By Peter G Hall, Vice-President and Chief Economist
For what seems like a lifetime, global shipping has been adrift. Swamped by the collapse of trade in 2008, seaborne shipments slowly gained steam over the following six years. Money was tight through this time, as the pre-recession heyday led to a long lineup of launchings that continued well beyond the crash. Vessel rates plunged, and price indexes for the industry remain low. Sounds very similar to the economy’s path. Is this the ‘new normal’ for maritime commerce?
Actually, conditions were brightening into 2014; it really looked like finally things were turning around. Then, at that very moment, in synch with the collapse of commodity prices at the mid-point of that year, shipping swooned again. One setback is enough, but a second can be debilitating – or worse. The Global Container Throughput Index went into a one-year funk. At the same time, the Baltic Dry Index went from bad to worse. The CPB world export index was smitten with the same scourge: exports were anemic for over a year.
Well, if we are right and global trade is making a comeback, if it’s not obvious in global shipping numbers, then we have a problem. Thankfully, things are looking up: worldwide container shipping volumes are up at a 5 per cent annualized pace since late 2015, a faster clip than at any point since the immediate post-recession rebound. The trend has been steady through June, and shows no sign of letting up. Vessel charter rates, well off pre-recession highs, have actually shown some life over the past 12 months.
Are all countries participating? Scan some of the larger ports in the U.S., and at first glance it doesn’t look too impressive. The Port of Long Beach, together with Los Angeles the largest U.S. ports by far, is pretty flat this year. Other West Coast ports aren’t much better, and there are some eastern ones that also look humdrum. A second look reveals that in the largest ports, outbound traffic in general is down; shipping of U.S. goods elsewhere isn’t that great. Look at the inbound, though, and it’s a different picture: smoothed data show a year-to-year increase of 7.4 per cent in container volumes. This illustrates the U.S. market’s leading role in the global trade revival. First, U.S. growth is ahead of the global average. Second, U.S. demand is powering imports, driving export activity from other parts of the world.
Europe seems to be doing the same. Inbound maritime shipping is outpacing outbound at both Antwerp and to a somewhat lesser extent, Rotterdam. This suggests that pent-up demand in Europe is increasing its appetite for foreign-sourced goods. If sustained, this is an important development that bodes well for export-dependent emerging markets.
Is there proof on the flip side? Key markets suggest so. China has seen a notable increase in container activity, with Shanghai and Hong Kong together up 9.6 per cent on an annualized basis since early 2016. Shanghai is also handling record cargo volumes for the first time since 2013. China may finally be seeing the long-sought revival in external demand that will help it to manage down its surplus goods and industrial capacity.
The good news extends to regional bellwether Singapore. Shocked by a plunge in container shipments in mid-2015, the city-state is seeing surging shipments again. Non-oil cargo shipments are experiencing a similar trend, recently climbing close to new record levels. More ships than ever are passing through the port, with growth in arrivals recently in up-shift. South Korea is joining in the regional story, with the trajectory in outbound container traffic ratcheting up in recent months.
Back closer to home, Mexico has this year seen a strong upshift in outbound container traffic in tandem with the arrival of the new U.S. Administration. Canada’s West Coast container traffic hasn’t seen a dramatic upshift, instead seeing more steady growth.
Global trade numbers corroborate the shipping data. The CPB index of exports shows developed and key emerging markets rising significantly in 2017. Business seems to be expecting this to continue, according to the latest expectations surveys.
The bottom line? At long last, global shipping activity is on the rise. The good news is that there seems to be enough demand to sustain the growth. There is also easily enough capacity to keep things going for a long while. Anchors aweigh!
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