Global Merchandise Exports and Container Throughput, 1980-2020

Global Merchandise Exports and Container Throughput, 1980-2020

Source: World Bank and Drewry Shipping Consultants.

There is a high correlation between global merchandise exports and global container throughput (R square of 0.97), which is indicative of the derived demand function of global container shipping. Although this relation is proportional, there are fluctuations in this proportionality and a growing divergence in time.

  • Before the mid-1990s, the residuals (the difference between the curve and the exports/throughput observation) tended to be negative, implying a lower relation between throughput and exports than the average. The globalization of production was ongoing but tended to involve more regional trade agreements (e.g. NAFTA and EU) relying on non-containerized freight flows over shorter distances. Still, the growth of container flows was robust. Most of the long-distance container trade flows were transatlantic, but with a growth of transpacific flows (Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan).
  • From the mid-1990s to the late 2000s, the residuals became positive, implying an export/throughput relation higher than the average. This was particularly linked with the contribution of export-oriented economies such as China, using the benefits of containerization to access global markets. Trade and container volumes increased sharply between 2003 and 2008, representing the period of peak globalization with strong growth in the value of exports. The development of transshipment hubs also played a role in the higher relation between throughput and exports than the average.
  • Between 2007 and 2010, the relationship between exports and container volumes was subject to significant volatility, particularly between 2008 and 2009, when both exports and container volumes dropped significantly due to the financial crisis.
  • Since 2011 the relationship between exports and throughput appears to be resuming as the residuals went from negative to positive. Still, the relationship is subject to much volatility, as exemplified by a sharp decline in 2015 and the Covid-19 pandemic, where trade and container throughput declined proportionally. 2015 represented the sharpest decline in global trade since the financial crisis of 2008-2009, a drop mainly attributed to an economic slowdown in China, substantial declines in oil and commodity prices, and the decline of several currencies in relation to the US dollar.