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WASHINGTON — Apparel and textile imports fell 5.4 percent to 3.8 billion square meter equivalents in March compared with a year earlier, driven by a sharp drop in shipments from China, the number-one supplier to the U.S.
Apparel imports rose 1.7 percent to 1.7 billion SME, while textile imports fell 10.4 percent to 2.1 billion SME, according to a monthly trade report from the Commerce Department’s Office of Textiles and Apparel.
China posted the largest decline in combined apparel and textile shipments, falling 17.8 percent to 1.26 billion SME in the month compared with March 2012. Apparel imports from China were down 2.9 percent to 453 million SME, while textile imports fell 24 percent to 805 million SME.
Behind China, Mexico had the next-largest decline in combined imports of 13 percent to 196 million SME. Conversely, combined imports from India rose 11.2 percent to 347 million SME, while combined shipments from Vietnam rose 9 percent to 268 million SME.
“I think we continue to see such caution from the consumer, and I think that is reflected in this data,” said Julia Hughes, president of the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel.
Hughes said companies are also being conservative about bringing product in. But she added that “a slow March suggests we might see a more robust April” as stores stock up with summer merchandise.
Looking at apparel imports among the top 10 suppliers alone, Mexico had the largest decrease, falling 10.2 percent to 77 million SME, followed by El Salvador with an 8.3 percent decline to 70 million SME. In the plus column, Cambodia had the largest increase in apparel imports, by 9.2 percent to 96 million SME.
Apparel imports from Bangladesh rose 6 percent to 148 million SME in March compared with a year earlier, but industry officials expect to see companies shift business out of Bangladesh in the wake of the tragic building collapse at Rana Plaza there that has killed more than 400 people.
“While I can’t say I know of any specific, most companies have tried to manage their risk there,” Hughes said. “Clearly the combination of the tragic incident with the building collapse, the tragic fire, the strikes and protests, companies are going to look at trying minimize risk. That will suggest we will see a decline from Bangladesh while all of this plays out.”
The U.S.’s overall trade deficit narrowed to $38.8 billion in March from $48.6 billion in February.
“In particular, imports from China collapsed, leading to the lowest trade shortfall, vis-à-vis the Asian giant, since 2010,” said Gregory Daco, senior principal economist at IHS Global Insight.
The monthly U.S. goods deficit with China declined to $17.9 billion in March from $23.4 billion in February.
“This drop in the bilateral trade deficit with Beijing may be the first tangible sign of a shift away from China as the ‘factory for the world,’” said Scott Paul, president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing. “Then again, it may merely be the result of lower domestic demand or a seasonal ‘swoon’ in the data. It’s really too early to tell.”