NEWARK, N.J. – In New Jersey, a shortage of cargo containers seems about as unlikely as cardboard boxes suddenly becoming obsolete.

Stacks of empty steel containers still stand along the fringes of the region’s port as monuments to global trade and towering reminders of America’s unwavering appetite for foreign-made goods.

But international trade isn’t such a one-way street anymore. The weak dollar has made U.S. goods cheaper overseas, reviving the nation’s lagging export business. The prosperity, a bright spot in a generally slumping economy, has created a new wrinkle for the shipping industry: containers are increasingly hard to come by.

“The import volume has slowed down, so fewer boxes are coming in, and exporters are seeing more demand,” said Kevin Mack, a vice president at Newark-based Columbia Containers. “I’ve been in the business for 25 years, and this is the first time I can remember this happening.”

In New Jersey, all the talk about a scarcity of containers is particularly mind-boggling, because plenty of them can still be spotted from highways and commuter train lines passing through the outskirts of the port.

But those stacks, as it turns out, are not helping matters. While the lion’s share of containers comes into ports on the East Coast, the Midwest can’t find enough of them to handle the rising exports of grains, soybeans and corn bound for overseas markets.

“It’s all logistics,” said Sherif Gendi, who arranges U.S. grain exports for the trading company Marubeni America in New York City. “The containers,” he said, “aren’t getting to where they’re needed.”

That’s because moving empty containers around is an expense no one wants to absorb.

When a company adds fuel surcharges to the expense of moving an empty container, it becomes a “serious cost,” said Joe Alagna, an executive with China Shipping. On average, the cost of taking an empty container for a one-way ride to Chicago could run as high as $1,000 or more.

“The prevailing theory is that by the time you pay to move the empty to the Midwest, it’s a loss,” he said.

The supply problem in the Midwest has left giant food processors, trading companies and shippers scrambling to fulfill delivery schedules.

“Virtually every space on every ship is full,” said Peter Friedmann, executive director of the Agriculture Transportation Coalition in Washington. “It’s a real crisis, because only so much disruption can occur before customers start looking somewhere else.”

Philip Damas, head of container research at Drewry Shipping Consultants in London, said the situation is forcing Midwest exporters to plan as much as six weeks out to ensure they have both the containers and the ship capacity necessary to transport their products.

In some cases, exporters are taking drastic steps, warehousing their goods until they can get containers, reserving more containers than they need and moving their goods hundreds of miles by rail to ports with available containers.

“It’s getting very expensive, and it’s slowing down the export process,” Damas said.

At the same time, containers aren’t coming into the United States at the same volume they were a few years ago. The weak U.S. economy has led to a slowdown of imports, requiring fewer containers.

The Midwest’s hunt for containers has led plenty of exporters to send goods – such as corn and soybeans – to New Jersey in rail cars, where they’re then moved into containers. Such shipments are up 14.3 percent over last year, according to the Port of New York and New Jersey.

The Port Elizabeth Terminal and Warehouse is feeling the pinch. The terminal, which has always handled wood pulp exports from Canada, is receiving a whole different category of exports now. Weekly loads of corn and soybean are arriving by rail from the interior of the United States.

The new business is a direct result of the industry’s container dilemma, said Michael Morrow, vice president of sales at The Judge Organization, which operates the terminal.

“From what we hear, (this region) probably has the most available containers,” Morrow said.

Ultimately, some industry experts think the search for containers could lead shippers to the container depots, where boxes simply piled up as the nation was flooded with more imports than exports.

“I think there’s a feeling that the stacks will be lowered,” said Steve Coleman, a spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.


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