Buyers and Sellers

For Marci Rossell, 2013 will be the year U.S. consumers finally start to feel the economic recovery.

Shackled by a four-year economic malaise that has prompted uncertain consumers to spend more time trying to correct their balance sheets than, well, spending, purse strings that have been as tight as a drum appear poised to loosen.

For Rossell, senior economic adviser for Delphin Investments, it’s all about confidence. With the stock market up 15 percent in 2012 and off to a roaring start this year, and with the housing market finally recovering (inventory levels now are at a “pretty normal” four-month supply compared to a year at the depths of the recession, Rossell says), sentiment is certainly swinging in favor of the buyer.

And that’s certainly good news to retailers and, by association, the trans-Pacific shipping lines that supply them.

For those selling overseas, the outlook is even brighter — for one very big reason: China. If you think being shackled for four years by an anemic economy has been taxing, put yourselves in the shoes of the average Chinese burdened by a history of hard labor with little to show for it.

With its massive 1.3 billion population, “China always should have been the world’s largest economy. What’s incredible is that it had a 500-year recession and they’re just coming out of it,” Rossell told more than 1,500 retailers, transportation providers and intermediaries at the Retail Industry Leaders Association’s annual supply chain conference on Feb. 18.

Now, with wages climbing and a rapidly developing middle class ready and willing to spend, China wants what we have: U.S. agricultural products, automobiles, luxury goods and fashions. “The richer Chinese people get, the more they want U.S. goods,” Rossell said.

It’s one reason the former chief economist for CNBC calls this the first U.S. economic recovery driven by exports.

Complete coverage of trans-Pacific maritime trade.

The numbers tell the story: U.S. exports to China increased 6.4 percent last year to a record $110.6 billion, matching the increase in U.S. imports, and more than double the $53.7 billion in exports of just six years ago, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Foreign Trade Division.

Containerized shipping figures support the trend, with figures from investment bank and consulting group Seabury showing a 6.8 percent increase in total Chinese imports last year outpacing 3.8 percent growth in exports.

That’s all bittersweet news, of course, for trans-Pacific carriers looking to sop up global capacity that research analyst Alphaliner expects to increase 8 percent this year. The Chinese shipping market, after all, is plagued by imbalance, with exports of 36.9 million 20-foot-equivalent units dwarfing the 15.9 million TEUs inbound, according to Seabury.

Still, with the economic stars aligning for U.S. consumers and with China’s purchasing power only gathering strength, trans-Pacific carriers can look forward to growth in both directions by the second half of 2013.

Call it the year of the buyer — and seller.

Contact Chris Brooks at cbrooks@joc.com and follow him at twitter.com/cbrooks_joc

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