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  November 28th, 2016 | Written by

Ocean Shipping Grows At Slowest Pace Since 2009

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  • Seaborne shipments were only up 2.1 percent in 2015.
  • Despite slow growth, ocean shipping's capacity continued grew 3.5 percent in 2015.
  • Delays in African ports add roughly 10 percent to the cost of imported goods and even more to exports.

The good news: Seaborne shipments passed 10 billion tons for the first time ever in 2015. The bad news: that was up 2.1 percent from 9.8 billion tons the year before.

That, according to the UNCTAD Review of Maritime Transport 2016, was the slowest pace of growth in the industry since 2009 and that future growth looks uncertain.

Shipping carried more than 80 percent of the world’s goods by volume in 2015, and its slow growth reflects sluggish global trade, albeit with variations in the different sectors.

Shipping of oil recorded its best performance since 2008, thanks to low oil prices, ample supply, and stable demand. But shipping’s overall growth was dragged down by the limited growth of the dry bulk commodity trade, in particular coal and iron ore, and by the poor performance of container shipping, which carries about 95 percent of the world’s manufactured goods.

Despite this slow growth, the industry’s carrying capacity continued to grow, jumping 3.5 percent to 1.8 billion deadweight tons in 2015 and pushing freight rates down to record lows. In September 2016, the container market suffered its worst ever bankruptcy with the loss of Hanjin Shipping, the sector’s seventh biggest carrier.

“With global trade growing at its slowest pace since the financial crisis, the immediate outlook for the shipping industry remains uncertain and subject to downside risks,” said Mukhisa Kituyi, the secretary general of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). “The push for ever larger ships is at the root of the industry’s problems. There’s just not enough cargo right now to fill the newly acquired, bigger vessels.”

Falling demand from China, low commodity prices, over supply of ships and geopolitical uncertainties in some oil and gas producing countries all add to the current downside risks affecting shipping.

Shipping companies have sought to reduce their operating costs by building and buying ever larger ships. But this may prove costly for developing countries, where transport costs are already higher than in other regions. With larger ships, total system costs go up, and smaller trading nations are increasingly confronted with oligopolistic liner markets.

Developing countries account for ever larger shares of international shipping. By volume, they accounted for 60 percent of the goods loaded onto ships in 2015. In the same year, their share of goods unloaded was 62 percent, up from 41 percent in 2006.

With the exception of a few Asian countries such as China, most developing-country ports lack the infrastructure for bigger ships. Unless they spend heavily on upgrading their ports, developing countries face fewer port calls, less competitive markets, and higher shipping costs.

Thanks to population growth, and the potential maritime trade and business opportunities that may be generated by new transport infrastructure projects such as the extensions of the Panama and Suez canals, the long-term prospects for shipping remain positive, the report says. It urges developing countries to identify possible comparative advantages in sectors such as shipbuilding, registration, and staffing, and to benefit from them.

“With all the bad news in the media about the state of the shipping industry, we forget that seaborne trade continues to grow, offering job and growth opportunities for developing countries,” says Shamika N. Sirimanne, director of the UNCTAD division on technology and logistics.

Developing countries can also cut their costs by keeping their ports competitive. “Many industries and businesses in developing countries could be much more competitive if their ports were more efficient,” said Sirimanne. “Delays in African ports add roughly 10 percent to the cost of imported goods and even more to exports.”