Georgia's export surge bolsters Obama's trade initiative

Georgia, though, got the jump on Washington.

After nearly two years of economic decline, the state’s ports recently notched an eyebrow-raising 11.4 percent increase in exports through Savannah. Port traffic typically augurs a region’s economic well-being. Agriculture and industry across Georgia and the Southeast might finally be ready to invest, grow and hire.

“Exports are starting to rebound and drive the economic recovery,” said Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority. “We’re starting to see this thing turn around and continue to build momentum.”

Champagne bottles, though, remain corked. Much of the export boost is credited to a weak dollar that makes Georgia products artificially cheap. And an increasingly difficult China, the major export destination, holds great sway over U.S. trade success.

Imports serve perhaps as a greater barometer of U.S. economic recovery. And, despite the encouraging trade news, few new jobs have been created.

“Georgia doesn’t want to put the cart before the horse and extrapolate growth too wildly from the export numbers,” said Jeff Rosensweig, a finance professor at Emory University’s Goizueta School of Business. “This will be only one aspect of economic salvation.”

U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke unveiled the National Export Initiative in Washington on Thursday. He detailed Obama’s budgetary push for an additional $136 million in export-promotion money for the U.S. departments of Commerce and Agriculture.

The president also wants the Export-Import Bank, which provides financing for U.S. companies, to boost lending by $2 billion for small- and medium-size businesses.

“At a time when traditional drivers of U.S. economic growth like consumer and business spending are strained, we simply must elevate exports as a key part of our economic recovery efforts,” Locke told reporters at the National Press Club.

Business leaders lauded the administration’s newfound focus on trade. Scott Davis, CEO of Sandy Springs-based UPS, called the initiative “a forceful step on the path to strengthening our economy and creating jobs.”

Georgia ports officials wholeheartedly concur. Savannah notched a 3.6 percent uptick in shipping container traffic the past fiscal quarter. Not since May 2008, when the global economy began its tailspin, had Savannah registered any increase in trade.

Even more startling: Overall trade through Savannah, exports and imports, jumped 18.2 percent in December vs. a year earlier.

Traditional Georgia commodities -- wood pulp, waste paper, kaolin, cotton, machinery, soybeans and other foodstuffs -- led the export surge. Much of it went to China, which barely registered an economic downturn these past two years.

“As we come out of this recession, clearly China will play a major [trading] role,” Foltz said. “Southeast Asia, particularly Vietnam and Thailand, but also the Indian subcontinent, and other emerging economies like Brazil will also be major markets.”

U.S. exports of goods and services hit $1.8 trillion in 2008, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s foreign trade division. Obama hopes to double that amount within five years, an unrealistically high target, Rosensweig and other economists say.

Foltz, who runs the nation's fourth-busiest port, estimates Savannah’s overall growth at 7 percent to 8.5 percent a year over the next five years.

Any uptick in global trade, though, translates into domestic jobs. The Commerce Department pegs every $1 billion in exports to the creation of 6,250 manufacturing jobs. Obama expects to create 2 million jobs via his export initiative.

Yet, despite Savannah’s impressive export-import surge, few jobs have been created.

“We’re seeing an increase in the number of ships and [container] moves,” said Kirk Floyd, a business agent for the stevedores union in Savannah. “But they’re not hiring right now. They’ve got enough people in place.”

Floyd, though, expects more longshoremen along the docks shortly.

“We understand there’ll be a substantial increase in jobs in March when all the summer clothing and outdoor furniture comes in,” Floyd said.

Imports fuel the nation’s economy. Tightfisted Americans, whipsawed by job and salary insecurities, might finally be willing to loosen purse strings, which would lead to a surge in mostly Chinese-made imports. If so, inbound traffic at Savannah would zoom, possibly matching outbound cargo.

“Retailers have been replenishing depleted inventories. We need those imports to continue to build momentum,” Foltz said. “We’re all confident that exports will stay strong through the calendar year. The question is just how strong import and retail growth will be.”

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