In 2000, Malaysia exported 51 injection molds to the United States. In 2001, it sent 66,900 molds. That's a whopping 131,000 percent increase, which apparently made the island nation the second-largest source of U.S. molds that year.
Believe those numbers?
No one does.
But they come from U.S. government data. And that is not the only oddity in the official trade data from the U.S. International Trade Commission.
Injection molds from France went from 5,400 in 2000 to 60,900. Molds from Mexico dropped from 49,600 to 7,700 between 2000 and 2001. In the same period, molds from Portugal plummeted from 244,300 to 2,700.
Even the data from Canada - the largest foreign source of molds in the United States - resembles a ping pong championship match. It was 45,000 in 1998. The next year it was 204,000. Then 144,000. Finally, in 2001, it was 97,000.
Some experts say the obvious errors are not a big problem. The more important figure is the dollar value of the molds imported or exported. That number does not seem to fluctuate like the data on numbers of molds crossing national boundaries.
Malaysia, for example, ranked 25th when measuring the value of the molds, and the value of shipments from there rose only 13 percent in 2001.
Still, the glitches raise questions, especially now that the U.S. government is trying to determine if U.S. mold and tool manufacturers are the victims of unfair trade.
``It makes it very hard for the ITC to be able to make sense out of all this,'' said Lori Anderson, senior director of economic and international affairs with the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. in Washington. ``This is a very important thing they are working on.''
Anderson agrees that dollar value is the more important figure, and people should consult a variety of sources when looking at data. But she said the quality of the data is important: ``This has ramifications for a lot of people.''
Here is an example: Mold builders have been raising concerns about imports from Asia, particularly China. According to U.S. government data, China exported $15.2 million worth of injection molds to the United States in 2001, down from $16.2 million in 2000. That represents a drop of about 2 percent.
Yet the number of molds exported to the U.S. from China rose from 24,400 in 2000 to 62,400 last year. So observers wonder, is China's share of the U.S. tooling market going up or down?
ITC officials say they have asked both the Census Department and Customs Service, which supplies ITC with the figures, to look into the fluctuations.
A staffer at the Great Lakes Trade Adjustment Assistance Center, a government-funded organization at the University of Michigan that helps manufacturers affected by trade, pointed out the apparent errors to U.S. officials.
In an e-mail provided by the staffer, Judy Fearnside, ITC manager Mark Paulson responded to Fearnside's concerns by saying, ``It looks to me as if there is something funky going on in the data.''
The e-mail said a more detailed review found that mold imports to the Chicago district rose from five molds in 2000, to 66,686 molds in 2001. But the value of all the imports into Chicago fell from $141,193 to $107,260.
That works out to an average cost of $1.61 per injection mold imported into Chicago in 2001, according to the e-mail from Paulson, chief of the iron and steel products division at ITC.
In a telephone interview, Paulson said a number of things could be happening.
``Someone could be intentionally misclassifying it because they want a lower tariff,'' he said. ``It could be a data-entry error'' or the problem could be confusion on the part of importers, he said.
``When we have done industry studies, we've found there's nothing nefarious about it,'' Paulson said. ``The tariff schedule does require some interpretation.''
For example, some industry sources said mold components could be classified as complete molds.
The head of the American Mold Builders Association said problems with government data have bothered the industry.
``Up to this point, it has been difficult to get good data on mold imports and exports,'' said Scott Harris, president of Roselle, Ill.-based AMBA and president of Harris Precision Mold Inc. in Tempe, Ariz.
Paulson figures most of the data is accurate.
``U.S. data is better than most countries,'' Paulson said. ``Obviously it's not perfect. I don't have any stats on what percent is good and what percent is bad.''