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California exports rose in December

February 10, 2010 |  2:03 pm

An awful year for California’s foreign trade took an encouraging turn in December, with exports showing a 12% increase over the same month in 2008, according to a report released Wednesday.

California shipped $11.6 billion in goods to foreign destinations by air, sea and land, topping the $10.4 billion the state shipped abroad in December 2008, according to a University of California Center Sacramento analysis of international trade data released Wednesday morning by the U.S. Commerce Department.

Although the numbers were a welcome change, experts cautioned that they came after a full year of severe declines. Many economists use exports as a gauge of the state's economic well-being.

“As encouraging as these new numbers may appear, they only mark the start of a recovery from two years of sharp decline,” said Jock O'Connell, the UC center’s international trade and economics advisor. “We are now essentially where we were with exports at the end of 2006.”

Lax The state’s exports of manufactured goods in December were up 5.1% from a year earlier. Shipments of agricultural goods and other nonmanufactured products rose 5.2%. Exporting of goods that originated out of state increased by 17.4%.

California accounted for nearly 12% of all U.S. merchandise exports in December of $99.2 billion. With services added to the tally, U.S. exports hit $142.7 billion for the month.

For all of 2009, California exports dropped 17% to $120.1 billion.

A detailed breakdown of what kinds of goods were involved in the turnaround wasn’t available, but O’Connell had some general numbers to share, which included at least one fact that might come as a surprise to many Californians.

The state’s top export category was civilian aircraft engines and parts. O’Connell said goods in that category accounted for $5.3 billion of the total in 2009. There was no comparable figure for 2008 because trade classifications had changed, he said.

No. 2 on the list was electronics, in the form of integrated circuits, at $2.4 billion for the year. That compared with $3.1 billion in 2008. Third were parts and accessories for automated data processing equipment, which amounted to $2.3 billion in 2009, down from $2.8 billion a year earlier.

The fourth-biggest category might be the least well known. The state exported $2.2 billion in non-industrial diamonds in 2009, down from $2.8 billion in 2008. O’Connell said the diamonds probably had been upgraded during their stay in California from their raw form.

In terms of dollar value, the state’s exports moved mainly by air from Los Angeles International Airport and San Francisco’s airport. California’s airborne export trade was valued at $57.1 billion in 2009, or 47.5% of the state’s total. Maritime exports amounted to $34.7 billion, or 28.9%, followed by surface trade at $28.3 billion, or 23.6%.

O’Connell said the state’s top trading partners for its exports in 2009 were Mexico at $17.5 billion, Canada at $14.3 billion, Japan at $10.9 billion and China at $9.7 billion.

As for imports, $25.1 billion worth of foreign goods entered the U.S. via California in December, a 4.3% increase from the $24.1 billion reported in December 2008. Nationwide, imports totaled $182.9 billion in December.

There is considerable disagreement between economists over the strength of the economic recovery, with some expecting a robust rebound that they say has already begun. Others see only modest improvement later in the year. Still others think we are in the midst of a double-dip recession. O’Connell said that he was optimistic.

“In all likelihood, we should continue to see substantial progress in this coming year,” he said.

-- Ronald D. White

Photo: Los Angeles International Airport. Credit: Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times