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How fast will ship demand grow? It’s the ultimate question for serious shipping investors. Today’s global economy relies on owners stepping up to invest in the ships that will be needed in the future ($115 billion was invested in new contracts last year). With so much cash on the table, the future trade growth issue cannot be ignored. But it’s tricky and even experienced analysts fall back on “rules of thumb”.

Faster Than World GDP

When they worry about the future most shipping investors have the world economy at the back of their minds. But although world GDP is the obvious starting point for analysing sea transport, the relationship between the world economy and seaborne trade growth needs handling with care. Unfortunately things do not always turn out the way investors expect.

For example, over the 50 years since 1963 these two key ship demand variables have increased by a not too dissimilar amount. GDP grew on average at 3.7% p.a. and sea trade grew at 4.5% pa. Overall trade volume increased 722% and GDP by 501%. If the relationship had been steady, the ratio of trade to GDP would have followed the path shown by the dotted line on the graph, moving steadily up from 100% in 1963 to 137% in 2013 (i.e. the sea trade index 37% higher than the GDP index, both of which were 100 in 1963). Interestingly today’s GDP forecasts are close to the 50 year trend, with projected growth of 3.6% in 2014 and 3.9% in 2015. So does that mean about 4.5% trade growth?

Sea Trade Multiplier?

That’s not always how things happen. The red line shows that the “sea trade multiplier”, which compares the cumulative year by year growth in the sea trade and GDP indices since 1963, was all over the shop. In the 1960s trade shot ahead of GDP and the multiplier reached 160% in 1974. Then the relationship reversed and in the period 1980-88 sea trade growth averaged only 0.4% pa compared with 3.2% pa for GDP. Again in 2005-09 trade lost ground as GDP growth averaged 3.5% pa and trade only 2.4%.

Structural Changes

This analysis suggests that when looking ahead more than a year or two, the structural changes that lie ahead are more interesting than the trend. The 1960s boom was driven by the OECD countries adjusting to global free trade by importing massive quantities of bulk commodities like iron ore and oil. Then the trade collapse in the 1980s was a structural response to high oil prices. And the trade slowdown in the late 2000s shows that the slowing OECD economies (less growth and more services) were important enough to shave the top off the Chinese mega-boom.

Brave New World

So, demand trends are all very well, but structural changes may matter more. Today high energy prices are squeezing the oil trade and the non-OECD world, which is increasingly important, seems to be moving into a different phase of growth. Although the 4.5% trade growth “multiplier” scenario looks convincing, remember that it is during structural changes that shipping fortunes are often made and lost. Have a nice day.

SIW1120

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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.