Byline: Kristi Ellis

WASHINGTON — Apparel and textile imports fell 3.9 percent in February against year-ago levels, the first significant decline in five years, the Commerce Department reported Wednesday.
The decline, which some observers suggested was another signal of an economic downturn for the apparel industry, follows four years of double-digit growth in imports.
The drop was lead by China, which saw its shipments to the U.S. fall 20.8 percent for the month. The nations of the Caribbean Basin, which last year gained trade parity for apparel made of U.S. fabrics, saw their shipments to the U.S. drop 7.1 percent.
Uncharacteristically, Charles Bremmer, director of international trade at the American Textile Manufacturers Institute fretted about the decline in Chinese imports.
“This is ugly…When China is down, business is bad,” he said, adding that ATMI members “are suffering.”
But not all nations saw their shipments to the U.S. drop. Indonesia, Israel and Cambodia are just a few of the countries whose imports grew, though not enough to offset strong declines in shipments from countries including Mexico, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
The decline came as a surprise to many industry analysts, as well as retailers and importers, though many weren’t as alarmed about the implications of a year-over-year decline.
Overall imports for the year to date were still up by 5.6 percent, or 281.9 million SME, to 5.31 billion SME. Total imports for February came to 2.47 billion SME.
“February is usually a slow month in imports,” said Frank Kelly, chairman of the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel, who is also vice president of international trade compliance and government affairs at Liz Claiborne. “I don’t think it is indicative of anything ominous.”
Bob Zane, senior vice president of manufacturing, sourcing and distribution at Claiborne, suggested that the decline was a result of companies cutting orders.
“Most companies are being more careful in the last several months about bringing in goods that may not sell as rapidly as had been hoped,” he said. “There stands to reason that there might be a slight reduction in imports.”
Julia Hughes, vice president of international trade with the USA-ITA, called the decline from the CBI nations “troubling.” She suggested imports have been hindered by the government’s delay in releasing the final rules governing CBI parity.
Rosalind Wells, chief economist for the National Retail Federation, said she expects moderate growth in consumer spending for the rest of the year. She said the repeated interest-rate cuts by the Federal Reserve — which Wednesday lowered the benchmark federal funds rate a half-point — will “at some point” boost spending.
In other trade news, Ecuador — one of the world’s biggest banana growers — said it is not satisfied with last week’s accord between the U.S.and European Union, which effectively ended the banana-cashmere trade war.
The Ecuadorian government stated it was left out of the negotiation process and threatened to bring the matter to the World Trade Organization. It called for a clarification of the accord and inclusion in a new round of negotiations.

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