Asian crisis hurts Port of Baltimore Export market squeezed as part of continuing fallout

January 18, 1998|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,SUN STAFF

The 1997 port import and export tonnage reported in a graphic in Sunday's Economic Outlook should have indicated that the data were for the first six months of the year.

The Sun regrets the errors.

The Port of Baltimore will feel the continuing fallout from Asia's currency devaluation and its troubled economies at least through early 1998.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

With Asian countries curtailing their buying, the once-booming U.S. export market has been sharply squeezed. While the volume of cargo at Baltimore's public marine terminals rose during most of 1997, it began dropping in the fall because of the far-reaching effect of the Asian monetary crisis.

"With the financial problems in the Far East, we'll probably see the impact on international commerce continue into the first quarter," said Tay Yoshitani, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration, which operates the state's six marine terminals. "U.S. manufacturers and exporters will have a tough time."

But the good news for the port could be more cargo arriving from the Far East.

"The dollar has gotten a lot stronger, and there will be an impetus by countries like Korea to export as much as possible to export themselves out of a recession," Yoshitani said.

Despite the recent decline in exports, the overall volume of cargo at the Port of Baltimore is expected to be up for 1997 when final tallies are released next month. Even container business, which has dropped sharply during the past three years as steamship lines ended service in Baltimore, has inched upward.

"The port seems to be coming out of its slump," said Penny Menzies, executive director of the World Trade Center Institute. "I think it's because they've started to focus on what they can do well and spend less time comparing themselves to ports that they have a tough time competing with."

Along the East Coast, steamship lines that once called at a half-dozen ports have been consolidating their fleets and choosing only strategically located ports, such as Norfolk, to save time and money.

By contrast, large ocean carriers are increasingly reluctant to make the time-consuming and expensive journey up the Chesapeake Bay to Baltimore, particularly when they are carrying the large steel containers filled with merchandise that needs to arrive at its destination as quickly as possible.

Unlike containerized cargo, break bulk freight, such as heavy equipment and machinery, is generally less time-sensitive; Baltimore's geographic disadvantage is therefore less significant. As a result, port officials have been pursuing that cargo.

Nationwide, the prospect for shipping such equipment looks promising, notwithstanding the problems in the Far East. A recent U.S. Department of Commerce survey reported that exports of construction machinery rose 7.9 percent between 1992 and 1996 and forecast a 6 percent to 6.3 percent growth rate for 1997 and 1998.

"It's a good hedge against any future loss in container business, because of geography and the general trend toward rationalization in the shipping industry," said Maurice Byan, president of the Steamship Trade Association, which represents major employers in the port.

But Byan said labor costs could still put the port at a disadvantage in attracting break bulk cargo, such as steel. While the International Longshoremen's Association here has made substantial concessions in pay and work rules, its rates are being undercut aggressively by non-ILA workers in Philadelphia who are competing for the same cargo as Baltimore.

"I'm optimistic if we can put ourselves in a competitive position and pessimistic if we can't," Byan said.

In the coming year, however, the port's competitive position might be enhanced in other ways, notably by the $10.2 billion takeover of Conrail by CSX Corp. and Norfolk Southern Corp.

If approved by federal regulators this year, the takeover will preserve two Class I railroads at the port of Baltimore; CSX would continue to serve Baltimore and Norfolk Southern would acquire Conrail's tracks here.

While the majority of cargo is moved to and from the port by trucks, a third is now handled by CSX and Conrail. Just how quickly and cheaply cargo moves to and from ships is a vital factor for shippers and steamship lines in deciding whether to move cargo through Baltimore.

Because Norfolk Southern is known as a more aggressive railroad than Conrail, most observers hope the takeover will result in more competition and better rail rates for Baltimore.

Norfolk Southern has promised to build new facilities here, including a distribution center for new automobiles and an intermodal terminal for the railroad's RoadRailer, an innovative truck trailer that converts to a railroad car. In addition, the company says it will raise clearances to accommodate high-cube double-stack container trains, a first for the port of Baltimore.

While the merger can't take effect until regulators act, state officials are pressing CSX and Norfolk Southern to move forth with their plans for Baltimore.

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