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WASHINGTON, DC-In a sign that business is building up again for distribution center and warehouse tenants, November marked another month of improved shipping activity in the US. Key measures from the US Census Bureau, National Retail Foundation and Cass Information Systems all showed increases in the most recent monthly reports.

According to a Dec. 24 Census Bureau bulletin, shipments of manufactured durable goods climbed for the third consecutive month in November, while new orders moved up for the second month running and inventories fell for the 10th time in 11 months. Following a 0.7% rise in October, durable goods shipments rose $500 million, or 0.3%, in November. The same month, new orders increased $300 million, or 0.2%. Machinery experienced the largest percentage increase in shipments, a sign that manufacturers are gearing up for new production, while computers and electronic products experienced the largest increase in orders. Durable goods inventories fell 0.2%, which could serve as a prelude to a new round of ordering.

Meanwhile, the newest Port Tracker from the DC-based National Retail Federation (NRF) and IHS Global Insight of Lexington, MA projects containerized imports at the 10 US ports regularly surveyed for the report will begin to rise again in February and continue rising in March and April. The three-month trend would break a 31-month streak of year-to-year declines.

“We’ve been seeing hints of a turnaround in our past few reports, but this is starting to look like a clear trend,” says Jonathan Gold, NRF vice president for supply chain and customs policy. “If retailers are starting to import more merchandise, it’s because they expect to be able to sell more, and that’s a good sign for our industry and the overall economy.”

The report predicts the year-to-year increase will reach 16% in February, fall back to 6% in March and climb to 9% in April. On the other hand, it predicts volume will still be down 4% in January. Ports surveyed handled 1.18 million 20-foot-equivalent units (TEUs) in October, the most recent month for which actual numbers are available. The figure was up 4% from September but down 14% from a year earlier. November’s volume was estimated at 1.09 million TEUs, down 12% percent from last year, and December is forecast at 1.05 million TEUs, down 1%.

“The second half of 2009 has seen an improvement, with ‘less bad’ year-over-year numbers compared with the first half,” says Paul Bingham, an economist at IHS. “While improving, import container traffic is projected to be weak through March due to the traditional slow season combined with the weak pace of economic recovery.”

Finally, the Cass freight expenditure index from Cass Information Systems in Bridgeton, MO registered 1.596, up from 1.51 in October and 1.55 in September. The Cass shipment index, however, came in at 0.947, up from 0.921 in October but below the 0.966 reported in September. The index is based on the expenditures and shipments of Cass clients. The latter index has not exceeded 1.0 since November 2008.

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