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Monday, July 13, 2009

Predictions for U.S. ports not pretty

Monday, 13 July 2009

Trade at international ports is on track to drop by more than 10 percent this year, one of the steepest declines ever, according to a new maritime industry report. Cargo ships will carry 27 million fewer containers by year’s than they did in 2008 -- a reduction roughly equivalent to all of the cargo containers handled by the five busiest U.S. seaports in a typical year, according to London-based Drewry Shipping Consultants’ Container Forecaster Report.
“There has never been a decline like this before. We have never seen numbers like these,” said Neil Dekker, editor of the Drewry report. “The container industry is looking at a $20 billion black hole of losses. We can expect a lot of casualties.”
Because the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are so busy -- they handle more than 40 percent of U.S.-bound cargo container trade -- the wharfs are disproportionately affected by the dropoff in imports and exports, Dekker said.
The ramifications for the Los Angeles and the Long Beach ports will be felt in some of the best-paying blue-collar jobs in the nation, as longshoremen lose work at the docks, truckers have fewer containers to carry, and railroad traffic ebbs. California’s Inland Empire, which has the nation’s second highest unemployment rate among urban areas because of the collapse of its warehouse and distribution system, will continue to suffer, said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.
“The forecasts for 2010 call only for a very moderate recovery in trade volume. This is a long-term problem. It will take several years for us to get back to the trade levels we saw in 2006 and 2007,” Kyser said.
At the Port of Long Beach, the nation’s second busiest container port behind Los Angeles, trade volumes have been knocked back all the way to 2003 levels, according to spokesman Art Wong, wiping out all of the trade gains recorded during the boom years of 2004 through 2007. Similar results can be found at many of the major U.S. ports.
“It’s unprecedented for us to see this kind of slide. Is it going to flatten out? Are we at the bottom? We don’t know yet,” Wong said.
The continuing global recession has run so deep that it has has caused Moody’s Investors Service to downgrade its outlook to negative overall for the 53 U.S. ports whose credit ratings it tracks.
But there is a bright spot for Los Angeles and Long Beach, according to a new report by Moody’s. Even though the two ports are spending millions on expensive environmental improvements and legal battles over their plans to clean up the air, the ports remain attractive to shippers, the report said.
‘‘Los Angeles-Long Beach are the two most highly rated ports in the U.S. Two of the primary drivers are their strong financial situations and their competitive market positions,” said Baye Larsen, an analyst and assistant vice president at Moody’s “Both are a key advantage for those ports. They will be among the first to benefit when the recovery does come.”
Lori Kelman, spokeswoman for the Port of Los Angeles, said officials there expect business to pick up toward the end of the year.
“Our port is positioned well to embrace that recovery,” Kelman said.
So far, there are few indications that the turnaround will begin any time soon. The trade route that had been the most resilient in the face of the global recession -- between Asia and Europe -- has now succumbed to the downturn as well. So far this year, the past three years of growth in trade between Asia and Europe have been erased, Dekker said.
The result, he said, would be consolidation throughout the shipping business.
“We believe that consequently, the basic makeup of the industry will change as companies either go bust, amalgamate or shrink, shedding assets and personnel in the process,” Dekker said.
The world’s biggest shipping line, A.P. Moller Maersk of Denmark, for example, has a worldwide fleet that is bigger than the U.S. Navy. Maersk has been the Port of Los Angeles’ biggest tenant in terms of cargo volumes. But this year it has sharply cut back its service in Los Angeles and to other ports to reduce its costs. Maersk Line, which operates 470 vessels and owns 1.9 million containers, says it lost lost $559 million in the first quarter of 2009.
Maersk said last year it would pull all of its ship from the Port of Charleston, where it is the largest customer, by the end of 2010, though talks continue to keep the line's business. In June, S.C. State Ports Authority officials estimated that container volume was 19 percent below last fiscal year and they predicted a 6 percent drop next year.

Source: LA Times