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* Seaborne trade falls 1.2 pct in 4th qtr versus year ago
* Maersk says Brazil trade levels on a downward trend
* Soybean container shipments fall 60 percent
By Caroline Stauffer
SAO PAULO, March 1 (Reuters) - Brazilian seaborne trade fell 1.2 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012 compared with a year earlier, much worse than had been expected as Brazil's economy fails to pick up steam, Danish shipping company Maersk Line said on Friday.
Exports fell 3.1 percent while imports grew just 0.6 percent in the quarter, a sign of cooling demand for Brazilian products abroad as well as slower economic growth in Brazil, which Maersk expects to continue into 2013.
"It's been a long time since we've seen negative growth in container freight, it's quite discouraging," said Peter Gyde, head of Maersk Line in Brazil. "We are preparing ourselves and our business for a low growth scenario."
The fourth quarter results were the worst since at least the first quarter of 2011, the earliest period for which Maersk Line, a unit of Denmark's A.P. Moller Maersk AS shipping and oil group, has compiled data for Brazilian seaborne trading volumes.
In 2012, overall seaborne trade volumes grew by 2 percent from 2011.
Gyde said he expected 2013 to be similar to late 2012 and had doubts about the Brazilian government's ability to trigger economic growth. Brazil's economy probably expanded just 0.9 percent last year, according to a Reuters survey.
The data in the report was compiled for Maersk by Rio de Janeiro international trade data and consulting company Dataliner. The figures represent total ocean trade with Brazil and not just Maersk's shipping traffic, Maersk said.
Maersk controls about 15 percent of the container shipping market in Latin America.
Maersk's report said Brazil's trade with Asia has shown little growth, even as China, which recently became Brazil's top trade partner, stabilizes from a slowdown.
"That is a big concern, because Asia is a huge receiver of the typical Brazilian export products, which are generally commodities," Gyde said. "When they buy less it is potentially because they are producing less or because they find sourcing somewhere else."
Exports of refrigerated goods to Asia fell 11.9 percent in the fourth quarter from a year earlier while exports of "dry" nonrefrigerated goods grew 0.4 percent. In the third quarter, dry exports rose 1.5 percent year on year.
Container shipments of soybeans fell 62.9 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012 from the previous year, leading export declines as Brazil was nearly out of soybeans. Sugar cargo volumes led export gains, rising 31.7 percent.
Goyd said export volumes could improve, however, as a record soybean harvest of more than 80 million tonnes hits Brazilian ports. But the increased export volume will come up against growing shipping lineups and slow cargo movement due in part to insufficient rails and roads in Brazil.
"The opportunity for Brazil to continue growth and become more competitive is to invest in infrastructure... it's not just building more ports, it's access to and from the ports, which today is probably an even bigger bottleneck," Goyd said.
Import declines were led by fruits, vegetables and plants, which were down 18.6 percent. Cotton, machinery, appliances and electronics, also fell 9 percent though finished manufacturing goods rose 10.4 percent in the fourth quarter.