Healthy growth in dry bulk commodity trade during 2014 as a whole is still a realistic expectation. But signs have emerged suggesting that expansion may be more limited than foreseen earlier. Coal trade estimates have tended to become more cautious, while there are clearer indications of reduced grain import demand in some countries.
Global economic growth forecasts have been revised downwards as well. The latest (late July) IMF update reduced estimated GDP growth in the advanced countries group in 2014 to 1.8%. This rate is roughly half the improvement from last year’s sluggish 1.3% expected previously. The forecast for China is also revised down slightly to a 7.4% growth rate.
Uncertainty about coal trade prospects has been intensified by apparent weakness in China’s purchases during the first half of this year. Table 1 shows expectations for annual coking coal imports into Asian countries. Imports of all coal into China (including low-grade lignite) were just 1% ahead in this year’s first half, compared with last year’s same period, at 160.2mt (million tonnes).
Revised forecasts by Australia’s Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics show only a small percentage increase in 2014 global coal trade. The largest segment, steam coal, is predicted to grow marginally by 1%, reaching 1,035mt. This estimate, which is less positive than some other independent predictions, is based on about 3% growth in Asian importing countries, a flat total in Japan and a 4% decrease in the European Union.
By contrast with developments in the coal trades, China’s contribution to iron ore trade strengthened greatly during the first six months of 2014. Ore imports by Chinese buyers (comprising about two-thirds of global trade in this commodity) rose by a huge 19%, reaching 457.4mt.
Higher steel production in China was a favourable influence, while imports of iron ore continued to gain market
share in competition with material produced by domestic mines. Advantages where derived in particular by Australia, the world’s biggest exporter, where production is expanding very rapidly. In this year’s first five months, Australia’s iron ore exports to all destinations were reportedly 59m (25%) higher, at 294mt.
Global trade in wheat plus corn and other coarse grains currently is expected to retreat in the 2014/15 crop year which started last month. International Grains Council estimates published at the end of July show the total falling by 4%, to 291mt. This prospective weakening follows a remarkably strong performance in the crop year which has just ended, when 14% growth was seen.
Lower imports into the Asian region, North Africa and Europe are envisaged, but a few positive changes elsewhere may be partly offsetting. In the Middle East area, despite a possible downturn in Iran, advances in other countries may be sufficient to ensure that the regional total increases slightly by about 3%, reaching 54.2mt.
Bauxite/alumina trade, one of the main minor bulks sector elements, expanded very strongly last year, reaching about 140mt, but this performance is not expected to be repeated in 2014. A decline seems more likely, resulting from lower imports of bauxite into China amid the Indonesian ban on unprocessed mineral exports, anticipation of which caused China’s aluminium producers to build up stocks last year.
BULK CARRIER FLEET
Bulk carrier newbuilding deliveries fell steeply in 2013, and seem set to show a further decrease this year, as shown in table 2. From 63m deadweight tonnes, the total could be down to about 55m dwt in 2014. These lower levels are restraining fleet expansion, despite a downturn in scrapping as well. All the main bulk carrier size groups are expected to see reduced deliveries, a pattern which reflects the reduction in order books from the peak.