Combined imports and export container shipment growth was literally zero year-over-year at the Ports of LA and Long Beach in January 2012. This is a flat start for the new year.
Exports (which are an indicator of competitiveness and global economic growth) slightly contracted for the second time since August 2010.
Econintersect considers import and exports significant elements in determining economic growth (please see caveats below). On a month-over-month basis, exports decreased 2.0%, while imports decreased 1.5%. On a year-over-year basis, exports decreased 0.7%, while imports increased 0.7%. Statistically speaking, exports and exports were flat year-over-year – a very weak start for 2012.
So far other major transport indicators are mixed but the January data is showing weak growth:
- Pulse of Commerce Index – diesel consumption (January 2012): Down 2.2% year-over-year.
- Truck Transport (December 2011): Up 6% year-over-year
- Rail (January 2012): Up 0.8% year-over-year
The negative numbers in the Pulse of Commerce Index are likely due to an efficiency increase – and not economic contraction.
The Ports of LA and Long Beach account for much of the container movement into and out of the United States – and these two ports report their data significantly earlier than other USA ports. Most of the manufactured goods move between countries in sea containers (except larger rolling items such as automobiles). This pulse point is an early indicator of the health of the economy.
Containers come in many sizes so a uniform method involves expressing the volume of containers in TEU, the volume of a standard 20 foot long sea container. Thus a standard 40 foot container would be 2 TEU.
The overall transport message is not pro-growth – and a poor start for 2012.
Caveats on the Use of Container Counts
These are extraordinary times with historical data confused by a massive depression and significant monetary and fiscal intervention by government. Further containers are a relatively new technology and had a 14 year continuous growth streak from 1993 to 2006. There is not enough history to make any associations with economic growth – and we must assume a correlation exists.
Further, it is impossible from this data to understand commodity or goods breakdown (e.g. what is the contents in the containers). Any expansion or contraction cannot be analyzed to understand causation.
Imports are a particularly good tool to view the Main Street economy. Imports overreact to economic changes much like a double ETF making movements easy to see.
Contracting imports historically is a recession marker, as consumers and businesses start to hunker down. Main Street and Wall Street are not necessarily in phase and imports can reflect the direction for Main Street when Wall Street may be saying something different. During some recessions, consumers and businesses hunkered down before the Wall Street recession hit – and in the 2007 recession the contraction began 10 months into the recession.
Econintersect determines the month-over-month change by subtracting the current month’s year-over-year change from the previous month’s year-over-year change. This is the best of the bad options available to determine month-over-month trends – as the preferred methodology would be to use multi-year data (but the New Normal effects and the Great Recession distort historical data).