Favourable influences boosting commodity import demand in a number of countries were a feature of the past twelve months. These resulted in a world seaborne trade rebound after the previous year’s downturn. But it is unclear whether this positive trend will persist through 2024.
Some of the uncertainty about restraints on global economic activity is receding. Progress in reducing inflation rates has led to revised expectations about monetary policy. In some major and other countries the upwards trend in interest rates appears to have reached a peak from where reductions may soon begin. Economic growth could be strengthened, potentially benefiting import demand for dry bulk commodities.
Prospects for world grain and soya trade in the current 2023/24 year ending third quarter 2024 are looking brighter. Following two flat years when no growth occurred, US Department of Agriculture calculations show that a 19mt (million tonnes) or 3% increase in the overall total, to 684mt (which includes some land movements) is a foreseeable outcome.
Almost two-thirds of the total is comprised of wheat plus corn, barley and other coarse grains. This segment is expected to see almost 15mt (3.5%) growth in 2023/24, raising the volume to 437mt. Among positive changes, the East Asia region’s imports are estimated to increase by 7%, reaching 96mt, as shown in table 1, boosted by higher volumes into China. Higher imports into several other areas are predicted but, by contrast, the European Union’s purchases may be lower.
Despite last year’s global coal trade performance proving much stronger than widely expected, continued growth during 2024 is still seen as unlikely. Another boost from extra imports into China, estimated to have added 120mt during 2023, is currently not predicted and a reduced volume appears a more likely outcome. Higher volumes in other importing countries may not be offsetting.
Revised forecasts published last month by the Australian Government Department of Industry suggested that world coal trade (including some land movements, but mainly seaborne) could decline by 23mt or 2% to 1,337mt in 2024. Most of this reduction is expected to occur in the steam coal segment comprising three-quarters of the total. Lower steam coal imports into China, falling by 81mt (27%) to 221mt, are not expected to be offset by larger volumes elsewhere.
Among iron ore importing countries positive changes during the past twelve months appear to have been confined to a small number of countries. Many, including some of the biggest importers, are estimated to have seen no increase or to have reduced their purchases amid weaker trends in steel production. The principal exception was China, where brisk growth in iron ore imports occurred.
Figures for crude steel production in the first eleven months of 2023, published by the World Steel Association, emphasize varying perfor mances. Compared with the same period of the previous year, steel output was 8% lower at 118mt in the European Union, and 3% lower in Japan at 80mt. In South Korea a marginal 1% increase to 61mt was seen, while in China there was similar 1% growth to 952mt.
Fertilizers are a prominent element of the minor bulk segment. World seaborne trade in potash, phosphate (rock and processed), sulphur and urea is estimated to have declined again last year to about 185mt, well below the peak level reached two years earlier. Some signs of a possible recovery in the next twelve months have emerged,
Within the Handysize (10–39,999 deadweight tonnes) category, comprising about 12% of the world bulk carrier fleet, growth in 2023 was similar to that seen in the previous twelve months at 3.5%, as shown in table 2. This year a deceleration could occur despite higher newbuilding deliveries, assuming that scrapping picks up sharply.