SIW1115Big ships get lots of attention. How often do you read about the Valemaxes, Capesizes and VLCCs? Of course the big bulk trades are massively important and the five major bulks totalled 2.8 bt of cargo last year. But they’re not the whole story. The minor bulks are not so minor any more. This year they will reach 1.5 bt of small parcels that tie up lots of ships – probably about 200 m dwt.

Minor Bulk, Major Cargo

This seething mass of trades is the bedrock of the “handy bulker” business, but for analysts they are challenging. Clarkson Research tracks more than 30 “minor bulk” commodities, each a micro-business with its own drivers, trading partners and transport requirements. The smallest is less than 10 mt pa and the biggest nearly 300 mt. The best way to deal with so many commodities is to bundle them into groups that can be analysed together.

The “Six Minor Bulks”

The six minor bulk commodity groups shown in the chart are agri-bulks; fertilisers; forest products; iron & steel; minor ores; and other minerals. This wide-ranging mix of trades displays good and bad points. On the positive side, the average volume trend since 1990 has been upwards. In the period 1990-2003 minor bulk trade grew at an average of 3% per annum, and this has risen to 4% in the years since then. Not so good was the volatility, growth swinging between 6-8% pa (for example 1994, 2003-4, 2006-7 and 2011) and zero or negative growth (1991, 1996, 1998, 2001 and 2008-09).

Cargo Diversity

There has also been a good deal of diversity in the growth rates of the individual commodities. Across the period in question agribulks and fertilisers, two solid trades of around 300 mt combined, grew at 3% per annum, which fits in with their agricultural base. But forest products, another 200 mt trade, have been quite flat, averaging only 0.9% growth since 1990. Iron and steel, which includes products, scrap, pig iron and DRI reached 426 mt in 2013. But trade growth has averaged only 2.8% pa and the trend is edging downwards. In contrast the minor ores, which include nickel, manganese and copper, are the stars of minor bulk. They have averaged 9.2% pa growth since 1990, accelerating to 15.7% in the last decade, backed by Chinese demand. Finally the other minerals include lignite, anthracite, cement, sulphur, salt, petcoke, limestone and lots of very small trades. Together they totalled almost 500 mt of cargo in 2013 – a challenge for analysts, but good business for small bulkers.

Real Life Shipping

So there you have it. Minor bulks don’t hit the headlines, but they provide business for an enormous range of shipowners at the smaller end of the dry market. Some are big and highly organised corporates, others are companies with just a few ships. And with each decade the trade gets bigger and more complex, which, on the whole, is good news for shipowners who like a challenge but not media attention. Have a nice day.