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Comment on Viewpoint: The hard truth about the trade deficit by Edward Zaninelli

No matter what rhetoric rolls off the lips of politicians, the flow of trade tells the truth. The U.S. trade deficit has garnered many headlines this week, but if you follow the flow of containers, you aren’t surprised.

Since 2018, the United States has been the big loser in the U.S.-China trade war. The overpublicized phase one “Trade Agreement” was a TV event and nothing else. China has failed to meet any of the quotas, with no repercussions.

But the trade war is only one hurdle for U.S. exporters. There is an additional challenge — the dysfunction at the nation’s largest port.  

The exporters’ containers are competing with historic import volumes and the ocean carriers trying to get those boxes back to be refilled. There is no schedule reliability. The result? Dismal U.S. exports.

This is not a statement, rather a hard fact. American Shipper has been monitoring the monthly trade flows out of the Port of Los Angeles and asked data analysis and marketing company Charlie Pesti to pull and compare the number of empty exports and full exports from 2005-2021. 

No doubt there is an export problem.

“Repositioning of empty containers from the USA back to Asia is imperative for the carriers in order to cater [to] the increasing demand for imports into the USA,” said Hariesh Manaadiar, director of market and data Intelligence at Charlie Pesti. “This repositioning has been going almost toe to toe with full exports from around 2008 until 2014, after which empty repositioning has increased, mirroring the increased imports into the USA.”

The mirroring trend speaks for itself.

But even with this mirroring relationship, there is a problem in the volume of full exports leaving the nation’s largest port. Compared to the nation’s other major ports, there is a definite lag.  Sister port Long Beach is exporting more full containers. On the East Coast, New York/New Jersey and Savannah, Georgia, are also outpacing Los Angeles.

“As imports surged in 2021, we continued to see fairly consistent levels of containerized exports at the Port of Long Beach,” said Mario Cordeo, executive director of the Port of Long Beach. “Certainly our goal is to increase exports over time, and we know that the Biden administration is pursuing that as well, with efforts to make U.S. products more competitive.

“With the growth of the middle class in places like China, there will be more opportunities for American exporters.”

“The trend in US exports over the last 15 years has shown an almost flat line with a slight growth,” explained Manaadiar. “Comparing December ’21 full export volume to December 2005, December of 2021 is 30.68% lower.”

Lackluster exports are one of the main focuses of John Porcari, the port envoy of Biden’s Supply Chain Disruptions Task Force. In a recent exclusive interview with American Shipper,  Porcari said the task force is having “blunt” talks with the carriers.

At some point, the talk needs to be followed up with action.

From a business standpoint, it is understandable why ocean carriers are moving out the empty boxes — there is no schedule reliability, and a clean, empty container can be processed faster in China to travel back on the more lucrative China-to-U.S. route. But trade is being delayed.

In analyzing the U.S. trade deficit, you don’t have to look any further than the disparity of full containers in and out of the Port of Los Angeles.

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