To the surprise of local economists, international trade in Southern California has taken a sharp turn upward this year far outpacing 1996's levels.

The value of imports and exports through the Los Angeles Customs District which includes the ports of L.A. and Long Beach, L.A. International Airport, Port Hueneme and the Las Vegas airport swelled to $26.2 billion in the first three months of 1997, a 9.2 percent jump from the like period a year earlier, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Individually, the ports of L.A. and Long Beach reported even stronger growth.

At the Port of L.A., international commerce as measured by the volume of container traffic jumped 16.7 percent in the first three months of the year. In Long Beach, trade rose 12.1 percent over the comparable period in 1996.

For March alone, the port logged a 19 percent jump.

March was the third busiest month in the history of the Port of Long Beach, according to Don Wylie, the port's director of trade and maritime services.

The surge in traffic came as something of a surprise to the region's trade community. The ports generally experience their busiest months between September and December, when trade activity surges as a result of the holiday shopping season.

The news also was unexpected because it came on the heels of two studies asserting that Southern California's years of strong, double-digit trade growth were drawing to a close.

The studies one commissioned by the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and the other completed by the Economic Development Corp. of Los Angeles County instead predicted more modest growth rates of 3 to 6 percent.

"I'm happy to be proven wrong," said Jack Kyser, chief economist of the EDC and author of that agency's study.

According to Wylie, the jump was the result of a continuing growth in import activity. Imports have surged as a result of the strength of the U.S. dollar against other major world currencies, particularly the Japanese yen. Japan is Southern California's largest trading partner.

Wylie said the increase in import activity also was the result of strong consumer confidence and a generally healthy U.S. economy.

"People feel good about spending again," he said.

Import values through the L.A. Customs District were up 8.2 percent in the first three months of 1997 compared to the same period a year earlier, according to the Commerce Department.

In spite of the dollar's continued strength, exports also posted a big jump, with values rising 10.9 percent in the first quarter of 1997 compared to a year earlier.

Kyser said the growth of exports suggests that international traders have grown accustomed to the strong dollar, which was worth about 116 yen last week.

"People are learning to cope with increased value of the U.S. dollar," he said.

Kyser added that the surge in trade in both directions is evidence of the efficiency of the local trade infrastructure. Southern California's gains, he said, came at the expense of the San Francisco Customs District, which saw its total trade value drop by 4.5 percent in the first three months of the year compared to the same period in 1996.

"The efficiency of the local trade facilities is just too compelling," said Kyser.

Kyser added that his earlier predictions were based largely on the fact that in 1996, trade through the region slowed considerably, growing at a mere 3.6 percent, the slowest rate of growth since 1982. As a result, he had forecast that 1997 would be a "tumultuous" year for international trade in Southern California.

Though he was pleased with the recent robust growth figures, Kyser pointed to several dark clouds which continue to loom on the horizon.

Those include the mounting controversy over renewing favorable trade status to China Southern California's second largest trading partner and the uncertainty surrounding the return of Hong Kong to Chinese control next month.

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