In the last few decades, the shipping industry has generally been able to rely on seaborne trade as a fairly steady performer. However, the slowdown in volume growth since the financial crisis has focussed the industry’s thoughts on potential barriers to healthy long-term trade growth, so all eyes are on signs of a potential return to faster expansion in volumes…
Steady As She Goes
From 1988 to 2008 growth in world seaborne trade averaged an estimated 4.2% pa, a fairly robust level underpinning long-term demand for ships. Sure, the markets at times felt the impact of oversupply, but sustained weakness of demand growth wasn’t generally the problem. However, since 2009 the growth rate has slowed, averaging 3.2%, and just 2.8% since 2013. This still equates to significant additional volumes (1.8% growth in 2015 added 194m tonnes) but it’s still enough to get market players worrying.
Could Be Worse?
But should it? Maybe it depends on how you put the trend into context. Cycles can be long; Martin Stopford has famously identified 12 dry cargo cycles of more than 10 years back to the 1740s! The current cycle certainly feels like it has dragged on; it’s now more than eight years since the onset of the financial crisis. However, there are interesting historical comparisons. Between 1929 (the year of the Wall Street Crash) and 1932, the value of global trade dropped by 62% and didn’t get back to the same level until the post-war years. Now that really would have been a time to worry!
Today perhaps some of the anxiety is amplified by the seemingly wide range of factors that look threatening to seaborne trade’s supportive historical record. Protectionist tendencies, whether they be from the Trump presidency or the UK’s Brexit vote, slowing growth in China, ‘peak trade’, robotics and 3D printing: no-one really knows how things will pan out but everyone’s watching closely for anything to allay at least some of the fears.
So that brings us back to our old friend the ‘monthly trade basket’ (see graph and description). Six months ago we reported that this appeared to be showing a pick-up and this time round things are still looking positive. The 3-month moving average shows a generally upward trend since autumn 2015 with an average of 4% in the second half of 2016, hinting that the bottom of the demand cycle may finally have been passed. The current projection for overall seaborne trade in 2017 is still less than 3% with plenty of scenarios possible, but both market sentiment and the momentum right now feel a little more positive than that.
Feeling Any Better Yet?
So, while it’s quite right to try to assess the range of factors which appear to be lining up against a return to more robust levels of trade growth, it’s also far from incorrect to look for signs of a turn in the trend. Cycles in shipping can be long and sometimes it can take a while to identify them. That may not be helpful to hear but you can have a nice day trying…