One of the major drivers behind the challenges currently facing many of the shipping markets has been slower demand growth. World seaborne trade grew by less than 2% in 2015, the slowest pace since 2009, with trends in China pivotal. After the emergence of plenty of disappointing demand-side data last year, what do the indicators of Chinese trade so far in 2016 reveal?

A Surprising Start?

It’s a vital question. Chinese seaborne imports reached a massive 2.1 billion tonnes last year, accounting for 20% of global imports. But in 2015, growth in Chinese imports eased to just 1%, from an average of 9% p.a. in 2011-14. However, data for the first quarter of 2016 provides some pleasant surprises. After slowing for four consecutive years, growth in Chinese seaborne imports in tonnes appears to have picked up pace in Q1 2016, increasing by 6% y-o-y.

Picking Up Speed

Iron ore trade, which last year accounted for 45% of total Chinese imports, has driven much of this growth. Iron ore imports had a strong Q1 2016, rising by 7% y-o-y to 239mt. This was supported by restocking of iron ore inventories in line with improved steel demand and prices in recent months, following government support for infrastructure projects. This has been despite total steel production continuing to contract y-o-y, by 4% in Q1. Meanwhile, Chinese coal imports appear to have stabilised recently, following a sharp fall in 1H 2015, and the pace of decline in imports in Q1 2016 eased to 6% y-o-y. Growth in China’s minor bulk imports also improved marginally in Q1.

Some improvements have also been apparent outside of the dry bulk sector. Expansion in China’s crude oil imports has accelerated, with imports up 14% y-o-y in Q1 to 84mt, following robust growth of 9% in 2015. Imports have been boosted further this year by the liberalisation of the crude oil import market, opening up imports to independent refiners. And although Chinese gas demand came under pressure in 2015 from weaker industrial use, recent cuts to domestic gas prices have supported demand and LNG imports grew 17% y-o-y in Q1 2016 to 6mt.

Mixed Results

Meanwhile, indicators of Chinese exports remain mixed. Container trade on the key Far East-Europe route grew slightly in Q1, after falling 4% in 2015; the impact of adjustments to European inventories and falling Russian demand is likely to moderate this year. However, growth in China’s steel products exports has slowed, partly reflecting greater domestic steel demand.

A Question Of Endurance?

Overall, it would still be fair to say that the seaborne demand environment is still highly challenging, and that volatility clouds the picture in China and elsewhere. Moreover, questions remain over the sustainability of recent developments in some of China’s industrial sectors, and major obstacles to trade volume growth clearly remain. Nevertheless, there are some areas where improved Chinese volume growth has provided a nice surprise so far this year. Against a troubled background, shipping market players will hope these trends at least have a little mileage. Have a nice day.