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Published on September 4, 2006

Slump hits imports, but not as much

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Date Published September 4, 2006

The slump in tire demand in the U.S. so far this year has affected even imports, although the significant cut in production capacity might change that.

Shipments of passenger, light truck and medium truck tires from January through May fell 4.3 percent to 138.1 million units, according to the latest figures from the Rubber Manufacturers Association. Imports during the same period increased 1.5 percent to 58 million units, but that is a far cry from the double-digit growth recorded in each of the past several years.

The slowing pace of imports affected most of the U.S.'s major trading partners. The exception is China, which continued its steady growth as a tire exporter to the U.S., especially in the truck tire categories, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce data.

For the five-month period, imports of light truck tires from China jumped 46.4 percent to 2.3 million units and medium truck/bus tires 43.9 percent to 2.1 million.

Passenger tire shipments from China rose 2.8 percent to 7.4 million units. Coupled with a decline in imports from Japan, China has become the U.S.'s No. 2 source of imported car tires after Canada.

While imports overall plateaued during the period, foreign-made light truck tire shipments grew 13.3 percent and medium truck/bus 20.8 percent, while passenger tire imports fell 0.3 percent.

In addition, the Commerce Department data show two emerging trading partners-Indonesia and Thailand. Imports of auto tires from Indonesia shot up 118.6 percent to 1.7 million units, and shipments of medium truck tires from Thailand grew 84.6 percent to 502,195 units.

Imports from Canada and South Korea, on the other hand, fell in all three categories.

Production by U.S. tire makers declined 3.2 percent during the five-month period, with passenger tire output off 3.6 percent and light truck tire 1.8 percent. Medium truck/bus tire output rose 0.4 percent.

Exports-which represent about 15 percent of U.S. shipments-grew 11.3 percent during the period.

The closing of Continental Tire North America Inc.'s Charlotte, N.C., plant in July will take about 3 million units of production out of the second half. Bridgestone/Firestone shutting its Oklahoma City plant probably won't show up in the RMA data until next year.

Michelin North America Inc.'s plan to trim output at its BFGoodrich Tire plant in Opelika, Ala., will have a more immediate effect.

Why are imports up when shipments in general are down? For Dennis Virag, president of Automotive Consulting Group Inc. in Ann Arbor, Mich., it's a simple