly for China and for other Asian destinations where they will be filled with products and sent back overseas.
Art Wong, a spokesman for the Port of Long Beach, said that the increases may mean that Chinese factories "are ramping up to send things back to us," adding that it "suggests retailers are expecting consumers to head to the malls this summer."
At the Port of Los Angeles, imports rose about 8.3% to 302,225 containers from the same month a year earlier. Exports from Los Angeles were up even more sharply, rising 12.4% to 158,338 containers. That reflected the weakness in the U.S. dollar, which was making U.S. goods more affordable overseas. In the first four months of the year, the port moved more than 2.2 million containers, a 9% improvement over the same period in 2009.
"The bigger picture is that we were down 26% over the previous two years, and now we have about 9% of it back," said Phillip Sanfield, a spokesman for the Port of Los Angeles. "But it's encouraging. We're hoping we'll stay on the right track."
At Long Beach's port, imports rose 21.2% to 241,245 containers, from a year earlier. Exports were up 15.2% to 130,155 containers compared with a year earlier. From January through April, Long Beach moved 1.75 million containers, up 16.6% over the same period last year.
But there was a potential problem that might play out in the coming months, one expert said. The debt crisis in Europe might seriously dampen enthusiasm for California goods and U.S. products overall, said Jock O'Connell, an international trade advisor at Beacon Economics, a California forecasting firm.
"The fallout from what has been happening in Europe has been affecting markets throughout the world," he said.
The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach rank first and second in the U.S. in the number of cargo containers they handle. No other U.S. harbor comes close, which makes the two ports an important barometer of the strength of international trade and the U.S. economy.
Together, the two ports also rank as the sixth busiest harbor in the world. They are part of a network of trade-related businesses that employ nearly 482,500 people in Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.