Horizons #72: What’s behind the cost of shipping?

25 May, 2022

by Professor Ross Kingwell, AEGIC Chief Economist

Freight rates for bulk shipping seem destined to remain high.

Since the mid-2000s the bulk freight capacity of international shipping has grown strongly (Figure 1), on the back of a huge ship-building program in the period 2006 to 2012 (Figure 2).  However, in very recent years new construction of bulk ships as a proportion of the trading fleet has been very low (Figure 2), despite the volume of grain traded globally continuing to grow as has demand for other main bulk commodities (iron ore and coal).

Figure 1: Carrying capacity of global shipping since 1981 (millions of deadweight tons)

Figure 2: Dry bulk shipping orderbook as a percentage of the trading fleet

Accompanying the marked reduction in ship construction and the implied constraint on the supply of new ships have been recent COVID-related port closures in China that have created problems of shipping congestion (Figure 3), disrupting sailing schedules and reducing the number of effective sailing days for many ships. Coupled with the growing demand for bulk ships; the outcome has been greater competition among buyers for the reduced service levels from bulk shipping. The end result for grain exporters has been higher costs of sea freight (Figure 4).

Figure 3: Bulk carriers in the Yangtze River estuary waiting at anchor in early April 2022

The higher costs of bulk freight seem unlikely to dissipate quickly, returning to the lower levels observed in previous years. Although these high rates incentivise the building of more bulk carriers, most shipyards already are busy over the next few years mostly building container ships, not bulk carriers, further reducing the availability of bulk carriers over the next few years. Plus the heightened cost of building a new ship is encouraging many potential bulk carrier investors to wait until economic conditions are even more conducive for ship replacement. Meanwhile, grain exporters face the prospect of high freight rates, relative to recent years; and consumers also face the prospect of higher landed prices for food and feed grains.

Figure 4: The Baltic Exchange’s handysize index since May 2016

So; it’s likely that the cost of exporting bulk grain to overseas’ customers will remain high for a while.

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Horizons: the AEGIC Economics and Market Insights blog

Expert grains industry analysis and commentary from AEGIC’s Economics and Market Insight Team on a range of big-picture topics that affect Australia’s export grains sector.


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