St. Louis area international trade growth slows

11-2-12 St. Louis Business Journal
by Joe Maty

STL area intl growth TN Biz Journal Nov 2012





Overseas trade growth has cooled off within the past year for companies in the St. Louis area and the state of Missouri, but a “correction” was in order.

That’s the assessment offered by World Trade Center St. Louis, a Clayton-based organization that offers resources aimed at assisting companies in building their trade business.

Tim Nowak, executive director of WTC St. Louis, said export trade continues to expand for companies in the region in 2012 — just not at the same robust pace seen in 2010 and 2011, when exports rebounded in the wake of the recession that commenced in 2008.

“In terms of exports, we’re seeing an expansion year to date nationwide of about 5.5 percent through August,” Nowak said. Exports for the state of Missouri are up about 3.5 percent over 2011, he said.

“It’s more of a leveling off from what happened coming out of recession,” Nowak said. “We will hit an all-time high in exports this year, but growth just will not match the pace of the last couple of years.”

Export trade for Missouri companies hit a record high in 2011, at $14 billion, Nowak said. The total represented a modest increase from about $13 billion in 2010. But the export gain was much more dramatic in 2010, in the wake of 2009’s recession-induced chill in export trade, when Missouri companies recorded just $9.5 billion in export trade; that was a steep plunge from $12.8 billion in 2008.

“That was the first major drop off in exports in years, and it was nationwide,” Nowak said, referring to the 2009 trade slump. “When exports rebounded in 2010, they rebounded in a substantial way.”

Nowak said the St. Louis region ranks as the 23rd largest export trade market in the U.S. China has emerged to become the largest export trade market for the St. Louis area, and ranks third for Missouri as a whole, behind the longtime export-trade leaders Canada and Mexico, he said.

“By comparison, in 1996 China represented less than 1 percent of the state’s export market,” Nowak said.

WTC St. Louis and companies in the area are essentially seeing the same kinds of trade dynamics as the rest of the U.S. economy, Nowak said. Economies in Asia continue to expand at a robust pace, triggering greater import demand. Businesses in the St. Louis area and the state now export more to Asia than Europe and South America combined, and economic forecasts suggest that more of the same is in the offering.

Jeff Hanson, director of international finance for St. Louis-based Barry-Wehmiller Companies Inc., said international sales for the company — which include export business as well as revenue from offshore operations — have indeed expanded at a slower pace in 2011 and 2012 following a significant rebound in 2010.

Hanson said international sales totaled $316 million for the company’s 2009 fiscal year, then jumped to $387 million in 2010, followed by a more modest gain in 2011, to $417 million. International sales through August were $409 million; figures were not available for September, the last month of the company’s fiscal year, but Hanson expects the year to finish with a similar percentage increase as 2011.

The company’s total revenue for the 2011 fiscal year was $1.22 billion; revenue of approximately $1.3 billion is projected for 2012. The company has 65 locations worldwide — 41 U.S. and 24 international.

Barry-Wehmiller is a manufacturer of packaging-automation, corrugating and paper-converting equipment, and also supplies engineering and IT consulting. About 35 percent of Barry-Wehmiller’s revenue is from international sales and Hanson projects that number to grow to 50 percent in the next five years.

WTC’s Nowak cited International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecasts for economic growth worldwide as evidence of the market forces driving import demand. The IMF’s latest World Economic Outlook for 2013 estimates that GDP in Asia will expand 5.4 percent in 2012 and 5.8 percent in 2013. GDP in South America is forecast to grow 2.9 percent in 2012 and 4 percent in 2013.

Sean Mullins, WTC St. Louis director of market research, said companies in Missouri are seeing growing demand for mineral fuel, aircraft parts, pharmaceuticals, meat, and medical devices.

“Pharmaceutical companies, in particular, are reporting moderate but relatively stable and sustained growth,” Mullins said. “The shipment of vehicles is Missouri’s No. 1 export commodity, and grew in 2011 but is losing steam so far in 2012.”

Besides Asia, Mullins said exports to Saudi Arabia are showing “substantial sustained growth,” while “rebounding” demand is being reported for South Korea, Japan, Brazil and the U.K. Export growth to Mexico also is showing “sustained acceleration,” he said.

So far in 2012, Mullins said exports of aircraft parts and electric machinery are staging rebounds from a decline in 2011. Organic chemicals makers, however are experiencing “accelerating declines.”

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