In the world of seaborne trade, distance forms a crucial element in terms of determining how much demand for vessel capacity is created by trade volumes. One interesting measure of this is the estimated average haul of global seaborne trade. However, since the turn of the millennium, the historical trend isn’t quite as easy to follow as one might imagine.
Back Where We Started?
Across the period 2000-15, estimated global seaborne trade increased by 70% from 6.4bn tonnes to 10.8bn tonnes. Over the same 15-year period, the total in terms of tonne-miles jumped 71% from around 31,300 to 53,500 billion tonne-miles. As a result of these very similar growth rates, the ‘average haul’ of each tonne of seaborne trade didn’t move too much across the period as a whole, inching up from 4,926 to 4,944 miles. That’s on average an upward trend of just 1.3 miles per year! However, through this period there were clearly elements of seaborne trade which were being stretched, but others where the average haul was shrinking.
Down Then Up, And Again!
In 2000-02 the overall average haul declined. Crude trade volumes were falling, particularly on some of the longer-haul trades from the Middle East and West Africa. The average haul of dry bulk trade was declining with a firm rise in Australia-Far East coal volumes. In containers, the fastest growth was being seen on some of the intra-regional trades. However, in 2003-06, average haul rose again, almost back to 2000 levels, with firm increases in the average haul of iron ore and grain trade on the back of growing exports from the Americas to the Far East.
Then, in 2007-09 things turned again and average haul headed downwards once more. This included a drop in the average haul of coal trade on the back of a rise in short-haul Asian imports. The average haul of container cargoes also fell in 2007-08, partly driven by a strong increase in short-haul intra-Asian trade. Finally, in 2010-15 overall average haul increased once again, with a firm rise in the average haul of crude oil, underpinned by Chinese import growth, leaving us almost exactly back where we started in 2000.
Tonnes And Tonnes
So, across the whole of seaborne trade, the statistics actually tell us that it’s the expansion in volumes which has accounted for the lion’s share of the additional seaborne tonne-miles in the last 15 years. But trade patterns in individual cargo types do change, and no-one should rule out the possible impact of new longer trades; there are still parts of the global trade matrix to fill out further.
However, so far this century, despite short-term fluctuations, average haul has not really changed too much. Maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised given the relatively fixed origin of many of the commodities moved by sea? The recent trend is upwards, but intra-regional trading blocs are becoming more cemented. Perhaps the best approach is to follow the advice of many a wise shipowner in challenging times: keep the cargo moving (and don’t worry about how far it’s going!).