These are interesting times, and not only for presidential politics.
▪ For the first time, China is the United States’ No. 1 trade partner, surpassing Canada.
▪ For the first time, Houston has the nation’s largest trade surplus — yes, that Houston, the one that until recently had large deficits because of all its oil imports.
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▪ And, for the first time, South Florida’s trade with the world has fallen for a third consecutive year.
When it comes to South Florida’s imports, the oddity continues. Last year, South Florida’s imports fell to their lowest level since 2011, but here’s what’s unusual: Against that backdrop, the top 10 imports were all valued in excess of $1 billion for the first time.
Overall, imports totaled just shy of $48.60 billion, down 8.55 percent from the 2013 record of $52.76 billion and 4.77 percent from the 2014 total. Exports took a hit, a far bigger one, falling to the lowest level since 2009 and down 19.94 percent from the 2012 record.
This week, we take a look at the leading imports and what the numbers tell us. In at least one respect, South Florida’s import picture mirrors the national import picture: Imports not subject to wide fluctuations are largely up in value — suggesting a steady if not strong U.S. economy — while those that do fluctuate are down.
The most obvious examples of the former at the national level are motor vehicles and cellphones. Both were up last year. The most obvious examples of the latter — those that are subject to fluctuations — would be oil, but the list would include gold, soybeans, copper and a number of other commodities.
Here in South Florida, the No. 1 export is gold, valued at $4.26 billion in 2015, according to WorldCity’s analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. It is one of those imports whose value has fluctuated wildly — rising rapidly when the stability of the U.S. and global economies were in question in 2009 and steadily declining the last couple of years as those fears waned. Not surprisingly, then, the value of gold imports has fallen 41.18 percent from a record $7.25 billion in 2012.
A somewhat similar scenario exists for South Florida’s fourth most valuable import, refined petroleum products, including jet fuel and gasoline. The value of this import in 2015 was $2.39 billion, down from the record 2008 total of $4.02 billion. In 2008, it had been South Florida’s most valuable import. One year later, as the economy teetered, it was gold. Gold has been No. 1 ever since. But even last year, refined petroleum was the second most valuable import.
In fact, add the one-year decline in value for just these two imports — gold and refined petroleum — and the total is greater than the overall loss for all South Florida imports in 2015, $2.63 billion vs. $2.42 billion, respectively. In other words, the rest of South Florida’s imports actually increased in value.
Looking at South Florida’s top 10 imports, it’s clear it’s an odd assortment. You have things you wear (T-shirts and sweaters), things you eat (fish fillets), things that are broken and things that were broken (returned exports for repair and after repair, respectively), things for when we’re broken (medical instruments) and things that will carry us off into the sunset (aircraft). Add in gold and gas, and you have the 10 import categories among the roughly 1,265 that are valued in excess of $1 billion for the first time.
Two of the 10 topped $1 billion for the first time in 2015, No. 6 exports returned after repair and No. 10 medical instruments, which can include anything from needles and syringes to expensive MRI machinery.
With exports returned after repair, it is difficult from the data to determine whether the increase from $33.40 million in 2010 to $1.43 billion in 2015 is a realignment of a supply chain or a reclassification of the trade data, with the former occurring with some regularity in the fluid world of a globalized economy and the latter occurring from time to time. The increase from 2014 alone was 105.82 percent, and exports returned for repair did decrease somewhat dramatically.
With medical instruments, the increase has been far steadier, increasing from $612.91 million a decade ago to $703.28 million five years ago to in excess of $900 million from 2012 to 2014 before finally topping $1 billion in 2015. The one-year increase was 14.69 percent.
In a year when overall imports fell 4.77 percent, five of the top 10 fell in value and five increased. Four of the next five increased, or nine of the top 15, as shown in the accompanying chart.
After exports returned after repair, the most rapid growth among the top 10 was in the second most valuable import, aircraft, increasing $481.12 million and 23.27 percent. Expand the list to the top 15 and you have a second import that doubled in value in 2015, No. 11 yachts and other boats, which increased from a 2014 total of $456.86 million to $948.88 million.
Among the top 15, the swings were mostly wide, with two doubling in value, one increasing more than 20 percent (aircraft), one falling more than 30 percent (refined petroleum) and one more than 20 percent (gold). Only two of the top 15 either increased or decreased less than 5 percent.
Over the next three weeks, I will review the 2015 annual data for the three primary engines of export-import trade in South Florida, Miami International Airport, PortMiami and Port Everglades.
Reach Ken Roberts, president of WorldCity, at kroberts@worldcity web.com. Twitter: @tradenumbers
Overall imports are down, but two doubled in value
Imports of returned
exports for repair
Gasoline, other fuels
Imports of returned exports,
chilled or frozen
T-shirts, tank tops,
knit or crocheted
vest, knit or crocheted
Medical instruments for
surgeons, dentists, vets
Yachts and other boats
Source: WorldCity analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data