Byline: Jim Ostroff

WASHINGTON — American textile and apparel imports, which limped along for most of 1996 until they hit the ground running last fall, surged 28.4 percent in December due largely to an explosive growth in Chinese shipments. The intake of Chinese goods jumped nearly 153 percent against a year ago.
Analysts were divided as to why, with speculation ranging from a long-awaited consumer apparel-buying boomlet to changes in U.S. quota rules that triggered a tidal wave of fabric exports here late in the year.
Whatever the cause, December was a month for monumental import growth all around, based on a Commerce Department report issued Wednesday. Textile imports soared 31.8 percent to 810 million square meters equivalent, while apparel imports rose in December 25 percent to 762 million SME.
But for all of 1996, textile imports rose just 3.9 percent to 9.41 billion SME, reflecting that falloff in shipments for about the first two-thirds of the year. Apparel imports for the full year rose just 4.4 percent to 9.66 billion SME. Here, too, an import surge in the latter part of 1996 offset steep declines.
Combined, U.S. textile and apparel imports rose 4.1 percent last year to 19.07 billion SME. “While this is sightly below the 1995 increase of 6 percent, it marks a sharp turnaround from the picture during the first eight months of 1996, when imports were declining by 1.5 percent,” said Donald Foote, agreements division director of Commerce’s Office of Textiles and Apparel. He added that during the final third of the year, textile-apparel imports surged by 16.5 percent.
Explaining some of this trend, he pointed to the big fluctuations in shipments from China. During the first two-thirds of 1996, through August, U.S. imports of Chinese textiles and apparel were down 28.5 percent, but in the last third they soared 74.1 percent from the same periods in 1995.
Foote would not venture to say why these imports from China surged so strongly during the latter part of 1996. However, trade analysts late last year said they believe this surge was due to a strong demand by retailers, who typically make buying decisions nine to 12 months in advance of the import date. This would indicate that by early 1996 U.S. retailers believed consumer demand would strengthen, especially for lower-priced apparel.
An analysis of Chinese imports during the final four months of 1996, provided by Foote, showed strong U.S. demand particularly for Chinese man-made fiber trousers for men, boys, women and girls. However, imports of Chinese luggage and cotton print cloth also were up strongly.
During December, meanwhile, imports from China of all apparel soared by 73.2 percent to 53 million SME. Textile imports from China totaled 93 million SME in December, a nearly off-the-charts increase of 242.8 percent from the year-earlier level.
For the year, China shipped 1.64 billion SME of textiles and apparel to the U.S., down 7.2 percent from 1995 and making China the U.S.’s third-leading supplier of these imports. Canada was the second-largest shipper, with 1.79 billion SME, up 15.2 percent from 1995 levels. However, virtually all of this was textiles, especially industrial ones.
Mexico was the top U.S. supplier, exporting 2.2 billion SME of apparel and textiles here, up 42.4 percent from 1995, divided nearly equally between apparel and textiles.
Analysts had varying opinions about the late-year surge in imports, especially for apparel. Carl Priestland, the American Apparel Manufacturers Association’s chief economist, said domestic production and imports heated up last fall in response to consumer demand, following several years in which consumers gorged themselves on electronics and other hard goods.
“The surge in imports from China was a reflection of basic price competition,” Priestland said. “Whether coming out of China or not, the consumer is looking for apparel in terms of quality at a reasonable price and they’ve been trying to get more for the same amount of money.”
Robert Hall, the National Retail Federation’s vice president and international trade counsel, concurred with this assessment, stating, “As we look for high quality at low and moderate cost, China leaps to the top of the list.” Hall added that he believes the increase in Chinese apparel imports in part also is due to a shift in sourcing from other Asian nations.
Offering different viewpoints were Eugene Milosh, the American Association of Exporters and Importers’ president, and Carlos Moore, the American Textile Manufacturers Institute’s executive vice president. Milosh said the late-season apparel sourcing surge from China may have been due to retailers who sought to meet an anticipated strong Christmas season demand by placing relatively late orders with underutilized plants there and then shipping the clothing via airfreight to the U.S.
Moore ventured the surge could be tied to a change in the U.S.’s origin rule, which took effect July 1, that stipulated the nation where apparel is assembled — not where the fabric is cut — confers origin for quota purposes. Consequently, he said much apparel that had entered the U.S. as products of Hong Kong or Macao had to be entered under China’s quotas.
The ATMI executive acknowledged that a 447 percent increase to 43.8 million SME of cotton print cloth shipments was a significant contributor to the surge in China’s textile shipments here during the last four months of 1996.
However, Moore said domestic industry officials have reason to believe “China resumed subsidizing its exports during the fourth quarter in the form of tax rebates, which we’re investigating.” If proven, he said this could be grounds for the U.S. to file a countervailing duty case against China.