Once upon a time, before the Chinese economic boom captured so much of the attention of the world of shipping, the US was a more important demand source for seaborne trade. Its share of global imports is lower today, but the US still plays a key part in world seaborne trade. What’s the detail behind this backdrop and how might the big changes in US politics impact the trends?

In A Chinese Theatre

Looking back, in 2006, North American container imports accounted for 18% of world box trade, whilst 22% of global seaborne crude oil trade went to the US. In 2016, these figures were 13% and 12% respectively. Some of this change is relative: rapid growth in China and developing Asia has clearly reduced the US share of global trade. Nevertheless, US imports have actually fallen in many of the major categories of seaborne trade. The volume, however, is still highly significant, so changes in US trade patterns are of major importance. The import trades shown on the graph alone account for around 6% of global seaborne trade.

A Mexican Stand-Off

Looking forward, one key aspect is the clear scenario in which US policy under the new administration becomes more protectionist. The US is withdrawing from the mooted Trans-Pacific Partnership and there is the possibility of punitive tariffs. The focus is manufacturing: attempts to ‘re-shore’ production which once upon a time would have taken place in the West. This could have a negative impact on certain import trades. The US accounted for 23% of all car imports by sea in 2016. Tariffs could harm this trade, as could a more aggressive approach against alleged dumping of cheap Asian steel products (the US imported more than 30mt of steel in 2016, 8% of the global seaborne trade). Meanwhile, efforts to promote US products could imperil the c.4% pa compound growth rate of eastbound transpacific container trade since 2010, although more jobs in manufacturing might also support increased US consumer activity.

Spaghetti Western

Another key aspect relates to energy. The US economy was once driven by cowboys; more recently shale oil has taken a key role. This has reduced energy imports, the US’s largest import category. Crude and products imports fell 45% in the last decade, whilst LNG imports dropped by 86%. Pro-energy industry policies of the new administration may have some further negative effects on hydrocarbon imports, though the set-up of US refineries means that some heavy crude imports are needed to ensure a balanced refinery slate. Conversely, oil industry-friendly policies could encourage exports, although additional LNG exports will partly depend on continued expansion of high-CAPEX liquefaction capacity.


Coming Up Next?

So, the backdrop is that seaborne trade is less dependent on the US than it once was, with some volumes that used to “Go West” increasingly heading to Asia. But, US seaborne trade does remain highly significant, and key elements appear potentially exposed to shifts in aspects of US policy. Though there may be pros as well as cons, looking ahead it’s clearly going to be important to watch closely for the impact of the big change in the US.