The nation's busiest seaport complex had its best January since the recession because of a weak dollar, stronger Asian economies and a steadier U.S. consumer.
The cargo traffic numbers also showed the increasing importance of exports at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which rank first and second in the U.S. for container cargo, respectively. As recently as 2008, imports outpaced exports by more than 3 to 1. But in January, the ratio had shrunk to a little more than 2 to 1.
Although the U.S. trade deficit hasn't declined, the two ports have done well in luring more customers that ship goods overseas, economist Paul Bingham said. The weak U.S. dollar relative to other currencies was also making domestic goods more affordable to foreign buyers.
"The biggest underlying story is the growth in exports," said Bingham, economics practice leader for CDM Smith Inc. in Virginia. "The demand is coming from the faster recoveries from the recession that we are seeing in the major Asian and the emerging Asian economies."
Cargo numbers are a bellwether of the Southern California economy, said John Husing of the Redlands firm Economics & Politics Inc. About 640,000 people work in trade-related jobs from Ventura County to San Diego County, Husing said. That's up from a low of fewer than 600,000 during the recession but still far short of the 709,000 workers in 2007.
Combined, the two ports moved 1.16 million containers in January, up from 1.14 million a year earlier. It was the best showing since the ports handled 1.17 million containers in January 2008.
For Los Angeles, it was the best January ever as the port handled 698,715 cargo containers, an increase of more than 38,000 from a year earlier. Imports through the port were up 5.25% to 356,395 containers. But the bigger percentage increase came in exports, which rose nearly 6% to 168,427 containers.
Los Angeles' January traffic broke a record set during the height of a global economic boom, in 2007, when the port moved 691,602 containers.
"This past month took us a little bit by surprise," said Katherine McDermott, the Los Angeles port's deputy executive director for business development, "but it's a very nice surprise. We have been forecasting conservatively for a 2% to 3% increase in cargo volumes in 2012."
Traffic was down in January compared with a year earlier at the neighboring Port of Long Beach, with imports declining 5.49% to 229,125 containers and exports falling 8.2% to 117,083 containers. Overall, Long Beach moved 456,424 containers, including empty ones, down 3.9% from a year earlier.
Still, Long Beach's import numbers were good enough in January to give the two ports a 0.76% improvement, to 585,520 imported containers in January, compared with January 2011, which had been a very strong month, Husing said.
"That's important. The export news is good, but the bigger driver of employment at the ports are the imports," he said, "so that increase is very good news."