Exports are growing at record levels with exports (sea container counts) hitting a historical high for Decembers. December 2011 is the third historical high in a row.
Economic health of a country can be tracked by following the transport of goods and materials. If the goods transport is rising, the economy is improving. Conversely when goods transport is falling, the economy is contracting.
And sea container counts are proving to be a close proxy to the real monetary values of exports and imports – and their data is released a month earlier than the hard data from the US Census. (See the November trade balance analysis and compare charts).
The Ports of LA and Long Beach account for much of the container movement into and out of the United States. And these two ports report their data significantly earlier than other USA ports. Most of the manufactured goods move between countries in sea containers (except larger rolling items such as automobiles). This pulse point is an early indicator of the health of the economy.
Containers come in many sizes so a uniform method is expressing the volume of containers is TEU – which is the volume of a standard 20 foot long sea container. So a standard 40 foot container would be 2 TEU.
Imports into the USA grew towards record levels until August, and then receded to improved levels YoY – but not approaching record levels. December levels are clearly not growing at rates seen earlier in 2010.
Overall for the combined Ports of LA and Long Beach the YoY container traffic grew 16% – Exports are up 9% YoY, and imports are up 8% for the month of December 2011. For the entire calendar year – imports were up 17% YoY, while exports were up 13%.
Even though exports are at record levels – the percentage rates of growth for both exports and imports are nearly equal in December. However, there are twice as many imports as exports. If continued, this “near balance” on a percentage basis produces a growing trade balance deficit.
The trend lines show an obvious improvement in international trade. The most likely beneficiary of this trend is international shipping lines such as A.P. Moeller-Maersk A/S (AMKAF.PK), Mediterranean Shipping Company S.A, CMA CGM (GSL), EVERGREEN MARINE (2603:Taiwan), and Hapag-Lloyd (TEU) - as well as Claymore/Delta Global Shipping Index ETF (SEA), Global Progressive Transportation Portfolio ETF (PTRP), and iShares Dow Jones Transportation Index Fund (IYT).
This increase in flow through the ports will also be positive for port service companies such as CROWLEY MARITIME CORP (CWLM), as well as the Union Pacific Corp (UNP) which is benefiting from additional intermodal loads. This trend should improve the marginal profit of these lines as container service is scheduled - and will allow running of fuller ships, This trend line has been relatively consistent in 2011 - and there is little evidence of changing trend lines going into 2011.
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Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.