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Imports fall, improving U.S. trade balance

The shift reflects consumer stress, but it could help boost US manufacturers.

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Import prices are also rising more generally as global inflation heats up. Labor costs are rising in China and elsewhere. After about a decade of reducing the US inflation rate, import prices are now adding to it.

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Meanwhile, the US economy has been cooling, as slumping home values squeeze both consumers' wealth and their access to bank credit lines.

The rise in energy prices hurts on many fronts. It adds to shipping costs for transport companies, while rising gasoline bills leave the consumer with less discretionary income. And it factors into the cost of many products.

"We deal with a lot of goods that are made of plastic, and what's plastic made of?" asks Jim Hayes, vice president of Hayes Specialties in Saginaw. "It's made of oil."

Fluctuations in currencies and other costs are making business tough.

"We're getting price increases almost on a daily basis," Hayes says. "We normally put our catalog out in April every year. We still don't have it to press yet because we're trying to keep up with price increases."

Across America, such price increases to some extent mask how big the decline in imports is. For instance, oil imports have risen when measured in dollar value, but have been falling in barrels.

At the Port of Long Beach, shipments are down 10 percent over the past year when measured in container volume, but down only 3 percent in dollar value, says Art Wong, the port's information officer.

The changes in import demand fall unevenly across the economy.

Imports of some fuel-efficient or luxury cars are up, even as car dealerships in general are struggling.

At Curds & Whey, a specialty cheese shop in Portland, Ore., owner David Schiffelbein says business has stayed strong even though European cheeses have jumped by 80 percent in price. So far his high-income client base hasn't minded.

"They're buying more, since we changed our pricing structure to the half pound" instead of a pound, he says. "It seems to have worked."

But at the Boston jeweler European Imports, "We're not selling at all" at current high prices, says sales representative Lourdes Datal.

As a dealer in toys and novelty items for amusement parks and arcades, Hayes says he sees fewer orders from places that rely on tourists from far away, such as Anaheim, Calif., and Orlando, Fla.

But demand hasn't fallen off a cliff. Americans will still spend on recreation activities, he says, but will do it closer to home – a boon for sales to places like Frankenmuth, Mich., near Hayes's headquarters.

Similarly, imports of television sets seem to be doing well.

The flip side of falling imports is the opportunity for US-based manufacturing to rebound. Already, some steel companies are planning new mills in the US as import prices rise.

All this could set the stage for an era when the world no longer looks to the US as the consumer of first resort for all goods, and when US households live within their means.

"The large trade ... deficits of the United States cannot continue indefinitely, because doing so would constitute a permanent gift to the U.S. economy," Harvard University economist Martin Feldstein writes in a new research paper.