Liner Trade Growth a Rarity in Current Environment
Growth in container shipping is becoming a rare commodity. Global port throughput only increased by one percent in 2015 (the second lowest on record behind 2009) and the first quarter of 2016 was even worse with only a 0.5 percent rise, according to Drewry’s latest Container Forecaster report.
The 2016 year-to-date number would have been lower, the report noted, were it not for decent numbers in North America (+3.6 percent), the Middle East (+2.1 percent) and South Asia (+5.3 percent).
Most worrying for Drewry is the fact that container throughput at ports in Greater China in the first quarter barely grew at all at just 0.2 percent. The region accounts for approximately one-third of all port traffic, the report noted, so any slowdown there has a big influence on the worldwide growth figure.
A large part of the reason for the decline in Greater China was a staggering 11 percent fall in volumes handled at Hong Kong in the first three months. Excluding Hong Kong the top ten Chinese mainland ports saw throughput rising by 1.1 percent in the same period—double the global average.
A contributing factor to the slowdown is that China is now importing fewer semi-finished goods from other Asian countries, not only because overseas demand for the finished export product has dropped, but also because there are efforts to increase the proportion of local content in Chinese-made goods in an effort to keep unemployment in check.
The problems may therefore not just lie at China’s doorstep, but elsewhere in the region. Handling activity fell 1.4 percent in North Asia last year and continued dropping in the first quarter as Japan’s economy remains moribund and South Korea’s export machine loses steam.
Despite the poor first-quarter result, “it is not all gloom for China,” the Drewry report said. In March, container-handling in Chinese ports (excluding Hong Kong) rose by 4.6 percent before growth dipped again to 1.9 percent in April. China’s Purchasing Managers’ Index for new export orders has also brightened up significantly in recent months.
“It is clear that a number of undercurrents in the global economy are having a profound effect on world trade, and liner shipping in particular,” the report concluded. “Mindsets must change. Recovery is not necessarily the successor to recession.”
On that note, Drewry predicted that “it is unlikely in the medium term that we will see annual container growth rates of five percent or more. For 2016 Drewry is forecasting container handling growth higher than last year at 1.8 percent, but any improvement thereafter will be at a measured pace with the 2017 rate of expansion reckoned at 2.5 percent.”