Several factors shaping global import demand for commodities have become more difficult to predict. Potential for negative effects is evident. Prominent uncertainties are China’s economic slowdown, the changing dynamics of coal imports into China, and a weaker outlook in the eurozone economy. But there are still many signs of growth in world seaborne dry bulk trade movements.
The latest (October 2014) IMF assessment of the global economy revealed a more cautious view on prospects for the period ahead. Emphasizing an uneven recovery (which has disappointed in the past few years) continuing, forecasts of economic activity were revised downwards again. In 2014 world GDP growth is now estimated at 3.3%, no better than seen last year, followed by a modest improvement to 3.8% next year.
Confidence in a positive outlook for coal trade has begun to recede. Within the dominant steam coal sector, although Asian imports may increase this year (as shown in table 1), the global total may be flat or lower. Reduced imports into Europe could prevent any overall advance.
A downbeat quarterly forecast, published recently by Australia’s Bureau of Resources & Energy Economics, suggested that world steam coal trade (including land movements, but mostly seaborne) could decline by 19mt (million tonnes) or 2% in 2014, to 1053mt, followed by only a 1% increase next year. Sharply lower EU imports are predicted, together with only modest growth in China and India. Other forecasters are more optimistic about Indian coal purchases.
One commodity trade, the largest individual import element, has not been lacking in impetus this year. Many predictions of future growth remain bullish. China’s iron ore imports are still rising at an impressively rapid pace and there are solid reasons for expecting further advances, perhaps over several years. During the first nine months of 2014, iron ore imports into China rose by 98mt to almost 700mt, a 16% increase
compared with last year’s same period. This performance was even more remarkable in comparison with steel production, which rose by 2% (although that figure may be revised upwards). Ore imports, prices of which have fallen, continue to gain market share, displacing higher cost and lower quality material produced by Chinese domestic mines.
Good grain harvests in a number of importing countries have adversely affected prospects for global trade in wheat and coarse grains over the twelve months ahead. Despite a boost from lower international prices, numerous importers probably will not need to raise their purchases.
Large recent summer harvests and abundant availability of supplies in Europe and China seem set to be reflected in lower import requirements. Imports of wheat, plus corn and other coarse grains into the EU, during crop year 2014/15 ending June 2015, could fall by 24% to 15.3mt based on International Grains Council estimates. China’s imports could fall by 33%, to 12.5mt, while North Africa’s volume may be 9% lower at 39.0mt.
Various agricultural products and related commodities used in crop production form a significant part of minor bulk seaborne trade. A total of over 300mt consists of oilseeds and meal, rice, sugar, plus fertilizers. While prospects for individual commodities are not all uniform, an overall upwards trend seems to be continuing.
BULK CARRIER FLEET
Among bulk carrier size groups, the largest segment, comprising Capesize ships of 100,000 deadweight tonnes and over, is estimated to grow by 4–5% in 2014. As shown in table 2, newbuilding deliveries probably will be below last year’s level in the current year, but scrapping also seems likely to diminish. This fleet, which now exceeds 300m dwt, represents about two-fifths of the entire world bulk carrier fleet, and orderbook schedules indicate more substantial growth in 2015.