U.S. containerized exports started 2011 with a bang before slowing in the fourth quarter, but the outbound business finished the year with a 6 percent increase to record volume of 11.9 million 20-foot-equivalent container units.
Journal of Commerce Economist Mario O. Moreno had accurately predicted a fourth quarter decline of 0.2 percent because of sagging demand in European and Mediterranean markets.
Moreno cited the eurozone recession, which has contributed to slowing growth in China and other Asian countries, in lowering his 2012 growth forecast for containerized exports to 3.5 percent from his most recent forecast of 3.8 percent in December.
The factors that slowed exports in the fourth quarter have carried over into 2012. Weaker European demand for U.S. exports to Europe will be aggravated by a dollar that will hold its strength against the euro until the continent’s fiscal uncertainty clears, he said.
Others likewise foresee slower export growth. The National Association of Business Economics said its members expect 4.6 percent growth in export value, compared with their November prediction of 6.1 percent. The forecasters also lowered their projection for import growth in 2012 from 4.3 percent to 3.5 percent. They expect both rates to improve in 2013.
The fourth quarter slowdown in containerized export volume dulled the shine of a strong year for exports, which have benefited from a global rebound from the trade recession and surging demand from developing countries that kept growing during the downturn.
Growth in containerized exports was matched by increases in bulk and breakbulk cargoes. Farm exports reached a record $137 billion in the government’s fiscal 2011, which ended Sept. 30, beating the previous annual peak by 20 percent. The increase came despite the dollar’s strengthening against most other currencies.
Europe’s troubles will have an indirect effect on U.S. exports to China and other markets. If those countries can’t sell as much to Europe, they’ll be less likely to purchase goods from the U.S.
That trend already is showing up in data from PIERS, a sister company of The Journal of Commerce.
Fourth quarter exports to northern Europe fell 6 percent to 318,118 TEUs. Shipments to Mediterranean countries tumbled 9 percent to 136,599 TEUs. Smaller declines were recorded to Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, the east coast of South America and the Middle East.
Exports to China and other Northeast Asia nations rose 1 percent to 1.3 million TEUs, driven by growth in meat, wood pulp, and logs and lumber shipments. This increase followed a 12 percent year-over-year increase in the third quarter.
Exports to China rose 3 percent, compared with 13 percent in the third quarter. China accounted for 665,118 TEUs or 22 percent of total U.S. containerized exports during the fourth quarter.
Total westbound trans-Pacific trade declined 0.8 percent in the last three months of the year to 1.7 million TEUs, following an 11.4 percent increase in the third quarter, mainly because of lower volume to Hong Kong, Indonesia and Thailand.
Commodities showing fourth quarter declines included cotton, down 29 percent or 25,100 TEUs, and animal feeds, down 12 percent or 20,571 TEUs. Also declining were synthetic resins, down 12 percent; foam waste and scrap, down 12 percent; and motor vehicles, down 7 percent.
The losses were offset in part by shipments of two major refrigerated commodities. Meat exports rose 36 percent or 15,341 TEUs, and poultry shipments increased 28 percent or 11,175 TEUs. Gains also were posted in logs and lumber, up 13 percent; mixed metal scrap, 11 percent; soybeans and soybean products, 14 percent; and wastepaper, up 2 percent.
Increasing prosperity in China and other Asian countries is fueling the growth in containerized shipments of meat and poultry. Exports of meat to Northeast Asia jumped 45 percent year-over-year, totaling 40,401 TEUs in the fourth quarter. Meat shipments to China nearly tripled to 12,471 TEUs.
China’s appetite for U.S. lumber continues to grow to feed China’s construction and furniture industries. Containerized exports of lumber rose 13 percent to 85,292 TEUs in the fourth quarter.
Cotton exports to China dropped 34 percent year-over-year in the fourth quarter. Those numbers were hurt by comparisons with late 2010, when a supply-demand squeeze pushed futures prices to record highs and caused cotton exports to spike.