Archives for posts with tag: seaborne trade

Global oil prices were buoyed in Q4 2016 by OPEC’s decision to cut production. Perhaps more surprising still was the extent of compliance with quotas, for an organisation with a past track record of over-production. At their recent meeting, OPEC overcame some members’ objections and agreed to extend the cuts until March 2018. How will this affect the oil price and how does it impact the shipping industry?

Cutting To The Quick

Twenty years ago, OPEC had substantial control over the supply side of the oil market. Today, the rise of shale oil has created doubts that OPEC retains the power to influence the market in a lasting way. This question is still to be resolved, though it is true that the cuts have allowed shale producers a new lease of life in terms of spending (up c.50% in 2017) and drilling (the US land rig count is up 120% y-o-y). However, OPEC are making the most concerted attempt for more than a decade to control supply. As the Graph of the Month shows, past quota compliance has been poor, and indeed for a decade this was effectively acknowledged by the lack of a formal quota.

Cutting Down

The difference recently is that OPEC has actually succeeded in cutting to below the level of the quota, despite allowing some members (such as Iran) to avoid formal cuts. The collective reduction has partly been down to outages (notably in Nigeria and Venezuela). However, it also reflects Saudi Arabia shouldering a lion’s share of cuts (c.0.75m bpd or 55%).

Expectations of an extension to cuts boosted oil prices in the run up to the announcement (though after the meeting, prices fell as investors took profits). Higher prices have a range of ramifications for shipping. One consequence is higher fuel prices, increasing shipowners’ costs unless they can pass this on. Previous periods of high fuel costs pushed owners to slow steam. This mitigated the problem, to some extent, but few ships sped up when prices came down. So currently this would be a difficult trick to repeat.

Cut And Run?

The cuts could also affect tanker demand, either via lower crude and product exports (27% of seaborne trade), or lesser import demand if high prices moderate demand growth. So far, price increases have been moderate, and it seems as if the Saudis in particular have been doing their best to curtail domestic oil usage to protect long-haul export customers (more than 18m bpd, of 47%, of crude trade is exported from the Middle East Gulf).

Perhaps most obviously, the OPEC cuts have brought a modicum of more bullish sentiment to oil companies’ E&P investment decisions. This has helped offshore markets a little, notably through a small upturn in tendering and fixing activity for drilling rigs (Clarkson Research’s average rig rate index is up 2% since end-2016). However, there has been little to no effect on rates in related markets such as OSVs, and most would acknowledge the extreme fragility of any improvement.

So, the widely-trailed extension to OPEC production cuts boosted oil prices during May, although it remains to be seen if shale production quickly offsets this. Oil price dynamics have a mixture of positive and negative effects for shipping, but certainly remain crucial given the key role of oil both for shipping and for the wider economy. Have a nice day!

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In the last few decades, the shipping industry has generally been able to rely on seaborne trade as a fairly steady performer. However, the slowdown in volume growth since the financial crisis has focussed the industry’s thoughts on potential barriers to healthy long-term trade growth, so all eyes are on signs of a potential return to faster expansion in volumes…

Steady As She Goes

From 1988 to 2008 growth in world seaborne trade averaged an estimated 4.2% pa, a fairly robust level underpinning long-term demand for ships. Sure, the markets at times felt the impact of oversupply, but sustained weakness of demand growth wasn’t generally the problem. However, since 2009 the growth rate has slowed, averaging 3.2%, and just 2.8% since 2013. This still equates to significant additional volumes (1.8% growth in 2015 added 194m tonnes) but it’s still enough to get market players worrying.

Could Be Worse?

But should it? Maybe it depends on how you put the trend into context. Cycles can be long; Martin Stopford has famously identified 12 dry cargo cycles of more than 10 years back to the 1740s! The current cycle certainly feels like it has dragged on; it’s now more than eight years since the onset of the financial crisis. However, there are interesting historical comparisons. Between 1929 (the year of the Wall Street Crash) and 1932, the value of global trade dropped by 62% and didn’t get back to the same level until the post-war years. Now that really would have been a time to worry!

Getting Serious?

Today perhaps some of the anxiety is amplified by the seemingly wide range of factors that look threatening to seaborne trade’s supportive historical record. Protectionist tendencies, whether they be from the Trump presidency or the UK’s Brexit vote, slowing growth in China, ‘peak trade’, robotics and 3D printing: no-one really knows how things will pan out but everyone’s watching closely for anything to allay at least some of the fears.

Basket Case

So that brings us back to our old friend the ‘monthly trade basket’ (see graph and description). Six months ago we reported that this appeared to be showing a pick-up and this time round things are still looking positive. The 3-month moving average shows a generally upward trend since autumn 2015 with an average of 4% in the second half of 2016, hinting that the bottom of the demand cycle may finally have been passed. The current projection for overall seaborne trade in 2017 is still less than 3% with plenty of scenarios possible, but both market sentiment and the momentum right now feel a little more positive than that.

Feeling Any Better Yet?

So, while it’s quite right to try to assess the range of factors which appear to be lining up against a return to more robust levels of trade growth, it’s also far from incorrect to look for signs of a turn in the trend. Cycles in shipping can be long and sometimes it can take a while to identify them. That may not be helpful to hear but you can have a nice day trying…

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We’re well into the Year of the Rooster in China now, but trade figures for last year are still coming in and it’s interesting to see what a major impact China still had in 2016. Economic growth rates may have slowed, and the focus of global economic development may have diversified to an extent, but China was very much still at the heart of the world’s seaborne trade.

Not A Lucky Year

In 2015 the Chinese economy saw both a slowdown in growth and a significant degree of turbulence. GDP growth slowed from 7.3% in 2014 to 6.9%. Steel consumption in China was easing and growth in Chinese iron ore imports slowed from 15% to 3%. Coal imports slumped by an even more dramatic 30%. Container trade was affected badly too. China is the dominant force on many of the world’s most important container trade lanes and is involved in over half of the key intra-Asia trade. Uncertainty in the Chinese economy in 2015 took a heavy toll on this and intra-Asian trade growth slumped to 3% from 6% in 2014. Going into 2016, there was plenty of apprehension about Chinese trade, and its impact on seaborne volumes overall.

Back In Action

However, things turned out to be a lot more positive in 2016 than most observers expected. China once again underpinned growth in bulk trade, with iron ore imports surprising on the upside, registering 7% growth on the back of producer price dynamics, and coal imports bouncing back by 20%. Crude oil imports into China also registered rapid growth of 16%, supported by greater demand for crude from China’s ‘teapot’ refiners.

In containers, growth in intra-Asian trade returned to a robust 6%, and the Chinese mainlane export trades fared better too, with Far East-Europe volumes back into positive growth territory and the Transpacific trade seeming to roar ahead. Overall, total Chinese seaborne imports  grew 7% in 2016, up from 1% in 2015, with Chinese imports accounting for around 20% of the global import total. Growth in Chinese exports remained steady at 2%.

Thank Goodness

Despite all this, seaborne trade expanded globally by just 2.7% in 2016. Thank goodness Chinese trade beat expectations. Of the 296mt added to world seaborne trade, 142mt was added by Chinese imports, equal to nearly 50% of the growth. Unfortunately, this was counterbalanced by trends elsewhere, with Europe remaining in the doldrums and developing economies under pressure from diminished commodity prices.

Rooster Booster?

So, 2015 illustrated that a maturing economy and economic turbulence could derail Chinese trade growth. But China is a big place, and 2016 shows it still has the ability to drive seaborne trade and that the world hasn’t yet found an alternative to ‘Factory Asia’. 2017 might see a focus on other parts of the world too, with hopes for the US economy, India to drive volumes, and developing economies to potentially benefit from improved commodity prices. But amidst all that, China will no doubt still have a big say in the fortunes of world seaborne trade. Have a nice day.

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The car carrier sector has been yet another part of the shipping industry to have faced challenging conditions this year. The focus has largely been on demand side difficulties, with growth in global seaborne car trade appearing to have gone into reverse gear. It has been a rather bumpy ride, and today’s car carrier market indicators still seem to be flashing up plenty of warning signals.

Going Slow

Growth in global seaborne car trade has struggled to return to the robust levels seen prior to the global economic downturn, when car trade was one of the faster growing parts of seaborne trade. Given the strong link between economic growth, consumer demand and car sales, the car carrier sector has been highly exposed to sluggish world economic performance in recent years, and global seaborne car trade has still not yet returned to its 2008 peak of 21.3m cars, with average growth of just 1.4% p.a. in 2013-15. This year has seen further pressure on seaborne volumes, with car trade projected to have dropped 4% to 19.8m cars.

The key driver of this fall has been considerably lower imports into developing economies following the commodity price downturn. Car sales in these countries have dropped sharply, and seaborne car imports into the Middle East, Africa and South America are set to drop by more than 10% this year. While imports into North America and Europe, still the two largest markets for imported vehicles, have grown moderately (by 2% and 4% respectively), this has not been enough to offset declines elsewhere. Other factors have also dented volumes, with expansion of car output closer to demand centres leading to a disconnect between global car sales, which have continued to expand, and seaborne trade volumes.

Warning Lights

Largely as a result of the downturn in demand, car carrier market conditions have deteriorated further this year. Most car carriers still operate under long-term agreements, but guideline charter rates have fallen back to subdued levels, with the one year rate for a 6,500 ceu PCTC falling to $16,000/day in recent weeks, down 30% from the start of the year. Vessel idling has risen, utilisation of active capacity is under pressure, and waiting time between fixtures has increased, whilst a trend towards shorter-term and spot fixtures has also been apparent.

Making The Turn

In response to these pressures, owners have stepped up supply-side action. Scrapping has increased, and is projected to reach 0.2m car equivalent capacity this year, over four times the 2015 level and the highest since 2009, with fleet capacity projected to have declined by 0.3% in full year 2016. Meanwhile, only two ships have been ordered this year, after 42 contracts were placed in 2015.

Route Planning

Yet the road ahead still seems far from clear for the car carrier sector, with demand seeming unlikely to shift up a few gears in the short-term. In our annual Car Carrier Trade & Transport report, we look at the latest trends in detail. This year’s report is now available on the Shipping Intelligence Network. Have a nice day.

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World seaborne trade, whilst still growing at a relatively steady pace, has seen a slightly less rapid rate of growth since 2015, compared to both the longer-term historical average, and the more recent 2011-14 period. Economists have spent a lot of time sifting through the factors that might be the drivers behind changes in trade growth. What might a look at more detailed seaborne trends add to the argument?

So, What’s The Argument?

One element of the debate has been whether the slowdown in the rate of trade growth, or at least the apparent reduction of the multiplier over global GDP growth (the so-called ‘trade beta’), has been the result of structural shifts in the emerging economies or if it is more closely related to the current sluggish performance of developed economies. Theorists suggest that the former would have a longer-term dampening effect on trade growth, whilst the latter would indicate something, that whilst still a highly negative impact, may improve with time.

Seaborne trade data could help to shine some light on the argument. The red line on the graph shows the 3mma of y-o-y growth in a basket of imports to developing nations (see notes). In 2014, imports rose 7.4%, but growth slowed to 0.5% in 2015 with China’s coal imports falling and iron ore imports growing more slowly. But China’s imports are far from stuck in the doldrums, and growth in the developing world imports featured here has bounced back to a robust 6.3% so far this year. On this basis, even with China’s economy maturing, it does not seem that trade into developing economies is settling into a period of uninterrupted weaker growth.

Gone West?

But what about the western world? Well, trends in North American and European consumer imports could be a useful indicator. Growth in container trade into Europe and North America averaged 4.5% in 2014, but slowed to 2.1% in 2015, with European imports falling. In 2016 so far, growth has picked up slightly (to 2.9%), but has still been fairly moderate. Maybe this supports the view that the more notable brake on trade growth is from soft developed world demand rather than sustained shifts in the developing world?

Wider Trends

But, in reality, there are other trends in seaborne trade to take into account. For instance, growth in the energy and construction industries in some developed nations has been subdued, and European coal and iron ore imports have fallen. Box trade into some developing nations has come under pressure from low commodity prices. Supply disruptions in exporting nations have also impacted trade, especially in crude oil and minor bulks.

So, global trade growth is not in its prime, and there is debate over the relative impact of developed and developing world trends and their implications for the longer-term. At a glance, seaborne trade data might seem to point towards a bigger issue with western demand than with developing world imports. This is still painful, but the cycle might turn. But seaborne trade highlights that there are a range of other factors at play too. As ever, it is not simple, but as usual seaborne trade trends tell us something about the big debates. Have a nice day.

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Marvel’s Iron Man, as depicted in the 2008 film, features industrialist and genius inventor Tony Stark creating a powered suit, later perfecting its design and fighting evil. While it was a gold titanium alloy rather than iron which was used to make the futuristic armour, iron-based materials such as steel are used incredibly widely in the world’s industries today, with clear implications for shipping too.

Steel At The Heart

The strength of Iron Man’s suit was what helped turn Tony Stark into a superhero. The versatility and strength of steel has made it today’s most important construction material, with 1.6 billion tonnes of steel produced last year. Over recent decades, steel became one of shipping’s superheroes, with the unprecedented growth in Chinese steel production leading to a doubling of global steel output between 2000 and 2014, and helping to underpin the biggest shipping market boom in history. Growth in China’s raw material demand was explosive, and by 2014, global seaborne iron ore and coking coal trade totalled 1.6 billion tonnes, one seventh of total seaborne trade.

A Dangerous Weapon

But even superheroes have weaknesses, and reaching new heights was problematic for Iron Man, when the build-up of ice on his suit at high altitudes brought him back down to earth with a bump. A distinct chill in the air has recently surrounded the steel industry too. Slower economic growth in China, which uses half of the world’s steel, led Chinese steel consumption to drop 5% in 2015, undermining steel prices. Difficult economic conditions elsewhere also limited steel use, with consumption in Latin America and the Middle East declining 7% and 1% respectively last year, and overall, global steel output fell 3%. Weaker demand for steelmaking materials was a key driver of the fall in seaborne dry bulk trade in 2015, despite a 20% surge in Chinese steel exports. The steel market remains challenging with world consumption expected to fall again in 2016, and dry bulk trade still lacks the power to boost the bulker markets back into higher altitudes.

In Need Of A Shield

Of course, steel also impacts the supply side of the shipping industry. In Iron Man’s final showdown with the ‘Iron Monger’, in the end it all comes down to a good design and precise timing, concepts close to any shipowner’s heart. As the very fabric of the ships themselves, steel is a key cost for shipbuilders, but volatile prices have just as big an impact at the older end of the market. With continued exports of surplus steel from China maintaining pressure on steel prices, there is limited light at the end of the tunnel for owners scrapping ships in difficult market conditions for values around 50% lower than just two years ago.

Iron World

So there you have it. An Iron Man with a will of iron can save the world, whilst steel can bring the world’s shipowners fortune and challenges in equal measure. Steel may no longer be the superhero of seaborne trade growth, but it is still the glue that quite literally holds the shipping industry together and keeps 11 billion tonnes a year of cargo afloat. Now that’s a superhuman effort. Have a nice day!

SIW1239 Graph of the Week

Checking The Basket

Annual projections of seaborne trade can be useful demand side indicators. However, often it is difficult to get a real understanding of short-term trade trends. A year ago (SIW 1189) we looked at a ‘basket’ approach, which took monthly seaborne trade flows for a range of commodities, to help show year to date global seaborne trade trends. Although monthly data can be difficult to use, is not comprehensively available, and is generally subject to a lag of several months, the same monthly ‘basket’ approach examined a year ago remains a helpful indicator of short-term seaborne trade trends.

Promising Contents?

The graph shows the ‘Trade Index’ (see description for details) up to June 2016. Clearly monthly data can be very volatile; in January the index stood at -1%, but four months later it reached 7%. Furthermore, the index has picked up compared to 2015 average levels, averaging 2.1% in Q1 2016 and 4.3% in Q2. Some of this trend is accounted for by a rise in dry bulk trade which fell last year, with China’s dry bulk imports growing 6% y-o-y in 1H 2016, following a 2% drop in 2015 (although risks remain over the sustainability of this improvement). An increase in box trade growth has also been apparent, with expansion in Asia-Europe trade back in positive territory and growth in intra-Asian trade picking up.

Elsewhere, seaborne crude and products trade, which were two of the fastest growing elements of total seaborne trade in 2015, expanded firmly in 1H 2016. This was underpinned by robust growth in crude imports into China (16%), India and the US, despite the disruptions to Nigerian crude exports in recent months.

Half Full Or Half Empty?

Taking a wider view, even since the financial crisis there have been clear peaks in the index. The peak in early 2011 was partly on the back of strong growth in Chinese dry bulk, oil and gas imports and box exports from Asia. The index picked up again in 2012, supported by several months of strong growth in iron ore and coal trade to Asia. The next peak was in late 2013, when once again coal imports into Asia grew robustly and expansion in intra-Asian and Asia-Europe box trade was very strong. Today, you might conclude, if you’re a ‘basket half full’ type, that we’re heading steadily upwards again. But, if you’re a ‘basket half empty’ person, you might note that the peaks each time have been short-lived and have been getting lower.

Is There Something In It?

So, our index appears to be on the up,  although still at a relatively moderate level in historical terms, and with a volatile track record behind. There’s something in the ‘basket’ for both the optimist and the pessimist! Have a nice day.