California export trade started the year on a positive note, but experts found multiple red flags to worry about up the road.
California businesses shipped merchandise valued at $12.61 billion in January, up 1.6 percent from $12.41 billion in January 2012, according to an analysis of Thursday's U.S. Commerce Department trade figures by Beacon Economics, a consulting firm with offices in the Bay Area and Los Angeles.
The gain was led by a 5.7 percent year-over-year increase in manufactured products sent abroad totaling $8.36 billion in January.
However, exports of non-manufactured goods (mainly agricultural produce and raw materials) dipped 0.5 percent to $1.5 billion and re-exports fell 8.5 percent to $2.75 billion.
Analysts said trade in manufactured products is becoming increasingly difficult as demand for personal computers and related components has been falling amid the increased popularity of smartphones and tablets.
"This trend is likely to persist for some time," said Jock O'Connell, Beacon's international trade adviser. "Apparently, there is no app yet for a shrinking PC market."
Beacon founding partner Christopher Thornberg also noted that, "for the first time in a number of years, California's export growth is slower than for the nation overall.
"Growth in the tech-heavy Bay Area economy is still keeping up, so gains elsewhere in the economy seem to be making up for the loss, but it is certainly something to keep an eye on."
On a straight-up, dollar-value basis, California broke its all-time export record in 2012, sending merchandise valued at $161.7 billion abroad.
But Beacon analysts warned that, adjusted for inflation, the 2012 total represented a year-over-year decline of 0.4 percent compared with the previous all-time mark of $159.12 billion set in 2011. Analysts cited cooling economies in some key trade markets.
On Thursday, Beacon noted that, over a three-month period ending in January, state exports to Mexico, California's leading foreign market, were down nearly 20 percent year-over-year.
On the import side, California took in $30.5 billion in January, up about 3.4 percent from $29.5 billion in January last year. Some goods entering California go to other states, so exports are considered a more accurate measure of the state's trade health.
Nationally, the U.S. trade deficit grew 16.5 percent to $44.4 billion from December 2012 to January. Exports of goods and services dipped 1.2 percent to $184.5 billion, which Commerce Department officials blamed on declining sales to Europe, China, Japan and Brazil.
U.S. imports rose 1.8 percent to $228.9 billion, as oil imports surged 12.3 percent.
Call The Bee's Mark Glover, (916) 321-1184.