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Stung by Soaring Transport Costs, Factories Bring Jobs Home Again

The rising cost of shipping everything from industrial-pump parts to lawn-mower batteries to living-room sofas is forcing some manufacturers to bring production back to North America and freeze plans to send even more work overseas.

"My cost of getting a shipping container here from China just keeps going up -- and I don't see any end in sight," says Claude Hayes, president of the retail heating division at DESA LLC. He says that cost has jumped about 15%, to about $5,300, since January and is set to increase again next month to $5,600.

The cost of shipping a standard, 40-foot container from Asia to the East Coast has already tripled since 2000 and will double again as oil prices head toward $200 a barrel, says Jeff Rubin, chief economist at CIBC World Markets in Toronto. He estimates transportation costs are now the equivalent of a 9% tariff on goods coming into U.S. ports, compared with the equivalent of only 3% when oil was selling for $20 a barrel in 2000.

"In a world of triple-digit oil prices, distance costs money," Mr. Rubin wrote in a recent report. He figures that for every 10% increase in the distance of a trip, energy costs rise 4.5%.

Transportation costs are just part of a larger wave of inflation sweeping global manufacturing, which has also been pounded by higher costs for basic materials, such as steel and resins.

When savings fall to far less than 15%, it gets harder to justify having the work done in distant Chinese factories that take 12 weeks to deliver products.

The higher costs are particularly problematic for lower-value goods: The cheaper a product, the more significant transportation costs are in the final price. That may help explain why Chinese exports of such "freight-sensitive" goods to the U.S. are now falling for the first time in more than a decade, according to CIBC's Mr. Rubin.

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