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Did tide turn? Cargo decline is another sign of slowing economy

Times Staff Writers

Cargo containers crammed with foreign-made goods that were supposed to set a record in August at major U.S. ports took an unexpected turn, with imports sinking 1.4% in another sign of the slowing of the economy.

Imports of items as diverse as toys and tiles could also be lower in September and October, when retailers will be stocking shelves for the holidays, because shell-shocked shoppers are expected to continue to pull back.

The falloff “reflects the consumer-demand-driven weakness in the U.S. economy,” said Paul Bingham, an economist with Global Insight, a research firm that monitors cargo movements for the nation’s top retailers.

The slump in oceangoing imports unloaded at the 10 largest U.S. container ports in August was the first drop since Global Insight began its monthly Port Tracker report in 2005. The number stunned some port watchers.

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“When I first saw these numbers, I called the researchers and asked them if they had left a column out of the spreadsheet. I thought it was a typo,” said Craig Shearman, vice president of the National Retail Federation, which pays Global Insight to conduct the trade research.

In Fountain Valley, Gary Bedrosian wasn’t surprised. The owner of Bedrosian Tile & Stone said he had cut orders by about 15% this year compared with 2006 because new-home construction has plummeted.

“Anybody doing business for the housing market has to be off,” he said.

When the Commerce Department on Thursday issues its report on international trade for August, both imports and exports are expected to decline after having jumped in July, according to Global Insight.

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The firm said exports would far outpace imports -- no doubt because of the weak U.S. dollar, which makes foreign products more expensive.

“The dollar has depreciated so much that American goods are more competitive,” said Sung Won Sohn, chief executive of Hanmi Bank in Los Angeles. On the other hand, the import decline “tells you about what retailers are thinking about the holiday shopping season. They’ve cut back orders.”

“Some of our bank customers who are retailers catering to the Hispanic population -- they are having tough times,” Sohn added. “They’re ordering less because they’re not selling as much.”

Retailers have been planning for sluggish holiday sales based on recent blows to shopper confidence from high energy costs, a soft employment picture and pricey mortgages.

In addition, slowing home sales mean that furniture, light fixtures and the like are gathering dust in overseas warehouses.

The change has been clearly reflected at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach -- by far the nation’s busiest gateway for container cargo trade.

From 1997 through 2006, the number of containers handled by the twin ports grew by about 10% a year -- from 6.5 million 20-foot containers to 15.8 million. But through August, the two ports were running less than 1% ahead of last year’s record pace of imports and exports.

“It doesn’t appear that there will be any real growth this year,” said Don Snyder, director of trade relations for the Port of Long Beach.

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Imports of building materials plunged 20% in the second quarter from year-earlier figures, the most recent period for which detailed statistics are available. Furniture imports fell 17%, clothing declined 10% and footwear was down 8%, he said.

At the Los Angeles facility, the “ongoing slow-to-flat season is reflective of the weak holiday growth in the retailers’ expectations. It would have to be a pretty terrific October to change the overall pattern here,” said Jim MacLellan, director of trade services.

Rick Edgley, owner of Tile Matters in Fountain Valley, said his suppliers had little reason to ship in more tile.

“The tract [housing] business is relatively dead,” he said. “Vendors I know, they have lots of standing inventory. So if I had to guess, they’re not buying any more for a while.”

Charlie Woo, owner of Megatoys in downtown Los Angeles, said he had seen shoppers closing their wallets lately, though he added “that may be due more to concerns over the product recalls from China.”

Van Nuys-based MGA Entertainment, one of the world’s largest privately owned toy companies, expects to experience slight sales growth this year. But Chief Executive Isaac Larian said that was only because the company made two acquisitions this year, involving Ohio-based Little Tikes and a German manufacturer of large dolls named Zapf Co.

“Remove those and our business would be flat this year,” said Larian, whose company is known for making the Bratz line of dolls. Still, Larian said he expected consumers to rebound after Thanksgiving, leading to a shortage of merchandise because retailers have overreacted.

Economists keep a sharp eye on consumer spending, which accounts for about 70% of the nation’s economy. Given the pressure on consumers’ budgets, economist Scott Hoyt expects modest spending growth through the year.

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“As long as we continue to have at least decent job gains with tight labor markets, then we’ll have enough growth and wage income to support positive spending growth,” said Hoyt, with Moody’s Economy.com.

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ron.white@latimes.com

leslie.earnest@latimes.com


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