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  March 31st, 2017 | Written by

Uptick in Container Cargo Growth Seen

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  • North American ports grew on average by seven percent in the fourth quarter.
  • Major transhipment hubs saw the benefit of increased container traffic.
  • Strong consumer spending in the US was a key factor in port growth for the fourth quarter of 2016.

Over the last couple of years the global container port industry has generally become used to modest growth rates being the new norm and the third quarter of 2016 was no exception. However, Drewry’s extensive sample port throughput data for the last quarter of 2016 suggests there may be an uptick.

The latest edition of Drewry’s quarterly port sector report Ports and Terminals Insight shows that fourth-quarter port throughput grew by over five percent against the same quarter in 2015. This was a marked increase on the global growth of 2.4 percent seen in the third quarter. All world regions showed positive growth based on the sample ports, with North America and Southeast Asia leading the way, growing on average by around seven percent in the quarter. Major transshipment hubs worldwide also saw the benefit. The lowest regional growth rate was a healthy 3.8 percent in the Med.

Admittedly, full-year growth remained modest in 2016, averaging just over two percent globally due to the slow start to the year, but the fact that the fourth quarter showed a marked uptick almost across the board suggests signs of a recovery.

The change in the quarterly trend is particularly marked in the Americas. North America was the star performer, with strong consumer spending in the US a key factor in the 7.4 percent growth at the sample ports for the fourth quarter of 2016. This was a complete turnaround from the previous quarter, when the region’s two percent decline was the weakest performance in the world, although the Hanjin impact may have skewed the figures to some extent.

The economic indicators in the US are generally positive. GDP growth was 1.9 percent in 4Q16, with consumer spending and investment contributing most, and the Conference Board composite lead indicator increased 0.5 percent in December 2016, pointing to a likely acceleration in growth in 2017. Real wage growth is also up and there are signs of a tightening labor market.

Latin America also moved from negative to positive territory in the final quarter of 2016, a surprise given the continued economies woes of the region. However, the good performance at the end of the year was not enough to outweigh the poor conditions of the rest of the year, and full-year traffic levels were down by almost 2 percent for the region.

The uptick in 4Q16 was also evident in Europe where in both the north and south the final quarter showed a big improvement, although once again the full-year growth was more modest. Overall 2016 growth at the sample ports for North Europe/Scandinavia/Baltic was 2.5 percent and just slightly more for the Mediterranean, boosted by continued good figures for Turkey and also at the Italian ports in the sample.

Europe has been the sore point of global economic performance over the past few years but recent data suggests that the eurozone is joining the recovery cycle. The Services PMI (Purchasing Managers’ Index) for the Eurozone rose to 55.5 in February 2017 from 53.7 in the previous two months, a five-year high. Meanwhile the Manufacturing PMI reached 55.4 in February 2017, a six-year high. France’s PMI recently outpaced Germany for the first time since 2012 and this could signal that growth in the euro region is becoming more broad-based.

Asia remains the powerhouse of global container port activity and growth has been among the most resilient during the slowdown of recent years. The third quarter 2016 growth in China and elsewhere in Asia was generally better than the Americas and Europe and while the fourth quarter showed an improvement, it was less marked as a consequence. However, the performances of Southeast and Northeast Asia were notable. The recovery in global demand led by the G3 advanced economies has fed into export upturns in trade-focused Asian economies.

South Korean exports surged by over 11 percent from the previous year, the most in five years, while Japan’s exports also increased 5.4 percent year-on-year in December 2016, up from a decline of 0.4 percent in November 2016. This was the first expansion in 14 months.

China is still by far the most important driver of global container port activity and the government’s aggressive monetary and fiscal stimulus has prevented a further weakening of the economy. In the near term the economy seems to be on growth path with policymakers having successfully engineered a soft landing for the time being.

A note of caution is necessary. Looking at quarterly throughput data can give a misleading impression – the good performance in 4Q16 might be a blip. As a result, we have also examined the rolling average four-quarter growth rate across a sample of over 250 ports worldwide, representing more than 75 percent of global throughput. The deteriorating trend in the growth rate is evident from the beginning of 2015 onwards, slipping into negative territory in early 2016. However, the recovery seen at the end of 2016 is clear and supports the view that there are real positive signs in the market.

There is always a danger that the 4Q16 figures are a false dawn but many of the underlying global economic indicators are encouraging. A cloud on the horizon is the possibility of greater protectionism by countries worldwide, largely dependent upon US President Donald Trump’s actions. However, it remains too early to say if this will materialize into a real threat to the current signs of recovery.