port of long beach

Ports Act as Weather Vanes as Economic Clouds Darken

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March 11, 2020
port of long beach
Photo courtesy Port of Long Beach

By Brendan Murray (Bloomberg) — Longshoremen hold a revered place in economic and political history — from the docks of London and South Africa to Southern California. They’re on the front line when waves of trouble arrive, whether from trade disputes, recessions in far-away places or natural disasters that disrupt global commerce.

So the dockworker is an important weather vane of a U.S. economy, still buffeted by Washington’s increased tariffs on some $370 billion in Chinese imports and now by a health crisis that paralyzed China’s economy and is widening in the world’s top economic powers, Europe and America.

At the neighboring ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the two busiest in the U.S. and the main entry points for Chinese goods, work shifts so far this year have dropped 21% compared with the same period a year ago, according to the Pacific Maritime Association. Both facilities just released their February container volumes: Long Beach’s imports dropped 18% from a year earlier, L.A.’s sank 23%. 

More broadly, U.S. seaports could see slowdowns of as much as 20% continue into March and much of April, according to the American Association of Port Authorities. The same trend is seen in more distant places, with Rotterdam — Europe’s economic gateway to Asia and beyond — seeing a similar cut of about 20%.

Dockworkers feel the effects before the downdraft hits truckers, farmers, railroads, distribution centers, stores and showrooms. Work opportunities for members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union in Los Angeles were cut recently and shifts have completely dried up for so-called “casuals,” certain port workers who are not union members, according to ILWU.

What’s happening at ports might well be short-lived, leaving the next challenge of coping with the empty shipping containers that are piling up on U.S. shores because fewer vessels are arriving to take them away. “Once the virus is contained, we may see a surge of cargo, and our terminals, labor and supply chain will be ready to handle it,” says Mario Cordero, executive director at Long Beach.

But if that snapback doesn’t occur and the slump drags on for months, the economic and political importance of ports and their workers may rise to the forefront again in places that connect the U.S. to key markets overseas, like Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia and Texas. — With assistance from Michael Sasso.

© 2019 Bloomberg L.P
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