by Richard Scott, Bulk Shipping Analysis

Signs of positive influences affecting imports of bulk commodities into a number of countries around the world are still evident. But indications of negative changes are also very prominent, potentially offsetting much of the growth elsewhere. As a result, there is only restrained optimism for continuation of the upwards trend in global seaborne dry bulk trade.

The world economy’s evolution is not providing much support. Recent (September) calculations by the OECD organization confirmed that world GDP growth in 2016 is likely to be slightly below last year’s sluggish 3.1% pace, at 2.9%, and next year any improvement probably will be modest. Global economic activity is described as remaining in a “low-growth trap”.


One encouraging dry bulk trade feature is the continued expansion of soya movements, included in the ‘grain’ category. As shown by the figures in table 1, world trade (mostly seaborne) in soyabeans and meal is estimated to have grown by 6% in the 2015/16 marketing year which has just ended, to 195mt (million tonnes). US Dept of Agriculture forecasts point to a further 4% increase in the next twelve months.

Strongly growing soyabeans imports into China, which reached an estimated 82.5mt in the past twelve months, are boosting the global total. Additional imports into a wide range of other countries contribute as well. In 2015/16 this strength was accompanied by a robust 5% rise in world wheat and coarse grains trade to 354mt but, in the year now starting, a 2% reduction in that segment is likely, based on USDA figures.


Despite subdued steel production in key raw materials importing countries this year, iron ore trade has benefited from greatly increased purchases by Chinese buyers. In the first eight months of 2016, imports of iron ore into China were 57mt or 9% higher than seen in last year’s same period, at 670mt.

Steel production weakness in the EU, Japan and South Korea has greatly restrained raw materials requirements recently. There has been an absence of growth in China’s steel output also, but other factors have raised iron ore imports, including increasing stocks and further substitution of ore from domestic mines with foreign supplies. However, it is uncertain whether this strong trend will persist over the months ahead.


Positive news about coal trade is less visible. While imports into some countries are growing and appear set to continue enlarging, possibly for many years, most of the major buyers are seeing downwards pressure on consumption and import demand, with environmental policy influences having a big impact.

During the next few years, several countries in southeast Asia could become larger importers of steam coal. Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam in particular are seen as rapidly expanding markets amid growth in coal-fired power station capacity already under way and greater reliance on foreign coal supplies.


Following another increase in seaborne steel products trade last year, prospects for 2016 are difficult to assess. Some estimates point to a flat outcome. One positive element is Imports into the EU, which have risen very rapidly and, together with falling exports, were reflected in European steel production weakness. Conversely, steel imports into the USA, another major market, were 25% lower at 17.1mt in this year’s first seven months.


A bulk carrier fleet size group likely to see minimal growth in 2016 is the panamax segment, which comprises about one quarter of the entire fleet.

Although newbuilding deliveries could increase, compared with last year, higher scrapping probably will offset a larger proportion, as shown in table 2. The result is expected to be only a minimal 1% increase in Panamax bulk carrier deadweight capacity.