Container Trade In The 21st Century

Maritime Activity Reports, Inc.

December 21, 2016

Graph:  Clarkson Research Services Limited

Graph: Clarkson Research Services Limited

 While container trade growth has slowed in recent years, box trade has still expanded significantly since the turn of the milliennium, according to Clarkson Research Services Limited.

In 2016, box trade is projected to total 181m TEU, almost three times volumes in 2000, having grown by an average 6.4% annum. However, with an increased focus on Asia, this growth has not been evenly spread across the trade lanes.
This century has seen significant growth in global container trade driven by increased volumes across a range of trade lanes (see graph), though some have seen faster growth than others. 
Back in 2000, mainlane container trade totalled 25.3m TEU, accounting for the largest proportion of global box trade of the featured groupings. Mainlane trade growth was rapid in the 2000s, supported by outsourcing of manufacturing from the west to Asia, particularly China. 
However, western demand has struggled since the financial crisis, and Asia-Europe box trade even shrank 3% in 2015, with only limited volume growth recorded on this route this year. Overall, mainlane trade grew by a compound average rate of 4.7% p.a. in 2000-16, the slowest of the featured groupings, while its share of global box trade fell from 38% to 29%.
In contrast, intra-regional trade has gained share in global trade, from 32% of volumes in 2000 to around 41% in 2016. This year, intra-regional box trade is projected to total 73.5m TEU, the largest part of the global total. During 2000-16, intra-regional trade grew on average by a rapid 8.1% p.a., accounting for 46% of the growth in global volumes. 
This has been supported by fast expansion in intra-Asian volumes, reflecting both firm economic growth in developing Asian countries and the rise of ‘factory Asia’ and multi-location assembly of manufactures. While economic turbulence in China saw intra-Asian trade growth slow to an estimated 3% in 2015, expansion has returned to more robust levels in 2016.
Non-mainlane East-West trade has also expanded rapidly, rising on average by 8.6% p.a. this century. This growth was the fastest across the featured trade lane groupings, supported by trade with India and the Middle East, although recently low oil prices have limited Middle Eastern imports. 
Non-mainlane East-West trade is projected to total 23.5m TEU in 2016, around 13% of global trade.
Meanwhile, North-South trade growth lagged behind in 2000-16, averaging just 5.0% p.a. Expansion has recently been limited by the severe impact of low commodity prices on economies in South America and Sub-Saharan Africa, with developing countries also struggling with economic difficulties even prior to the recent commodity price downturn.
So, global container trade has made big leaps forward since the year 2000. Intra-Asian trade has established its position and grown in importance, but trends on other routes have had a major impact too. While volume expansion may be underperforming at present, it is still worth remembering just how far and wide container trade has grown this century.
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