Damn Lies

Damn Lies

Benjamin Disraeli is supposed to have said there are three kinds of lies: “lies, damn lies and statistics.” Mark Twain is the one who says Disraeli said that, however, and some very solid statistics show Twain was known to bend the truth on more than one occasion.

But the underlying truth is what’s important here, and what Twain, er, Disraeli, said in fact offers an important lesson to the transportation industry, shippers and carriers alike, at what we believe is a critical juncture for much of the shipping world.

That’s because stories backed by some very solid statistics are filling the media, this publication included, showing some remarkable growth and a recovery in the trade economy that might even look like we are on the verge of boom times.

On the macro level, U.S. GDP figures are dazzling, exceeding 5 percent. And closer to the trade, transportation and logistics world, the statistics are just as striking. Imports through the Port of Los Angeles grew 29.8 percent in February over the same month a year ago, and outbound volume at the Port of Savannah surged even faster, growing 31.6 percent over February 2009.

The numbers in the air are equally gaudy. Los Angeles International Airport reported a 26.6 percent increase in freight tonnage in February, and cargo volume at Hong Kong International Airport grew a stunning 30.1 percent in February, including 36.5 percent more export tonnage than in February 2009. Those numbers would have been more breathtaking had Hong Kong not seen cargo grow more than 43 percent in January.

All these numbers are absolutely true, but anyone taking them at face value without looking behind the numbers might end up believing they have been lied to. Everyone knows, of course, that any comparisons to the period between the last quarter of 2008 and the first half of 2009 are going to bring some odd results. We’re talking, after all, about comparisons to the absolute depths of deepest recession to hit the United States in several generations, and one that spread throughout much of the developed world.

What’s truly remarkable about the statistics from the just-ended first quarter is how weak the numbers still look compared to previous years, suggesting how far the economy still must travel to reach a real recovery and the reason many companies remain cautious in restoring capacity and planning expansion this year.

That dazzling growth in container imports at Los Angeles, for instance, gave the port 267,361 loaded TEUs in February, still 24 percent behind what the port handled in February 2007, and fewer than the port handled in February 2005. The nearly one-third growth in Savannah’s loaded container exports still was 2.7 percent behind 2008. Likewise, Hong Kong’s overall air cargo volume in February was only a bit more than the airport handled in the same month three years ago.

None of that diminishes the very real expansion and recovery going on across the world. But looking at the growth without longer perspective would leave carriers and shippers planning for the rest of the year while deceiving themselves, something Mark Twain would never recommend.

Paul Page is executive director of The Journal of Commerce. He can be contacted at 202-355-1170, or at ppage@joc.com. Follow Paul Page on Twitter, www.twitter.com/paulpage.