April 21 (Bloomberg) -- Container shipments through the Port of Los Angeles, the busiest in the nation, climbed in March by the most in seven years as commerce rebounded following the Chinese New Year and harsh U.S. winter weather.
The combined number of loaded and empty 20-foot containers that entered and left Los Angeles increased 34 percent from a year earlier, the most since February 2007, according to data posted on the port’s website last week. Shipments in the prior month dropped by the most for any February since 2009.
The pickup at one of the leading trade gateways with Asia in part reflects the timing of Chinese factory closings related to its multiweek New Year festivities and the resumption of normal transportation patterns that had been disrupted by frigid temperatures in the U.S. Midwest and Northeast. The spring back combined with gains in retail sales and manufacturing indicate the world’s largest economy is gathering momentum.
“When we’re moving more stuff within the country and out of the country, it’s a sign conditions are improving,” said Neil Dutta, head of U.S. economics at Renaissance Macro Research in New York. While port shipments data can be volatile, “given that other indicators are showing kind of the same thing, I’d be more inclined to think it means something.”
Container traffic movements track changes in U.S. overseas sales and purchases from abroad. Imports climbed in February by the most since October while American exports of fuels and capital equipment fell, pushing the trade deficit to the widest level in five months, according to the Commerce Department. Figures for the March gap are due May 6.
Some gateways are yet to see an improvement. At the Port of Seattle, container shipments were down 7.5 percent last month from March 2013, the sixth consecutive decline. Shipments fell 12.8 percent in March from a year earlier at the Port of Jacksonville, and dropped 0.2 percent at the Port of Houston.
Imports coming in through the Port of Los Angeles, ranked the biggest in the U.S. by container volume, surged 41.5 percent last month from March 2013. Exports shipped out from the location gained 21.6 percent, according to the website.
Trends in goods moving in and out of the Port of Los Angeles hinge on the health of several Asian nations apart from China, Dutta said. Gross domestic product in the world’s second-largest economy rose in the January-March period by the least in six quarters, according to data released April 16, adding to concern China’s slowdown may deepen.
“Yes, China’s slowing, but emerging Asia’s actually doing OK,” he said. “Look at Korea, Taiwan -- they’re not doing terribly. Japan’s economy seems to be -- at least up until recently -- picking up some steam. And they’re running a trade deficit, for sure, so they’re importing more stuff.”
An 18.1 percent jump in Japan’s imports in March helped widen its trade deficit to the biggest ever for the month, a report showed today. So far this year, China is the second-biggest trade partner for the U.S., Japan is the fourth largest, and South Korea is ranked sixth.
In the U.S., a report on the leading indicators gauge today corroborated the improvement in the economy. The New York-based Conference Board’s index, a gauge of the outlook for the next three to six months, rose in March by 0.8 percent, the most since November, after a 0.5 percent gain in February. The measure’s 6.1 percent advance over the past year is the biggest since July 2011.
More seasonable temperatures in March brought out shoppers who had holed up at the start of 2014, unleashing demand delayed by the snow storms that blanketed much of the country. Retail sales rose 1.1 percent, the biggest gain since September 2012, following a 0.7 percent advance in February, Commerce Department figures showed on April 14.
The manufacturing expansion also accelerated in March, driven by gains in production and orders, as the economy shook off its winter doldrums. The Institute for Supply Management’s index increased to a four-month high, the Tempe, Arizona-based group said on April 1.
The pickup in sales and production is driving the movement of goods. Railroad traffic, including carloads and intermodal units, climbed 3.1 percent in the first 15 weeks of this year from the same period in 2013, according to data from the Association of American Railroads.
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