By  on November 12, 2007

WASHINGTON — September apparel imports fell 2 percent from a year earlier to 2.3 billion square meter equivalents, though China and Vietnam, each still with elements of a nonmarket economy, posted double-digit increases.

Chinese factories boosted September apparel shipments by 15.8 percent to 955 million SME compared with a year earlier, as imports from Vietnamese producers jumped 25.1 percent to 122 million SME. The two countries combined to command 47.3 percent of the import market, a dominance critics charge is due to an array of government subsidies that give producers in China and Vietnam a leg up. The growth came despite quotas on 34 types of Chinese-made apparel and textiles, and a monitoring program instituted by the Bush administration that raised the specter of antidumping trade cases against Vietnam.

Losing share in the apparel import market were Bangladesh, down 12 percent to 123 million SME; Mexico, off 20.1 percent to 96 million SME, and Indonesia, down 17 percent to 86 million SME.

China is also gaining in categories outside of apparel, despite a general unease surrounding trade and a slate of safety concerns on products ranging from toys to cat food. Chinese producers strengthened their position in September, widening the country's goods deficit with the U.S. to $23.8 billion, up from $22.5 billion in August.

A weakening dollar, however, helped narrow the total U.S. goods and services deficit with the world to a 28-month low of $56.5 billion, according to a Commerce Department report Friday. The weaker dollar could eventually change the pricing dynamic in the apparel supply chain, though importers will surely resist any increases.

"[Brands] are not going to accept price increases from the factories because they can't pass a price increase along," said consultant Emanuel Weintraub. "The retailers will not, in any way, shape or form, at this point in time, consider any type of price increase. If anything, the retailers are looking for better prices and a more competitive posture."

The huge influx of goods from abroad has helped lower the cost of living for many Americans, who are now used to inexpensive apparel and other goods, but has also fueled economic concerns. Some economists claim lower prices on imports also keep wages down, along with a long-term decline in apparel and textile manufacturing jobs."The stubbornly large trade deficit heightens the risk of recession," Peter Morici, professor at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business, said in an analysis. "The prospect that the trade deficit will rise with the surging price of oil further raises the risk of recession."

Other economists, however, saw hope in the less-than-anticipated trade deficit.

"With domestic spending growth expected to slow sharply as housing continues to decline and consumers wilt under pressure from falling house prices and rising energy prices, strong export growth is crucial to keep the U.S. economy moving forward," wrote Nigel Gault, Global Insight's chief U.S. economist, in a report. "[The] lower-than-expected trade deficit is another sign that foreign demand is delivering."

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