The Port of Los Angeles, the nation's second-busiest harbor after neighboring Long Beach, handled a record number of cargo containers in its most recent fiscal year, a trend driven almost exclusively by an insatiable U.S. consumer appetite for imported goods, port officials said Wednesday.
The news comes amid reports by shipping companies that unionized longshore workers, attempting to reach agreement on a new contract, have intentionally slowed container loading and unloading at Los Angeles and other West Coast ports. Members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union claim they are merely following safety guidelines in their former contract, which expired July 1, and are declining overtime work.
Al Fierstine, the port's director of business development, predicted the slowdown will have little impact on the port's July cargo volume since Asian exporters are expected to continue to ship goods despite any labor strife. The main headaches, Fierstine said, could be cargo pileups at the port and delivery delays for U.S. retailers.
Export levels probably shouldn't be affected too much either, he said, because terminal operators are giving outbound cargo priority over imports to keep departing ships on schedule as much as possible.
From June 1998 through last month, the port logged a 12% jump in the total volume of 20-foot cargo containers passing over its docks, or about 3.5 million containers more than during the previous 12 months. Import levels, which have been particularly strong during the past two years of economic expansion in the U.S., jumped 9% to 1.9 million containers.
Customs broker John Peterson of Rancho Dominguez-based C.H. Powell Co. wasn't surprised by the record numbers. He said the proximity of the port to Southern California's active consumer base, which buys nearly half the goods shipped through the region, and an easily accessible rail system make the facility and neighboring Long Beach natural choices for foreign shippers.
But while fiscal year imports for Los Angeles harbor were impressive, exports plunged 6%, the victim of a strong U.S. dollar and global economic forces that have opened a vast trade imbalance between the U.S. and many of its foreign trading partners.
Asian currencies weakened by their countries' financial woes, for example, have made import goods a bargain in this country, while a humming domestic economy has made U.S. goods and raw materials too expensive for many Asian consumers and businesses.
Still, there are signs some Asian economies are on the road to recovery. June export levels at the port, for example, were up 5% over a year ago, Fierstine said, fueled largely by increased Asian demand for U.S. wastepaper to be used, ironically enough, to make shipping boxes.
Part of that export growth also was sparked by increased shipments of electronic equipment to South Korea, said Jim Paul, with the World Trade Center Assn. of Los Angeles/Long Beach. In the first three months of this year alone, Paul said, shipments of California-made electronic goods to South Korea, the healthiest of Asia's recovering economies, rose by 83%.
June figures for the Port of Long Beach were not available Wednesday.
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The Port of Los Angeles moved a record number of cargo containers in its fiscal year ended June 30. Monthly cargo totals, in thousands of 20-foot-equivalent units:
June: 317,167 units
Source: Port of Los Angeles