A simmering stew of economic factors prompted California's March exports to retreat from year-ago numbers.
California businesses shipped merchandise valued at $14.07 billion in March, down 3.7 percent from $14.62 billion in March 2012, according to an analysis of Thursday's U.S. Commerce Department figures by Beacon Economics, a consulting firm with offices in the Bay Area and Los Angeles.
Adjusted for inflation, Beacon put the decline at a little more than 5 percent.
"This was not, unfortunately, an unanticipated set of numbers," said Jock O'Connell, Beacon's international trade adviser. "March's malaise merely punctuated a trend we've been observing since last fall."
The year-to-year decline in trade was felt across the board.
Exports of manufactured items slipped 1.4 percent to $9.25 billion, shipments of non-manufactured goods (chiefly agricultural produce and raw materials) fell 6.4 percent to $1.78 billion, and re-exports tumbled 8.7 percent to slightly more than $3 billion.
Beacon concluded that California's overall export trade in the first quarter of this year was off by 1.3 percent from the same period last year.
Beacon continued to point to declining shipments of electronic components used in the manufacture of personal computers a development linked to the increasing international use of smartphones and tablets.
In the first three months of this year, exports of PC components were down 22.9 percent from the opening quarter of 2012. Shipments of electronic components to California's No. 1 export market, Mexico, fell about 65 percent during that time.
Beacon, noting cooling economies worldwide, said state exports to other markets were either flat or up modestly, although shipments to economically turbulent Europe were up about 5 percent in the first quarter vs. a year ago.
Beacon said airborne shipments accounted for nearly 46 percent of the value of the state's first-quarter export trade.
"While we almost instinctively associate foreign trade with the operations of seaports, our airports actually play a more vital role in transporting California products to markets around the globe," O'Connell said.
On the import side, California took in $28.12 billion in March, down 8.4 percent from $30.72 billion in March 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 shrank 11 percent to $38.8 billion in March, compared with $43.6 billion in February. That's the second-lowest level in three years. U.S. imports of crude oil fell to the lowest level in 17 years, averaging about 7 million barrels a day.
Exports of U.S. goods and services fell 0.9 percent, to $184.3 billion, from February to March. Imports fell 2.8 percent, to $223.1 billion.
Call The Bee's Mark Glover, (916) 321-1184.