The port of Antwerp experienced an excellent first quarter with a freight volume of 58,328,678 tonnes, an increase of 7.1% on the same period last year. The total volume is a result of all freight categories with the exception of conventional breakbulk. The main driver, however, is once again container freight which enjoyed very strong growth of 9.5% compared with the first three months of 2017.
The container volume rose by 9.5% to 32,580,600 tonnes, or 2,744,226 TEU (up 10.7%). In fact the month of March alone set a new record for container volume with 980,000 TEU.
There was growth on all sailing routes, both for imports and for exports. The progress made by European container freight was the most notable, expanding by 14.5%. This is thanks partly to the recovery in transhipment consignments which dipped temporarily last year because of a shortage of dock labour. Container trade with North America for its part was up by 14.7% compared with the same period last year, although the first quarter of 2017 in this sector was rather weak. On Asian routes there was growth of 7%.
“In the current social debate on the necessary additional container handling capacity to assure the future of the port of Antwerp and its place in the worldwide supply chain, the underlying assumption is a growth rate of 3.5% per year. The current growth figures of 9.5% in the container segment not only confirm the need for additional capacity but also make it clear that the operational capacity limit will soon be exceeded and that an expansion in container handling capacity will become necessary much sooner than originally planned,” stated Port Authority CEO Jacques Vandermeiren.
The ro/ro volume expanded by 6.0% to 1,300,086 tonnes, with the number of cars handled rising by 2.3% to 323,901 units.
However, conventional breakbulk performed less well compared with the same period last year, falling by 3.1% to 2,512,276 tonnes. Non-ferrous metals, wood, paper & cellulose and fruit were the categories that suffered the largest drop. The volatility of the respective trades and further containerisation both played a role here.
While steel performed very well in the same period last year, it has now expanded slightly overall by 1.5%, despite imports suffering a large drop of 9.9%. Imports from China were down sharply in comparison with Q1 17, although this decline which first became apparent in the second quarter of last year has now stabilised. Imports of Indian steel too have gradually declined after the big peak in the first half of 2017. On the other hand there has been a sharp rise in imports from Turkey and Russia.
Exports of steel products, by contrast, give an opposite picture with growth of 19.7%. In comparison with the fairly weak first quarter of 2017 there has now been a strong revival in steel exports to the US, with the month of March doing particularly well. Clearly there has been an anticipatory effect in response to the American threat of import tariffs on various products including steel.
Liquid bulk experienced an increase of 4.6%, to 18,552,332 tonnes. The strongest growth was experienced by chemicals (up 6.8%), but oil derivatives as the largest segment also performed well once more (up 4.6%). These growth figures once again emphasise Antwerp’s ideal location for European distribution, with the phenomenal growth in tank storage and the general confidence in our chemical & petrochemical cluster.
Dry bulk finished the quarter at 3,383,384 tonnes, representing growth of 7.4%. This was mainly thanks to the larger imports of coal, fertilisers and sand & gravel, along with the higher volume of scrap metal exports.
A total of 3,531 seagoing ships called at Antwerp during the first quarter, an increase of 0.7%. The gross tonnage for its part rose by 2.0% to 101,728,371 GT.
Global political and economic context
Exports to the US experienced strong growth in all sectors during the first quarter of this year. As already mentioned, the developments in the steel trade were partly due to the threat of import tariffs being imposed on European products. But apart from steel this growth was driven above all by a sharp rise in chemical exports. We will have to wait and see how the situation develops in the next few months.
The impact of Brexit on UK volumes so far remains limited, as the first quarter closed with growth of 4%, probably due to the weaker pound. Be that as it may, the UK remains the third-largest trading partner for the port of Antwerp. The Port Authority is therefore watching the situation very closely, and during the recent visit by the British Secretary of State Robin Walker it announced that it seeks to appoint a full-time representative in the UK.