Cheering news is at last starting to come out of the US maritime sector, but perhaps optimists who have connected the dots are being overcome by wishful thinking.
First, the Port of Seattle turned in a profit for 2009, despite an 8 percent fall in revenue, confounding the doom merchants. Bearing in mind that the port bundles aviation and maritime together, a closer look is needed at the financial results to see just how well the seaport fared.
The fact is, it fared far better than anyone thought and its performance is a credit to the technical, administrative and financial managers. Operating revenue at $89 million was $4 million better than 2008 and almost exactly on target. Operating expenses were pared and squeezed, mostly by enforced days off although some posts were eliminated, which produced a 16 percent fall from the budget provision.
Container revenue was up 8 percent over budget and 11 percent more than the previous year, to $37 million, despite volumes being down 7 percent on 2008 to 1.6 million TEU.
Nonetheless, long-term pain is in the offing for the seaport. The capital budget was slashed 56 percent to $45 million. The biggest victim was shelving the purchase of a property for the container support yard, budgeted at $28 million.
Even the most shortsighted observer should be able to see that the port will be unable to play with a full deck in a few years time, probably just when the wider Panama Canal becomes open for business.
Down the coast at Long Beach, container volumes in February were up 30 percent on the previous year, to 413,000. Inbound traffic rose 40 percent and exports were up 33 percent. Los Angeles is expected to show an equally impressive improvement.
Using performances such as these, trade analysts are shedding caution and now reckon that national figures for ports show that the economy is in a sustained upswing and is not about to hit a double-dip recession
Others are not so sure and look at the wider picture, most notably the balance of payments and debt to China.
For California, a proposal under study by the morally bankrupt state legislature, which is jumping onto the port bandwagon, could be a cushion against another trade catastrophe. Politicians want to introduce an incentive scheme for "trade infrastructure projects and California-based cargo shipments" (to use the official jargon). Presumably, this would mean tax breaks rather than payment of actual money, given that the state is almost penniless.
This has more of a ring of reality than irrational exuberance over the future of maritime trade.