The Impact of the Asian Crisis on Washington State Trade

The Asian Crisis was more that an across-the-world abstraction for the Washington state economy. One out of every four jobs in this state is tied to the global marketplace. Therefore, the Pacific Northwest must be sensitive to the economic welfare of other countries. With the devaluation of many Asian Pacific countries' currencies, U.S. exports became more costly there, which led to a dramatic drop in many Pacific Northwest exports to Asia.

Approximately 80 percent of the container volume from Asia through Seattle is destined for Central North America, and about 25 percent of Seattle's container exports to Asia originate from Central North America. Since the Port of Seattle operates as a landlord port through the provision of leased facilities and rental of equipment, its maritime revenues are somewhat insulated from short-term cargo fluctuations.

After the Asian Crisis, Seattle container imports were up by 22% from 1997, while exports decreased by 16% during this time. Asian countries suffering economically could not afford to pay for US exports. The forest products industry was worst hit by this crisis. Port of Seattle forest product exports dropped 40% and manufactures of wood products reported sales down by as much as 75%. Agricultural products was also severely affected.

Recently, Seattle's export trade is relatively balanced: imports have weighed as much as exports. Container supply is currently growly quite rapidly. This represents a reversal from the last few years for steamship lines. With the previous trade imbalance, revenues declined. For every four ships that returned to Asia, one would be empty. Overall international trade is expected to continue to grow, as Asian trade is forecasted to increase 4% per year for the next 20 years. Short term decreases are an inevitable risk in trade.

During the Asian Crisis, the Port of Seattle was very active in supporting local business. It used creative methods to help customers, including offering to store empty containers as it was prohibitively costly to ship empty containers back to China or Japan. The Port of Seattle also negotiated lower rates for grain to assist agriculture industry, which was struggling.

The devaluation of Asian currencies provoked a surge in imports to the Port of Seattle, sustaining the port's trade flow. The Asian downturn was painful, but the long-term outlook is good, just as it was perceived to be five years ago. "Trade is crucial to the economy of this part of the country," said Port of Seattle Commission President of the Washington Council in International Trade: "Because 88% of our state's two-way trade is with Asia-Pacific economies, anything that happens to Asia affects us very quickly and very deeply. And, nowhere is the pain felt more acutely than by our state's exporters, which is why the Port Commission and others in our business community strongly support efforts by the International Monetary Fund to help the Asian economies get back on their feet."