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INDUSTRY PULSE: Is port congestion contributing to souring economic picture?

VANCOUVER, BC -- West Coast truckers have had good reason of late to grumble about delays in intermodal pick ups, b...


VANCOUVER, BC — West Coast truckers have had good reason of late to grumble about delays in intermodal pick ups, but the congestion at the nation’s largest port is wreaking havoc on more than just carrier scheduling.

It may be having a direct impact on the performance of the Canadian economy, according to respected economist Stephen Poloz. The Senior Vice-President and Chief Economist with Export Development Canada says the backlog at the Port of Vancouver is causing an undue rise in inventory levels and likely lost sales opportunities.

Media reports suggest that there is a backlog of approximately two weeks worth of imports sitting in the port awaiting transfer to the rail system, prompting some importers even to re-route their goods all the way around to Halifax.

“Consider that some 15% of Canada’s imports come from Asia, and most of those would pass through Vancouver,” Poloz writes in his weekly commentary. “The total value of this stream is therefore on the order of $55 billion annually, or nearly $5 billion per month.”

He points out, however, that this flow is not smooth there is a disproportionate level of shipments in the second half of the year as retailers stock up for the holiday season.

In round figures, therefore, the import clog in Vancouver amounts to at least 4% of the annual flow or on the order of $2-3 billion and probably somewhat more than this because imports are higher in the second half of the year.

“How can this affect the economy? First, the clog shows up in an unexpected rise in inventories in Canada’s GDP figures. The recent GDP report for the third quarter showed that inventory accumulation added 1.2% to GDP growth up to one-third of which could be due to the clog. A second effect occurs on the other side of the equation some of those goods would have been sold during the quarter, but they were not, simply because they were stuck in Vancouver instead of being available in stores. Accordingly, consumer spending may have been temporarily slowed by the clog.”

A third potential effect could be a temporary softening in exports.

“If some of the goods stuck in Vancouver are components destined for incorporation in Canadian exports, companies with global supply chains might have to slow down their export shipments,” Poloz writes.

He says there is evidence that all three effects may have been present in the recently released GDP statistics for the third quarter.

Taken together, these three effects are leading many analysts to downgrade their outlook for the Canadian economy for late 2004 and 2005. Before these figures were released, our growth projection for Canada for 2005 was 3.2%. Although a mechanical interpretation of the inventory build-up would suggest revising that figure to as low as 2.5%, adding some judgement in light of Vancouver’s difficulties leads us to reduce the effect by almost half growth in Canada in 2005 should be about 2.9%.

“The bottom line? The clog in the port of Vancouver is a reminder that a temporary disruption in the flow of trade can have a significant impact on economic statistics. Our analysis suggests that Canada’s economic growth is probably stronger than the recent headline figures suggest but that assumes that the Vancouver port problem does not get any worse,” Poloz concludes.


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