Cargo traffic jumps at L.A., Long Beach ports

A surge in cargo traffic at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach has officials hoping that the U.S. economic recovery is gaining strength despite worrisome signs overseas.

Combined, the neighboring ports handled more than 1.1 million cargo containers last month, an increase of 9.8% compared with March 2011. Much of the strength came from strong growth in imports, which were up a combined 12.8% for both ports compared with the same month last year.

“Hopefully, it means that importers are starting to replenish their inventories” because they think that U.S. consumers will be in a buying mood, said Art Wong, spokesman for the Port of Long Beach. “Overall, though, people here are still generally pretty cautious about the months ahead.” Los Angeles and Long Beach are the nation’s two busiest container ports.

About 640,000 people work in trade-related jobs in Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Imperial counties, according to Inland Empire economist John Husing. That’s up from a low of fewer than 600,000 during the recession but still far short of the 709,000 in 2007. Some of the employment strength has come from a surprising source: manufacturing.

Exports at the two ports were up a modest 2.58% in March compared with a year earlier, but the numbers have been so consistently strong over the last two years that they have helped reverse California’s long decline in manufacturing, according to a report from Beacon Economics.

Jordan Levine, Beacon Economics’ director of economic research, said that California overall has added 9,900 manufacturing jobs since February 2010, when the statewide total had fallen to 1.2 million jobs. That was modest growth, but it followed a decade in which California manufacturing positions had plummeted 32.6% since 2000, when there were 1.8 million such jobs.

Still, there have been concerns about the strength of the economic recovery worldwide. The International Monetary Fund said Thursday that it feared a slowdown in global trade because of continuing debt woes in Europe, a slowing in growth of the Chinese economy, high energy prices and persistent fears about the outbreak of more fighting in the Middle East.

But several other recent trade reports and surveys of international trade players were more positive. A survey of 271 buyers and suppliers in global trade conducted by Panjiva and the Global Sourcing Council found that about 50% were somewhat or very optimistic about the global economy and saw signs of strong global demand. It found that 21% were somewhat or very pessimistic about global trade through the rest of the year.

Locally, both ports had strong showings in March, with Long Beach imports up 18.3%, to 226,141 containers, and Los Angeles imports up 9.3%, to 324,758 containers. Long Beach exports grew 9.9% to 144,838 containers while exports fell 2.4% at Los Angeles to 188,156 containers.

The March numbers were strong enough to kick both ports into positive territory for the first quarter of the year. In the first three months of 2012, the two ports combined moved 3.18 million containers, up 0.6% compared with the same period last year.