World Seaborne Trade: Entering Into A Role Reversal?
By Ms Dhanvi Bosamia
Over the past decade, world seaborne trade growth has been dominated by dry bulk and container trade. However, developments in the global economy this year have led to slower trade growth in these sectors, while oil trade growth, which has accounted for a smaller share of world trade growth over the last decade, has emerged as the largest driver of global trade growth in 2015 so far.
Dry Bulk Slowdown
Dry bulk trade has been one of the fastest growing elements of seaborne trade in the last decade, recording a compound annual growth rate of 5.6% in the 2005-14 period. Expansion in dry bulk trade volumes accounted for an astounding 61% of growth in global seaborne trade during this period. However, this share is projected to fall to 11% in 2015.
Growth in dry bulk trade in the last decade was driven by rapid economic development in China which boosted imports, particularly of iron ore, coal and other minerals. However, this year, Chinese imports have slowed notably, with coal down 31% y-o-y in the first eight months of 2015, due to falling coal demand and coal quality regulations. This is expected to contribute to the first decline in global coal trade in almost 30 years. Meanwhile, iron ore trade is expected to grow at its slowest pace since 2001, partly as global steel output has declined this year.
Mixed Box Signals
Seaborne container trade has also grown at a fairly firm pace in recent years, largely on the back of growing Chinese exports. In 2005-14, box trade growth accounted for 22% of world seaborne trade growth. This share is projected to rise to 30% in 2015 in part due to limited growth in dry bulk trade. However, box trade growth is expected to slow this year. Recent indicators suggest trade volumes on some routes have been fairly weak in the year to date, especially into Europe. Meanwhile, expansion of intra-Asian trade, which has been one of the fastest growing elements of box trade in recent years, has not been as firm as originally expected, due to economic developments in the region this year.
Oil Trade On The Up
Seaborne oil trade has been considered to be fairly mature in recent years, registering average growth of 1% pa in 2005-14. This year, relatively firm growth of 4% is expected, as Chinese crude imports have surged partly in response to low oil prices. Meanwhile, European crude imports have grown this year as refinery margins in the region have improved. Crude imports into Europe are expected to rise 8% y-o-y in full year 2015, following two consecutive years of decline. Consequently, with a downward trend in the trade of other major cargoes, the share of growth in world seaborne trade accounted for by oil trade is expected to rise from 1% in 2010-14 to 40% this year.
Watching the Economy
So, developments in the world economy are having a visible impact, with seaborne trade growth more balanced but slowing. It is clear that these changes are affecting shipping markets, and further revisions to trade projections for this year could yet cement this change in the balance even further.