Byline: Jim Ostroff

WASHINGTON — U.S. apparel and textile imports nudged up just 4.1 percent in July over a year ago, as import declines and negligible growth in sourcing from several Asian nations offset solid increases from Mexico and Canada.
Perhaps more significantly, indicating a growing caution among importers, it appears that both apparel and textile importing is headed for a year of modest growth — perhaps less than 10 percent — following two consecutive years in which import increases surged as much as 20 percent annually.
Overall, the U.S. imported 2.58 billion square meters equivalent of apparel and textiles in July and 16.06 billion SME for the first seven months of this year, up 7.3 percent from the same period a year ago, the Commerce Department reported Tuesday. For the year ended in July, these imports totaled 27.03 billion SME, up just 8.5 percent from a year earlier.
Apparel imports inched up 2 percent in July to 1.34 billion SME, and they were up 8.1 percent for the first seven months to 7.9 billion SME. For the year ending in July, apparel imports rose 9.3 percent to 13.48 billion SME.
During July, textile imports rose 6.5 percent to 1.24 billion SME and they were up 6.5 percent to 8.16 billion SME for this year’s first seven months. For the year ended July, textile imports rose 7.7 percent to 13.55 billion SME.
Donald Foote, agreements division director with Commerce’s Office of Textiles and Apparel, generally is leery about drawing conclusions about the trade based on a month or two of data. But surveying the apparel and textile import numbers, which showed an average import rise of 5.6 percent for April through July, Foote said, “It sure looks to me like the textile and apparel import market has slowed down this year.”
Specifically, he attributed the recent moderation of sourcing to a slowdown in imports from China and Pakistan throughout this year, compared with 1998. For example, apparel and textile imports from China were off 3.7 percent during the first seven months of this year and down by 3.8 percent in July. Pakistan’s shipments were off 9.2 percent for the year to date and 10.4 percent in July.
“In addition to this,” Foote said, “in recent months, there’s been a dramatic falloff in apparel and textile imports from Indonesia, South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan,” whose shipments for most of 1998 often posted monthly gains in the 20 percent range.
Indonesia’s combined exports here fell by 13.5 percent for the first seven months of this year and were down 19.9 percent during July. South Korea’s exports of these products were up 20.6 percent for the first seven months of this year. But this is due largely to an gain of 32.5 percent during the first three months. In recent months, South Korea’s shipments here hardly increased at all and were up just 3.3 percent in July.
Similarly, Hong Kong’s apparel and textile exports here, which posted in excess of 20 percent monthly gains for most of 1998, inched ahead by 1.2 percent for the first seven months of this year and during July fell 7.4 percent.
The pattern was nearly the same for Taiwan. Its apparel and textile shipments here in the last quarter of 1998 and the first quarter of this year averaged 24 percent increases during this span. But these shipments slowed markedly beginning in April, producing a year-to-date increase of 13.9 percent. In July, these exports were up by just 1.6 percent.
Meanwhile, the lion’s share of the import increases were due to sharply higher shipments by a handful of countries. Mexico and Canada, the U.S.’s number one and number two suppliers, respectively, of imported textiles and apparel, accounted for just under 60 percent of the total increase in July. Mexico’s combined shipments here were 367 million SME in July, up 9.6 percent, while Canada’s totaled 222 million SME, up 14.3 percent.
The only other significant import gains posted during July were by Thailand, the number seven supplier, which was up 13.1 percent to 107 million SME, and Malaysia, whose exports soared 45.6 percent to 34 million SME. Malaysia is a second-tier foreign supplier ranked at or near number 20.
The latest import report also made apparent the continuation of another trend that has become evident during the past year: that virtually all of the aggregate import increase for apparel and textiles is concentrated in a handful of product categories.
Within the apparel sector, almost 97 percent of the total increase in sourcing during the first seven months was due to sharply higher imports of cotton tops and bottoms, cotton and man-made-fiber underwear, cotton and man-made-fiber dresses and miscellaneous products, including cotton and man-made-fiber swimsuits, playsuits and hats.
Within the apparel grouping, Mexico is the dominant and growing supplier of virtually every one of these products.
More than 98 percent of the growth in textiles was accounted for by four product groups: cotton and man-made-fiber knit fabric, man-made-fiber luggage, and two “basket” categories,in home furnishings.