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A Tale of Two Seaports Shows Trade Turmoil

It's topsy-turvy time in the global economy. To get an idea, consider a tale of two seaports.

For years, the Port of Hampton Roads had blossomed with the constant parade of huge container ships each carrying several thousand, 20-foot boxes filled with consumer goods of all types, especially from China. So enticing was the import trade that retail chains such as Wal-Mart, QVC and Target set up huge redistribution warehouses throughout the Mid-Atlantic area to supply Big Box stores east of the Mississippi and steal trade from strike-prone ports in Long Beach and Los Angeles on the West Coast.
Hampton Roads also was trying to beat off an unwelcome contender, the Port of Savannah, that under a dynamic executive had come from the sleepy marshes to take on both Hampton Roads and Charleston, S.C. Foreign trade made Savannah with its charming downtown boom. As wharves and cranes multiplied, so did huge warehouses for such firms as Lowe's and Ikea.

Well, this Sunday's New York Times has detailed how Savannah has hit a stone wall on trade. As for Hampton Roads, the Virginia Port Authority reported a loss of $3.7 million for the quarter ending Sept. 30. A major container port expansion on a former soil dredge site called Craney Island is on hold.

What happened? The economy soured, obviously. But lots of other dynamics hit the ports like a weird tide in a confused sea. Just a few months ago, for instance, oil was nearing $150 a barrel. That ate deeply into the benefits of using big, huge ships to take T-shirts and nick knacks from Asian ports all the way here. In fact, some U.S. firms started considering expanding in this country, instead of overseas. Oil is suddenly way down. That should make imports better deals. But it isn't working out that way.

Meanwhile, as the financial crisis became global, the dollar actually rose in value. That made U.S. products more expensive, hurting exports.

So ports are getting it at both ends and no resolution is in sight.

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