When you look at import-export trade in dollar terms, which I generally do, you tell one story. When you look at it in terms of weight, or tonnage, you often tell another.
Dollars are easier for most of us to understand. We might not have a billion dollars in our checking accounts, purses or wallets, but we have a sense of what it represents.
But many in the industry, from those at the airports and seaports to executives at the shipping lines and air cargo lines, from the freight forwarders and customs brokers to the truckers and the actual shippers themselves, pay more attention to what the cargo weighs. That’s how they charge or are charged.
Over the course of the next three weeks, I will look at the three primary conduits of South Florida’s trade — Miami International Airport, PortMiami and Port Everglades — from a tonnage perspective. In recent columns, I reviewed recently released annual figures for 2014 for all three, but a focus on dollar signs.
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The first big difference is that in dollar terms, MIA, dominates — with almost three times the export volume as the two seaports individually and almost twice as much in imports as PortMiami and Port Everglades.
A different story
Tonnage is a different story. For exports, MIA ranks not only behind Port Everglades and PortMiami but also behind the Port of Palm Beach, which is also a part of the South Florida Customs district. On the import side, it ranks only behind Port Everglades and PortMiami.
The difference plays out on the national stage as well. While MIA ranks No. 17 among the nation’s roughly 450 airports, seaports and border crossings for total trade in dollar terms, it ranks No. 91 in weight. This “spread” is not uncommon among airports.
In tonnage, unlike with value, MIA also runs a trade deficit. In 2014, imports totaled 667,767.27 short tons while exports reached 409,175.13 tons. Looking at it from a “balance of trade” perspective, slightly less than 38 percent of all trade in and out of MIA is an export. It is essentially reversed when you are looking at trade in dollars, with slightly less than 62 percent an export.
MIA’s leading exports are strikingly similar whether you are looking at value or tonnage but strikingly different when considering the top five imports.
On the export side, in tonnage, computers; cell phones and related equipment; and civilian aircraft, engines and parts are Nos. 1, 2 and 3, respectively. When looking at value, those same three rank No. 4, No. 2 and No. 1. In other words, computers are No. 4, cell phones No. 2 and aviation-related exports No. 1.
On the import side, there are no common commodities among the top five, with the value-based leaders led by gold, computer chips and cell phones, and the tonnage leaders, in order, fresh-cut flowers, fish fillets, miscellaneous fresh vegetables, fish and, in the fifth spot, what we call “other fresh fruit.” MIA’s mission-critical role in the nation’s perishable import business only comes to light when trade is viewed through the prism of the scale rather than the cash register.
Simply put, lightweight expensive things are exported — cell phones and computers — while heavier, inexpensive things — fruits and vegetables — are imported. Technology out, agriculture in.
In overall tonnage on the import side, MIA saw an increase of 0.26 percent over the 2013 total. Flowers fell slightly in tonnage but the other top five all gained, with the “other fresh fruit” category — ranked fifth — up an impressive 28.63 percent. The big jump is due to an elimination of the restrictions that had, historically, required blueberries to bypass South Florida and travel to the Northeast.
By country, the big gains in the “other fresh fruit” category were Chile, Argentina and Uruguay, although none of those ranks among MIA’s top five by tonnage. The top five is led by top-ranked Colombia, MIA’s and the nation’s leading source of fresh-cut flowers, particularly roses, and No. 2 Chile, a leading source of fish fillets and fresh and chilled fish. Among the top five trade partners for MIA by tonnage, only No. 3 Peru registered a gain in tonnage for the year, up 6.48 percent. Chile and No. 5 Costa Rica each saw tonnage imports into MIA decline by more than 10 percent.
Venezuela exports plummet
Looking back at the export side of the equation, where MIA ranks not only behind the Port of Palm Beach but well behind, overall tonnage slipped 1.45 percent in 2014, although four of the top five gained. Port of Palm Beach tonnage was almost twice that of MIA, and both Port Everglades and PortMiami registered tonnage more than seven times greater.
No. 1-ranked computers fell 4.39 percent in tonnage while cell phones, civilian aircraft and related equipment, motor vehicle parts and printers all gained – with No. 5 printers up 20.09 percent in value.
Among the top five trade partners on the export side, most of the movements were relatively slight with one exception, Venezuela, ranked No. 4.
Export tonnage to the embattled nation fell 21.45 percent when compared to 2013. No. 1 Brazil fell 2.83 percent while No. 2 Colombia and No. 5 Peru gained similarly, 4.46 percent and 4.68 percent, respectively. No. 3 Chile fell 0.57 percent.
Ken Roberts is the founder and president of WorldCity, a Coral Gables-based company that pays attention to the impact of globalization on local communities. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
MIA’s top 15 imports in 2014 (by tonnage)
Change in rank
Total, all imports
Fish fillets, chilled or frozen
Misc. fresh vegetables
Fish, fresh or chilled
Other fresh fruit
Fresh apricots, cherries, peaches and plums
Windshield wipers, electric light parts
Original sculptures and statues
Cucumbers, pickles, etc., fresh or chilled
Foliage, grasses for bouquets
Plants for pharmacy, perfume, insecticides
Women's or girls' suits, knit or crocheted
Source: WorldCity analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data