By Richard Scott, Bulk Shipping Analysis 

Commodity imports into many countries could strengthen over the months ahead. World seaborne dry bulk trade may remain on an upwards trend in 2018 as a result. But the recent emergence of trade restrictions and retaliation emphasizes the potential for political influences to have a disrupting, negative impact.

Assuming that the global economy is not severely affected by trade disputes, IMF forecasts published in mid-April show world GDP growth improving slightly this year. After last year’s upsurge to 3.8%, a further improvement to 3.9% is estimated, mainly reflecting a stronger performance among the advanced economies (mainly USA, Europe, Japan and Korea). China’s growth is expected to resume a slowing pattern.


Although the background for coal trade on a longer term view is not encouraging, modest growth this year seems to be a possibility. Two recent reputable forecasters have suggested increases in world seaborne coal trade during 2018 within a range of 1.5% to 2.5%, following last year’s upturn.

Yet not all analysts are optimistic. An updated forecast by the Australian Government Department of Industry, Innovation and Science suggests that world trade in steam coal (comprising about four-fifths of overall coal trade) could decrease by 1% in the current year. The total, which includes land movements but is mostly seaborne trade, is estimated at 1,046mt (million tonnes). Asian regional imports could remain flat, while elsewhere reductions are envisaged.


Prospects for steel demand, in producing countries which are also importers of the main raw materials, provide some clues to likely changes in trade volumes. The latest assessment by the World Steel Association of steel demand this year indicates only limited strengthening among these countries.

According to WSA calculations for 2018, both China’s and Japan’s steel demand based on finished steel products will remain flat at 737mt and 64mt respectively. In South Korea a 1% increase to 57mt is expected, while the European Union’s demand is forecast to grow by 2% to 165mt. These nations receive over 90% of the world’s iron ore imports. In some countries higher steel output, or a rise in the ratio of iron ore imports to steel output, may boost international seaborne movements.


More attention is now being focused on the new 2018/19 crop year for grain trade, starting in July. An early forecast by the International Grains Council points to world trade in wheat plus corn and other coarse grains totalling 368mt, a 2% increase, following an estimated 3% rise in the current year ending June.

But there is still great uncertainty.

Import demand partly depends on summer 2018 domestic grain harvests in northern hemisphere importing countries. These crops are not yet accurately foreseeable because of unpredictable weather conditions affecting output. Currently, imports into India and some North African countries are showing signs of increasing.


Trade in agricultural and related minor bulk cargoes apparently regained momentum last year and a strengthening trend could continue. Agricultural commodities in this group include sugar, oilseeds (excluding soya) and oilseed meal as well as rice. The 2017 total is estimated at over 230mt. In the fertilizer sub-sector volumes exceeding 160mt are estimated. Prospects for import demand evidently are mostly positive.


Capesize (100,000dwt and over) vessels, mainly employed in the iron ore and coal trades, comprise two-fifths of the entire world bulk carrier fleet. Last year growth in the capesize segment accelerated further to 3%, as shown in table 2, despite much lower new- building deliveries. In 2018 growth of 2–3% seems likely even though deliveries are expected to see another reduction. However, scrapping volumes are very hard to predict, and there is also uncertainty surrounding the new capacity volume emerging.