Additional signs, appearing over the past few months, confirmed expectations of a pickup in commodity import demand in many countries. Reflecting these indications, it now seems likely that global seaborne dry bulk trade growth during 2017 will be much stronger than the minimal expansion seen in the past two years.
The strengthening trade trend is aided by an improving world economic performance. According to the latest (July) IMF update, an anticipated acceleration is still on track. World GDP is forecast to grow by 3.5% this year, following last year’s 3.2% increase. Despite reduced optimism about the USA, several other key economies — China, Japan and Europe — are performing more strongly than expected.
Contributing to a more positive dry bulk trade picture is the revival of coal movements, although there remain doubts about whether recent strength will be fully maintained in the months ahead. One large element, China’s coal imports, rose by 25mt (million tonnes) or 23% in the 2017 first half, reaching 133mt. But policy changes and other factors suggest that this growth rate may not be sustained.
In the coking coal category, several Asian countries are predicted to increase imports during the current year, as shown by table 1. However, a recently revised Australian government estimate for global trade in this sector was not optimistic, suggesting that the 2017 total could be 9mt (3%) below last year’s volume, at 306mt. Weakness was expected to occur mainly in relatively small importing countries.
Figures for steel production in the past six months confirm a more robust backdrop for raw materials importing countries. World Steel Association data shows first half 2017 crude steel production rising by 5% in China, compared with the same period of last year, reaching 419.7mt. That expansion was a key influence affecting the big rise in Chinese buyers’ iron ore purchases.
Among other iron ore importers, an increase in European
Union crude steel output also was notable, boosting production by 4% to 86.1mt in the January–June period this year. In the same period, South Korea saw a similar rise of about 4% to 34.7mt, while in Japan there was a marginal uptick of under 1% to 52.3mt. In India, which is mainly self sufficient in iron ore but not in coking coal, steel output rose by 5% to 49.5mt.
The outlook for grain trade during the next twelve months depends heavily on the outcome of domestic harvests approaching or already under way in northern hemisphere importing countries. Production from summer harvests, stretching over the weeks ahead, will be affected by any unforeseen changes in weather.
Import demand in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and China reflects variations in domestic grain output as well as other factors. Mid-2017 harvests in many of these areas are expected to be similar to, or above last year’s volumes, although in China signs of a possible slight reduction have emerged. An absence of obvious large shortfalls partly explains why global wheat and coarse grains trade in 2017/18, now starting, could be almost flat at 365mt, based on US Dept of Agriculture estimates.
Aluminium industry raw materials are a major part of seaborne minor bulks trade. In 2016 world trade in bauxite, and the processed form alumina declined to about 115mt, amid a sharp reduction in China’s imports which totalled 55mt, down by 9%. Some reports point to a limited global revival this year, possibly resulting in 2-3% growth.
BULK CARRIER FLEET
A lower volume of newbuilding bulk carriers entering the world fleet this year is widely foreseen (table 2). Lower deliveries are estimated in all the main vessel size groups. Although this expected outcome acts to restrain fleet enlargement, much lower scrapping may result in fleet growth picking up again after several years of slowing.