Shipping is Sailing Against Trade Winds, and Other Protectionist Concerns

With the dry bulk freight market limited to bouncing along the bottom for now, most of the resources – when not afforded for ships to (figuratively) stay afloat – are devoted at buying dry bulk vessels at cheap prices in the secondary market. It seems that everyone is convinced that asset prices at present offer a unique investment opportunity not to be passed up. After all, freight market weaknesses come and go, but markets of cheap ships do not present themselves often.

The weakness of the shipping markets is mostly attributable to tonnage oversupply, whereby there are just too many vessels chasing few cargoes. In general, demand for vessels – that is trade and cargoes to be transported – is only un-inspiring at present. The main concern is that there are many more ships than cargoes, but trade is still existent, just not robust enough to employ all available vessels. Too many vessels were built because of too much speculative investment in shipping, and also because of too much available liquidity and that, at a very low cost.

Most potential buyers of ships believe that there will be tonnage equilibrium as soon as older vessels and less efficient vessels find their way to the scrapheap. Thus, effectively, it’s a matter of timing and awaiting for the immutable laws of nature to work their unique rejuvenation of the markets by way of aging. After all, it often has worked out just like this in previous business cycles in shipping. It’s true, newbuilding orders have diminished in the last year while scrapping has been as strong as it has been in the last seven years; thus, tonnage supply is coming down, and that’s easy to verify in most cases.

Demand for shipping is a much more convoluted analysis since there are too many commodities and cargoes and trading patterns, and permutations thereof, to analyze. Then, one has also to take into calculation macroeconomic factors, political events, possibly technological developments, changing consumption patterns, trade barriers, etc, and all of them, to varying degrees of seriousness, affect demand for shipping. Quite frankly, often analyzing demand for cargoes (and shipping) in detail resembles the so-called the Butterfly Effect model.

Trying to view demand for shipping from 10,000 feet, one has to identify the long-term trends and ideally be on the ‘right side’ of those trends. As a rule of thumb, growth for international trade is twice as much as economic growth (GDP), as commodities, raw materials and finished products have to pass international borders often to reach the end consumer as the economies grow. Further, growth for international trade declines much faster than economic growth in decelerating economies, while growth for international trade increases much faster when economies grow. It’s intuitive, as, when an economy is slowing down, need for trade comes down fast, while as an economy starts growing again, there is fast demand for trade for products to be brought together and reach the end consumer. The fact that the IMF and OECD keep revising downwards world economic growth has not escaped the shipping markets that have been trading at almost all time lows.

While we all hope that there will be robust economic growth soon enough to save shipping, one has also to pay attention to the fact that international trade thrives when there is a receptive ground and open-minded trading partners. And, international trade, much glamorized by free-market economists, demonstrably has been exerting a positive outcome on our societies. But often, international trade has to get clearance by politicians, and from their voters. International trade agreements can formalize trading relationships among geographic regions or bloc of countries, and make trade easier to happen. While the World Trade Organization (WTO) is the large overreaching umbrella for trade worldwide, trade agreements can be negotiated at local levels by countries or group of countries. The EU started as a quasi-trade agreement and has evolved into a political union (its end results to be seen, however), while most readers in the US can recall NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, between Mexico, USA and Canada, and its eventful passing despite the ‘giant sucking sound’ warnings of jobs lost to the south borders of the NAFTA countries.


Shipping keeps an eye on trade patterns

On a macro-level, one today has to notice a wave at the international level whereby voters have been turning much more ‘isolationistic, nationalistic and ethnocentristic’ and against (free?) movement of people and cargoes. For instance, just recently British voters opted for Brexit, which, while driven by desire against free movement of citizens within the EU, eventually will have to have implications on movement of goods, if and when Brexit gets to be implemented. Most definitely this is not a positive development for trade and for the shipping industry, especially given the fact that Great Britain has historically been a beacon for openness and trade, being an island nation with long tradition in and institutions for maritime and trade. Moving on to the Continental Europe, there have been reports that in the State of Bavaria in Germany there is very strong anti-trade sentiment against CETA, the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, between the 28-nation EU and Canada, finalized in 2014. And, in the USA, while the Obama administration has spared no efforts to fast track the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), both presidential candidates – including his presumptive legacy preservationist Hillary Clinton – have come against the trade agreement. One cannot be sure of the outcome for these trade agreements, especially since they seem to be driven by voter angst against migrants from poor regions and/or possibly terrorist risk underlining, but the writing on the wall is clear that free trade is a ‘zero sum game’. Irrespective of one’s political or philosophical inclinations, trade and shipping will have to face some headwinds, at least in the short term.

Intra-region free trade agreements (FTA) such as ASEAN (Association of South-East Asian Nations), RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership), MERCOSUR and UNASUR in South America seem to be faring better, but these being localized agreements, their big impact on global trade (and shipping) is rather limited.

If there was ever any doubt on the beneficial impact of trade to shipping, in the following graph we present trade data from the WTO website, for total world exports and for exports from the USA and China starting in 1980 (in 2015 US$ value). China became formally member of the WTO at the end of 2001, and it’s apparent that trading values have increased for the world, USA and China since 2001. Of course, increased growth in trade since 2001 cannot totally be attributed to China’s ascension to WTO, but there is no doubt that China has been the primary driver. On the same graph, on the right scale in red, the annual averages for the Baltic dry bulk market (BIFFEX and BDI) are shown, and it’s clear that since 2001, the BDI had been trading – for most of the time – at a different plateau altogether.

Trade and BDI since 1980 (large)

‘One great wowing sound’ for shipping following China’s acceptance to WTO.

There is no dispute that shipping asset prices present great investment opportunities and that eventually enough ships will be scrapped to reach equilibrium with demand. On the other hand, the demand side of the equation has to be given proper consideration, in the light of present anti-trade sentiment in mostly the western world.

And, as a disclaimer, trade and trade agreements in this article are being viewed strictly from the point of view of a shipping man without imparting any political judgment or inclination, but bearing the strong belief that all trade is good for consumers and citizens and the society and culture, not to mention good for shipping, too.

Trade is not a zero sum game.

This article was first published on Splash24/7 under the title ‘Where’s the Growth in Trade?’ on August 8th, 2016. On August 14th, 2016, following A.P. Moeller’s quarterly report, Bloomberg published an article titled World’s Biggest Shipping Firm Warns Against U.S. Protectionism’.

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