SIW1082In the last decade world seaborne trade has grown by 49% from 6.7 to 9.9 billion tonnes. During this period the growth in trade in certain key commodities has hit the headlines, with no-one in any doubt as to the additional trade in iron ore or the manufactures moved in containers.

Major and Minor Key

Overall, in the period 2003-13 an estimated 3.3bt was added to the annual volume of world seaborne trade. As the inset graph shows, major bulk cargoes were prominent in this expansion, with 659mt of iron ore added and 512mt of coking and steam coal. Even larger has been the expansion of containerized cargo, of which 742 mt was added.

But what the inset graph also shows is that other (minor) dry bulk cargoes also added a highly significant volume of cargo. Minor bulk trade has grown by 52% from 1.1bt in 2003 to an estimated 1.6bt in 2013, adding 556mt. This compares to 382mt of additional oil products cargo, and just 150mt of extra crude oil, 89mt of grain cargo (including soybean) and 135mt of liquefied gas respectively.

Minor Character

The main graph shows the key elements of the expansion in minor bulk cargo. A range of minor bulks have added significant additional trade volumes over the last decade including nickel ore (85mt), steel products (75mt), lignite (66mt) and bauxite/alumina (58mt). These alone added 284mt to world seaborne trade. The other minor bulk cargoes shown on the graph added a further 214mt.

Asia Minor

Much of the growth in minor bulk volumes has been driven by the rapid expansion of the Chinese economy, and an increase in trade within the Pacific region. For example, nickel ore volumes have rocketed on the back of the expanding Chinese steel industry; the ore is used to produce nickel pig iron to be used in stainless steel making, and imports to China are mostly from the Philippines and Indonesia.

Similarly, growth in bauxite trade has mainly been driven by Chinese imports from within Asia. It is projected that China will import 65mt of bauxite (over half of global trade) in 2013, and Indonesia has become the largest exporter over the last decade. Meanwhile, Chinese lignite (lower quality coal used in low-cost electricity generation) imports reached 53mt last year and are estimated to have made up 97% of global trade; Indonesian lignite exports today make up 60-70% of the world total.

Minor Worries?

So, over 3bt of cargo has been added to world seaborne trade in the last decade, and 17% of it has been minor bulk. Whilst other cargoes have grabbed headlines, volumes in a range of minor bulks have pushed on. Predicting future trends isn’t easy, with Indonesian export regulations and Chinese action on low quality coal imports on the agenda, but our advice is this: once in a while, like a good songwriter, don’t forget to turn your attention from major to minor.