U.S. Housing Boom Spurs Jump in Asia Shipments: Freight

Thanks to the U.S. housing boom, Asian manufacturers are shipping the most furniture and building materials by containers in seven years.

U.S. imports of furniture and building materials from Asia, destined for retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Corp., rose 6.3 percent in the first four months of the year, compared with a year earlier, to the most since 2007, according to Japan Maritime Center figures.

Asian suppliers such as Li & Fung Ltd., which exports home furnishings, tableware and handicraft, are benefiting from a rebound in the U.S. economy as payroll gains and stable borrowing costs at historically low levels boost American confidence to purchase homes. That demand is helping drive imports of sofas and beds to furnish houses and building materials and plastics used in construction.

“If you buy a new house you need new furnishing,” Rahul Kapoor, a Singapore-based analyst at Drewry Financial Services Ltd. said by telephone last week. “Furnishing and building materials all come out of Asia. It’s definitely a positive for demand.”

Total U.S. imports of furniture and building materials and plastics used in construction from Asia rose to 971,678 standard containers, or TEUs, in the first four months of this year, compared with 914,042 a year earlier, according to figures from the Japan Maritime Center.

Li & Fung, also the world’s biggest supplier of clothes and toys to retailers such as Wal-Mart, posted a 17 percent jump in net income to a record $725 million in 2013 amid higher sales.

Home Sales

The Hong Kong-based company’s biggest customer is Wal-Mart, accounting for 15.4 percent of sales, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, while Target, the second-largest U.S. discount retailer, is the next largest, with 5.8 percent of revenue.

The rise in imports may be a boost for both discounters, which have struggled to grow revenue in the U.S. In Wal-Mart’s first quarter ended April 30, sales rose 0.8 percent to $114.2 billion while comparable-store revenue in the U.S. was little changed. At Target, revenue gained 2.1 percent to $17.1 billion in its first quarter. Home department sales declined as U.S. same-store sales fell 0.3 percent for a second straight drop.

Brooke Buchanan, a spokeswoman for Bentonville, Arkansas-based Wal-Mart declined to comment because it doesn’t discuss its relationships with clients. Eric Hausman, a spokesman for Minneapolis-based Target, declined to comment.

The U.S. posted the biggest new home sales jump in 22 years in May as sales surged 18.6 percent in May, the biggest one-month surge nationwide since January 1992, according to figures from the Commerce Department.

Vessel Glut

Still, rates for carrying containers to the U.S. from Asia have tumbled this year as an increase in new capacity is outweighing the increase in boxes being transported.

Container lines are suffering from an oversupply of vessels after a boom in ship purchases coincided with the financial crisis, triggering the worst slump in carriage fees since containerization became global in the 1970s.

The global container fleet increased 6 percent versus a year earlier, as of Sept. 30, and stood at almost 17.2 million standard containers, according to A.P. Moeller-Maersk A/S, owner of the world’s largest container line. The order book in the container industry is 21 percent of the total container fleet in the water, Greek ship owner Costamare Inc. said in September.

“Demand is definitely growing but the biggest drag on rates is supply,” Bonnie Chan, a Hong Kong-based analyst at Jefferies Group Inc. said by telephone last week. “Spot rates have been weaker than last year. Net, net rates are going down.”

Better Outlook

The Drewry Hong Kong-Los Angeles container rate benchmark declined 5.7 percent to $1,650, the lowest since December 2011, in the week ended June 18 as four general increases this year have failed to hold.

Nippon Yusen K.K., Japan’s largest shipping line by sales, predicts its container line business will return to profit this fiscal year as sales increase.

The shipping line, which operates a fleet of 96 liners, forecasts current profit will be 3.2 billion yen ($32 million) in the year ending March 31, compared with a current loss of 700 million yen last business year, according to figures from the company. Nippon Yusen predicts it will carry 696,000 standard containers this fiscal year, compared with 663,000 last business year.

“The increase in shipments to the U.S. is a plus for the container line business,” Ryota Himeno, an analyst at Barclays Securities Japan Ltd. said by telephone this week. “It’s one of the positive signs that the marine industry has been waiting for.”