Imports of cellphones tell a different story on the national level than on the local level. On the former, it is something of a metaphor for our lives in the second half of the second decade of the century. On the latter, it is about changing trade flows.
On the national level, cellphones have passed computers to become the nation’s third-most valuable import. This first happened two years ago, but in that time, the value of cellphones imported into the United States has increased while the value of computers has decreased.
Think about your own life. It might not have been true a few years ago, but today you are probably using your cell phone — your smartphone — more than your computer to access the internet, to send and receive email, and to tap into Facebook and other social networks. Almost certainly, that would be particularly true the younger you are.
On the local level, it’s about direct flights coming to Miami International Airport from Asia, particularly China, where most cellphones’ final assembly from component parts occurs. In the last decade, a sizable percentage of those imports have flown over West Coast airports in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, traveling to Chicago, Dallas and Miami. South Florida ranked as the nation’s No. 20-ranked Customs district for cellphone imports a decade ago. Today, it ranks No. 9.
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This is all the good news. The less-good news is that South Florida imports of cellphones — the U.S. Census Bureau category actually includes landline phones and equipment related to both, but is dominated by cellphones — are down 15.55 percent through the first six months of the year, the most recent data available.
This column is part of a series looking at South Florida’s leading imports, with gold, refined petroleum products and aircraft covered in previous weeks. Cellphones rank as South Florida’s fifth-most important import, with a value of $1.09 billion through the first half of the 2015.
Most of those phones — and billions more — will go on to be exported to Latin America and the Caribbean. South Florida leads the nation in cellphone exports. That will be covered in a future column, when we get to the export side of the equation.
U.S. rank: On a national level, cellphone imports are up 8.32 percent this year. Ironically, the biggest one-year gains are coming at two of those airports that lost market share over the last decade: No. 4 Los Angeles International Airport, up 21.56 percent, and No. 6 San Francisco International Airport, up 45 percent, while No. 2-ranked Dallas-Fort Worth International is down 12 percent and MIA down even more. (Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport leads the nation, and its imports are up 14.10 percent this year.)
The bigger picture is that over the course of the last decade, cellphone imports into the United States have grown 381.44 percent compared with 39.84 percent for all imports. The value of computer imports over the last decade has grown 25.01 percent.
South Florida trade: In South Florida, the percentages are a little more dramatic. Over the last decade, imports of cellphones haves grown 1,709 percent compared with 58.71 percent for all imports. Computers, while an important export, are not a particularly important import and have fallen in value over the last decade, down 13.25 percent.
A decade ago, cellphones accounted for 0.70 percent of all South Florida imports. This year, they account for 4.52 percent — more than six times as great a share. While that percentage might not sound that impressive, keep in mind that South Florida imported more than 1,000 different products from among the 1,267 categories and that the leading import, gold, only accounted for 9.46 percent.
Where they originate: South Florida’s cellphones, while having components manufactured in a number of Asian countries, largely undergo final assembly in China before flying into South Florida. Through the first six months of the year, that percentage was slightly more than 60 percent.
Nevertheless, for the first time since 2009, in the throes of the global financial crisis, imports of cellphones from China are down year-over-year, off 18.30 percent to $66.166 million through July, down from $809.91 million a year earlier.
The second-largest source of imports is Vietnam, with almost 27 percent market share. Biggest change? At this time two years ago, China accounted for almost 74 percent of the phones entering South Florida and Vietnam just 11.53 percent.
Vietnam, a small country relative to China, “punches above its weight” — to borrow a boxing expression — in not just cellphones. Intel is increasingly manufacturing there, and its apparel sector is ascendant, as well. Over the last two decades, it is one of the United States’ fastest-growing major trade partners.
Importance to South Florida: Even though imports are down this year, cellphones are one of five import categories to top $1 billion for the first six months of the year. This is the fourth straight year imports have topped $1 billion through June and the second-greatest total, trailing only the $1.29 billion total from one year ago. Just one decade ago, South Florida imported $60.32 million in cellphones through the first six months of the year.
South Florida competition: A little conjecture here. South Florida imports are likely to continue to grow and to grow at a far-greater pace than overall imports, at least as long as cellphones bound for Latin America first touch down in South Florida. Latin America will remain a strong market for cellphones for years to come. The only airport that might mount a challenge to MIA would be DFW, which currently ranks No. 2 and often No. 1 for cellphone imports.
Coming next: Fish fillets will be the subject of the next column, another import that has grown rapidly over the years, though most of the imports come not from Asia but within the Western Hemisphere.
Reach Ken Roberts, president of World City, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @tradenumbers.
Leading Customs districts for cellphone imports
Total U.S. Cell Phone Trade
June 2015 YTD
New York City
El Paso, Texas
Source: WorldCity analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data