SAN FRANCISCO — U.S. containerized exports could exceed imports during certain months as soon as 2016 and on an annual basis by 2020, Walter Kemmsies, chief economist at Moffatt & Nichol, told the annual meeting of the Agriculture Transportation Coalition.
Kemmsies cautioned that those projections could be derailed by myriad factors including macroeconomic changes, shifts in rates by container and bulk carriers, and U.S. failure or success in developing infrastructure needed to support exports.
But he said the U.S. has an opportunity to be a net exporter of loaded containers, largely because of its comparative advantage in agriculture production.
Paul Bingham, economics practice leader at CDM Smith, agreed that trends suggest containerized imports and exports will eventually equalize. “There is a point at which those lines cross, and the head-haul and backhaul switch,” he told the AgOTC meeting in San Francisco.
Bingham noted that exports held the edge over imports in U.S. containerized volume as recently as 25 years ago, before China emerged as the top source of production of consumer goods for the U.S. market.
Kemmsies said his projections are based on flows of commodities, some of which could move either in containers or on bulk carriers. Assuming infrastructure, capacity, rates and economic conditions support it, the U.S. could eventually have a “trade surplus” in loaded containers, he said.
“The scenario is that in the next few years, we could see periods of time when the U.S. is running a container trade surplus,” he said.
Containerized exports could surpass imports during the first quarter of the year, when consumer imports slacken, as early as 2016, the forecasts indicate. “By 2020, my average case actually has the U.S. as a marginal net exporter of loaded containers,” Kemmsies said.
Kemmsies and Bingham both said the U.S. is in a good position of having comparative advantage in agriculture, a sector that enjoys strong growth potential in developing countries whose economies are generating the wherewithal to buy U.S. products.
Bingham said a shift in the balance of container trade toward imports has important implications for transportation policy and for operations that have been geared to exports. He noted that his firm is working with the National Academy of Sciences on a study examining what’s needed to ensure that infrastructure is sufficient to handle growth in export demand.