Industries in which U.S. companies have a competitive advantage, including agriculture, medical supplies and aviation, will probably benefit the most from improving global demand, said Gary Hufbauer, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Peterson Institute for International Economics. That would brighten the outlook for corporations from General Electric to Boeing and Johnson & Johnson.
China reported economic growth accelerated in the fourth quarter for the first time in two years, raising prospects that a regional lift will fuel demand for U.S. goods. Developing nations are projected to grow 5.5 percent in 2013, more than last year, while Europe stabilizes, according to projections from the World Bank.
"The rest of the world is still growing, which means you should have higher exports," said Maury Harris, chief economist at UBS Securities in New York. "If China is improving, those neighbors are going to have better growth. And if their neighbors have better growth, then they'll buy more stuff from us."
Harris forecasts sales to overseas customers will be 6.7 percent higher in this year's fourth quarter compared with the same period in 2012. The comparable gain in 2012 was an estimated 1.6 percent, reflecting a projected 5 percent slump at an annual rate from October through December.
Foreign demand will grow throughout the year, advancing at a 6 percent rate from January through March and at a 7 percent pace in the subsequent three quarters, according to UBS.
Last year's fourth-quarter drop in U.S. exports contributed to a widening of the trade gap, which, combined with a smaller increase in inventories, caused the world's largest economy to slow even as consumer spending and business investment probably accelerated. Gross domestic product expanded at a 0.7 percent annual rate, the worst performance in almost two years, according to a UBS forecast.
The Commerce Department's GDP estimate for last quarter comes out on Jan. 30. The economy grew at a 3.1 percent rate in the previous three months.
Nonetheless, the fourth quarter ended on a positive note, according to data from the Institute for Supply Management. The Tempe, Ariz.-based purchasers group's export measure exceeded the break-even 50 level in December for the first time since May. The index's three-month average leads similar changes in actual exports by a few months, according to UBS research.
China's GDP rose 7.9 percent in the fourth quarter from a year earlier compared with a 7.4 percent gain in the previous period, the National Bureau of Statistics said last week. It marked the first pickup since the end of 2010. Industrial output in December climbed a more-than-projected 10.3 percent and fixed-asset investment for the year gained 20.6 percent.
The World Bank's forecast for growth in developing countries this year compared with a 5.1 percent estimate for 2012. Latin America will grow 3.5 percent, up from 3 percent in 2012 and led by a rebound in Brazil, the bank said.
South and Central America pushed up purchases of U.S. planes in 2012. The value of orders for U.S. aircraft and parts from the region rose 31.6 percent year-to-date in November to $9.47 billion compared with the same period in 2011, according to Census Bureau data. Demand for U.S.-made automobiles and car parts advanced 16.8 percent to $6.91 billion.
Of the 601 airplanes delivered by Boeing in 2012, 416, or 69 percent, went to foreign buyers, according to data from the Chicago-based company. That is up from 348 sold to customers abroad in 2011. Boeing now faces a more immediate challenge as its 787 Dreamliner aircraft is investigated for mechanical problems.
General Electric reported higher fourth-quarter profit than analysts estimated as emerging-market gains fueled the aviation and health-care businesses, which drove industrial performance and helped build a record $210 billion order backlog, the Fairfield, Conne.-based company reported last week.
"The outlook for developed markets remains uncertain, but we are seeing growth in China and the resource-rich countries," Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Immelt said in a statement.
At New Brunswick, N.J.-based Johnson & Johnson, the world's biggest maker of health-care products, sales to international buyers at its DePuy Synthes subsidiary account for almost 50 percent of total revenue.
"We are well-positioned to grab the opportunities offered by international markets and especially by Asia Pacific," Michel Orsinger, chief executive officer at the unit, which manufactures and sells products used in orthopedic trauma surgery, said in a meeting with analysts Tuesday.
One near-term cloud on the horizon is that Canada, the U.S.'s biggest customer, is cooling, said Neil Dutta, head of U.S. economics at Renaissance Macro Research in New York.
Dutta projects U.S. exports will expand 2.3 percent this year after 3.3 percent gain in 2012. Nonetheless, global demand will firm in the second half of the year, he said.
Canada's "housing market's cooling, people are bringing up their savings rate a bit," Dutta said. In addition, fiscal tightening in Europe and an Asian rebound that has had little impact outside the region are working against an acceleration in demand for U.S. goods, he said.
Diane Swonk remains optimistic even as she agrees that overseas demand is more likely to pick up in the second half of the year. The chief economist for Chicago-based Mesirow Financial forecasts U.S. exports will grow 5.1 percent this year as China recovers and Europe stabilizes. Sales overseas will accelerate by 8.7 percent in 2014, she estimates.
As developing nations grow, demand for goods such as automobiles that require time to produce domestically will initially be bought from American companies, Swonk said. "The first wave is importing," she said.
More exports also may have indirect benefits for the broader recovery, said the Peterson Institute's Hufbauer.
"Exports are a very high-paying sector of the U.S. economy," he said. "Jobs are more steady in export-oriented companies, they pay better" and the companies do more research and development.
-- With assistance from Kristy Scheuble and Stephen Rose in Washington.
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