For good or for bad, shipping market analysts have looked at trade growth ‘multipliers’ for many years. In 2015 global seaborne trade is estimated to have grown by 2.1%, in a year when the world economy grew by 3.1%. As a result the ratio of trade growth to global GDP expansion dropped below 1.0. What do trends in this ‘multiplier’ mean for shipping in a wider context?

Multiple Storylines

Whilst hardly an advisable way to project trade growth for a specific year (year to year the statistics are notoriously volatile), examining the ratio between world seaborne trade growth and the expansion of world GDP (‘the multiplier’) over longer time periods tells us something about the key demand drivers in shipping. As the graph shows, in the period 1990-94 the multiplier averaged 1.3 and in 1995-2010 averaged 1.1.

There were a number of drivers behind this ‘top up’ effect. The increasingly globalised economy supported growth in world trade which benefitted seaborne traffic. In the 2000s, outsourcing of production from more mature regions to distant developing world locations and then shipping goods back to consumers also generated a multiplier effect, and speedy economic growth in China hoovered up raw material cargoes at a rapid rate (maintaining support for the multiplier above the diminishing long-term trend).

Boxes’ Big Top Up

Container trade is one specific area where the multiplier has come into very clear focus. Across 1995-2010 the ratio of container trade growth to world GDP expansion averaged a robust 2.3. Global trends and outsourcing supported this too, backed by other drivers. Trade in box-friendly manufactures was a fast growing part of overall trade, containerization of general cargoes continued to provide a boost, and multi-location component processing of manufactures became the norm in Asia, supported by wage differentials and cheap box shipping.

Looking For Support?

But these multipliers have been sliding. Across 2011-16 the seaborne trade multiplier averaged less than 1.0, and the box trade multiplier just 1.3. 2015 marked a particularly weak year, with the respective figures at 0.7 and 0.8. Something is missing from the drivers previously providing the top up to economic growth. World sea trade grew by just 2.1% last year; Chinese growth rates and raw material imports have slowed, outsourcing may have peaked, and containerization is more complete than not. Multipliers have slowed; nothing lasts forever and some of the old supports appear to be no longer there. The industry will be hoping that a golden age has not just passed by.

However whilst some drivers may have run their course, others are still going strong and 2015 might not be totally representative of the trend. The economy is as global as ever with ‘Factory Asia’ still at the centre of production supporting intra-regional activity. And might there still be huge potential to unlock? Developing world consumers account for 1.2 tonnes of seaborne imports per person, leaving them a long way to go to catch up with the developed world (3.1 tonnes). The shipping industry will be looking that way for its next top up. Have a nice day.