Some startling figures have emerged in a newly publicized analysis of maritime imports into the US, produced by Zepol Corporation, a trade analysis and database company. But, like all statistical reports, the numbers have to be looked at carefully.
The survey lists the top 50 ports by container volume imports (not exports, it must be noted), along with ports of origin, numbers of bills of lading, main importers and value of commodities, gleaned from US Customs manifests and the Census Bureau.
At first sight, there is little to attract attention – with the usual heavyweights of Los Angeles, Long Beach and the rest filling the top spots. But one's eyes start to widen when linking the number of bills of lading to values and number of TEUs.
Take Newport News in Virginia, holding 50 spot. In the 11 months to the end of November, a grand total of 407 containers came in, yet the value of cargo was $1.6 billion. That's right, billion. And from only 1400 bills of lading.
Beaumont in Texas, at 49 was even more extraordinary, bringing in 456 containers but $8 billion in goods from 672 bills of lading.
By comparison, Los Angeles saw 3.7 million containers come in, while the value of imports was $154 billion (down almost 30 percent on 2008) from 1.7 million bills of lading.
What the sharp-eyed economist and logistics expert needs to realize is that Newport News and others like it are mostly breakbulk – those figures on import values seem to include both container and breakbulk values. With a container port like LA they seem reasonable, but become absurd in other cases.
That confusion of classification aside, worthwhile information arises from the survey. (It has to be noted however that there was even more confusion when the analysis was first posted to the web. Seattle and Tacoma showed increases in import volumes, even though their own official figures showed a slump. Turns out that some of the imports were actually transshipments through the Canadian ports of Prince Rupert and Vancouver, which led to an explanation being added to the website.)
That information lies in the details on the main shipping lines, import agents and companies using each port. Even then, really juicy information remains tantalizingly out of reach. This of course is the identity of the ports that the Big Three consumer outfits – Wal Mart, Target and Home Depot – use.
Let the website disclose the reason. "US Customs allows importers to conceal the identity of their shipments. Thus, not all major importers for ports will be listed. Major companies using this treatment for their shipments include Wal Mart, Home Depot, and Target Corporation. "
Watch this space to find out the names of the importers. A couple of names are known but some checking still has to be done – there are complicating factors.