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The slump in tire shipments in the U.S. so far this year has even affected imports-to a certain extent.

What happens the rest of the year, though, will bear watching as more than 80,000 units of daily passenger and light truck tire capacity are being taken out of production at U.S. and Canadian tire plants.

Shipments of passenger, light 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 (RMA). Imports during the same period increased 1.5 percent, to 58 million units, the RMA said, 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-with the exception of China, which continued its steady growth as a tire exporter to the U.S., especially in the truck tire categories, according to Department of Commerce data.

For the five-month period, imports of light and medium truck/bus tires from China jumped 46.4 and 43.9 percent, respectively, to 2.3 million and 2.1 million units. Passenger tire shipments from China rose only slightly, 2.8 percent to 7.4 million units, but 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, imports of medium truck/bus and light truck tires grew 20.8 and 13.3 percent, respectively, but passenger tire imports fell 0.3 percent.

In addition, the Commerce Department data show two new emerging trading partners-Indonesia and Thailand. Imports of passenger 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 the U.S. tire makers fell 3.2 percent during the five-month period, with passenger and light truck tire output down 3.6 and 1.8 percent, respectively. Medium truck/bus tire output was up 0.4 percent.

Ironically, exports-which represent only about 15 percent of RMA 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, whereas Bridgestone/Firestone's shutting its Oklahoma City, Okla., plant likely 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., plant will have a more immediate effect, though.

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

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