World container trade appears to be back on track after two lean years, resulting in an upgrade to Drewry's annual outlook for 2017. More recent data suggests we might have to go higher still.
While the sample size might be less than comprehensive at this early stage, all of the available container traffic datasets for this year point towards a much faster-growing environment than was previously forecast.
Port statistics gathered by Drewry from a sample of nearly 150 sites around the world indicate that container handling grew by 6.6% in the first six months of the year, while deep-sea and regional trade numbers are showing similar progress. That rate could rise or fall as more information becomes available, but there is little doubt that the final-year figure will eclipse anything seen in the past two years. Figure 1 shows that world port throughput growth was barely a thing in either 2015 or 2016, and if the current rate for 1H17 as suggested by our sample ports holds true for the remainder of the year it will have been the fastest growing year since 2011.
Part of the renaissance story for 2017 lies in just how moribund the previous two years were, with growth looking more spectacular thanks to the low bases. However, there is more substance to the recovery than mere statistical quirks. The world economy is proving to be more resilient than expected, highlighted by the IMF upgrading its global outlook for 2017 and 2018 in April. While the IMF's upgrades were not earth-shattering they are significant in that they mark a change in mood-music, when previously they chopped down their original assessments with grim regularity.
As expectations brighten more companies are now willing to build up stocks and call upon the services of shipping lines, having letting them dwindle during more bearish times. As well as greater business and consumer confidence, there have been recovery plays in a number of economies whose prosperity is tied to the price of oil, while the easing of sanctions in Russia and Iran has also added to the container pot.
Two-way traffic in some of the world's largest trades confirms the growth story as told by the raw port handling statistics. Data gathered from CTS, PIERS and Datamar in a selection of key trades indicates that worldwide trade growth at the half-way stage was in the region of 4-5%. However, CTS' full coverage (including some routes we cannot see) gives a slightly higher rate of 4.7%.
Looking at our sample, all of the routes with the exception of Europe-Middle East made contributions. Five trades (Intra-Asia, Asia-WCNA, Asia-Med, Asia-ECNA and Asia-North Europe) were responsible for over three-quarters of the additional volumes. The broad spread of the recovery suggests that it is more than a blip and should endure.
The surge in container handling has been evident since the back end of 2016, and as it has gathered momentum we were forced into a fairly radical reassessment of our forecast for both this year and the next, which is available in more detail in our latest Container Forecaster report. The 2017 forecast of 4.1% was made with only 1Q17 port and trade statistics to hand and such has been their strength since that a further upgrade is highly likely.
We expect the second half of the year to deliver similar volumes as the first half, although because of the tougher comparisons the growth rate might not be quite as strong. How much of a lift there will be in the traditional third-quarter "peak-season" is debatable as volumes have smoothed out significantly in the past few years. The surge of online shopping now means that buying patterns are spread more evenly through the year.
Although there are still a few regional laggards the recovery in container demand clearly has substance and comes at an opportune time for carriers that are taking delivery of big new ships.