U.S. containerized imports slipped 20.8 percent during the first quarter of this year from the year-ago quarter, the largest drop in almost 20 years
, according to statistics by Piers Trade Horizons. The decline prompted Piers to change its projections for the entire year, with expectations that imports will be down 14.9 percent year-over-year.

Most of the top 25 imported commodities had negative growth, down at rates of between negative 9 percent and negative 43 percent. Bananas and medical equipment and supplies were the only commodities that showed positive growth.

Furniture, the top-ranked import, experienced the greatest loss in absolute volume terms, as a result of the housing bust. The commodity dropped 19.2 percent from the first quarter of 2008 to 87,000 20-foot equivalent units, or TEUs, the standard measure in containers. The fallout of the U.S. auto industry impacted the auto parts trade, which was down 39.2 percent, or more than 49,000 TEUs, from the year-ago period. Auto and truck tires were down by 28,000 TEUs, or 30 percent.

Inbound apparel shipments were down, hit by the lag in consumer spending. Menswear, women's and infantwear, miscellaneous apparel, sheets, towels and blankets, had a weak quarter, losing 13.8 percent of their first-quarter 2008 level in aggregate.

Exports did not fare well either. The slowing output in overseas factories and lessening need for packaging caused paper and paperboard shipments to drop 4.9 percent, while foam waste and scrap declined 9.2 percent. U.S. fabric and cotton exports were down 22.8 percent, or 20,493 TEUs. This provides low expectations for the global apparel trade in the second and third quarters of this year, Piers says.

Piers has also cut its projections for exports for 2009, to a drop of 15.9 percent compared with 2008.

The company anticipates a recovery second quarter onwards. "Volumes will remain depressed but return to positive and stable growth in first-quarter 2010."

More info: www.piers.com