Global container port traffic grew by just 1.1 percent in 2015, the second-lowest annual increase ever recorded. The snail’s pace growth last year was only surpassed by the record low in 2009 when container volume declined by 8.4 percent in the wake of the global financial crisis, industry analyst Alphaliner said. North America bucked the trend with traffic rising 4.8 percent in 2015, driven mainly by gains at U.S. East Coast ports, according to Alphaliner’s estimates based on a preliminary survey of over 400 ports worldwide.
Port traffic grew less than half the 3.5 percent increase in global gross domestic product in 2015 according to the latest International Monetary Fund estimates – the first time the container volume growth-to-GDP multiplier fell below 1x. The GDP multiplier has been declining steadily over the past 30 years – from 3.4x from 1990-1999 to 2.6x from 2000-2008 and 1.5x since 2010 – as the container shipping industry reaches a new level of maturity.
Several factors have contributed the slowing growth of container traffic in recent years, according to Alphaliner. The containerization of break bulk goods has peaked, there is an increasing trend toward miniaturization of manufactured goods transported in containers, the offshoring of manufacturing activities to the Far East, especially China, has slowed, and as the Chinese economy shifts toward domestic consumption, foreign container growth has also slowed.
Traffic has also been impacted by less container transshipment as more ports in Southeast Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Baltic have attracted mainline calls as volumes rose while port facilities improved. Lower headhaul volume growth is driving down overall laden container volumes and empty container handling as the imbalance ratio between the two legs declines. Traffic through the top 20 European ports shrank by 2.6 percent to 77.7 million 20-foot equivalent units (TEUs) in 2015, while the 4.8 percent increase at the 18 largest North American ports boosted volume to 49.5 million TEUs.
Global port traffic is currently forecast to increase by 1.6 percent in 2016, though the year got off to a weak start with initial January figures showing lower volumes at five of the world’s top six ports – Shanghai, Singapore, Shenzhen, Hong Kong and Busan. Fourth-ranked Ningbo-Zhoushan bucked the trend with traffic rising by 6 percent in January from a year ago. Any hopes for a significant recovery in demand this year will depend crucially on a rebound in European volumes, according to Alphaliner.