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China’s slowdown hitting world shipping

For me nothing illustrates the dramatic collapse in commodity prices around the world more than the news in early August that an Australian coking coalmine, bought three years ago for $631m, was sold off for just a buck.

The frightening drop off in prices for just about all commodities has been so severe and so sudden that many very big names have been left in the lurch.

China’s slowdown and the sensational stock market collapse, the source of column acres in the world’s press for the last year, is having enormous ramifications for much of shipping. The slashing of its currency again today serves as another warning sign that Beijing is worried.

Dry bulk’s woes look set to continue for years to come thanks to the People’s Republic slackened demand for key materials like iron ore and coal. Iron ore imports by China shrank in the first six months of the year. They totalled 452.9m tons, down 0.9% from the same period a year earlier. Coal imports from January to June were far worse, down a whopping 37.5%. For a hard pressed dry bulk fleet still struggling with overcapacity the fact that China, by far the world’s most dominant commodities buyer, has stalled means the dark times will continue for years to come. Those observations made by many over the past 12 months that there’s no way out for this sector till the end of the decade look bang on.

Container shipping is set to also take a hit from the malaise in the Chinese economy. Box throughput in the country is set to grow at 4.9%UK firm Drewry estimated this August, down from an earlier 5.8% prediction. What this 0.9% drop equates to in global box volumes is a rather significant 1.9m teu, not cataclysmic, but certainly not helping what is still a fragile recovery in the container trades.

The one area that still looks resilient to me is China’s oil thirst. China’s oil imports hover near record highs and I reckon they will remain that way regardless of all this slowdown talk. The only problem for international owners here is that more and more oil is being shipped in Chinese hulls; foreigners will increasingly get shut out of this trade.

So am I being pessimistic about China’s current economy and its knock-on effect for world shipping? Naturally as a commentator it is always far easier to be a bear than a bull.

I asked SinoShip’s resident economist, Paul French, for his thoughts, and, as ever in his glass-half-full view on things (which irritatingly more often than not is proven correct) he reckons we should be looking long term and remaining calm.

“Look beyond the volatility of China’s stock markets,” Paul tells me, “and concentrate on the long-term opportunities. Volatility ebbs and flows, but the long-term opportunities remain constant.”

We shall see.

This article first appeared in the just published summer issue of SinoShip magazine. Readers can access the whole magazine online for free by clicking here.

Sam Chambers

Starting out with the Informa Group in 2000 in Hong Kong, Sam Chambers became editor of Maritime Asia magazine as well as East Asia Editor for the world’s oldest newspaper, Lloyd’s List. In 2005 he pursued a freelance career and wrote for a variety of titles including taking on the role of Asia Editor at Seatrade magazine and China correspondent for Supply Chain Asia. His work has also appeared in The Economist, The New York Times, The Sunday Times and The International Herald Tribune.
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