Global Merchandise Exports and Container Throughput, 1980-2022

Global Merchandise Exports and Container Throughput 1980 2022

Source: World Bank and Drewry Shipping Consultants/UNCTAD.

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 and usually follows a linear trajectory, there are fluctuations in this proportionality and a growing divergence in time.

  • A. 1980-1994. 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, consistently between 5 and 10% per year. Most long-distance container trade flows were transatlantic, transpacific flows were growing with the export-oriented strategies pursued by Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.
  • B. 1995-2002. From the mid-1990s to the early 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.
  • C. 2003-2006. Trade and container volumes increased sharply between 2003 and 2006, representing the period of peak globalization with strong growth in the value of exports, particularly driven by Chinese trade. The development of transshipment hubs also played a role in the higher relation between throughput and exports than the average.
  • D. 2007-2010. Between 2007 and 2010, the relationship between exports and container volumes was subject to significant volatility with shifts in the trajectory, particularly between 2008 and 2009, when exports and container volumes dropped significantly due to the financial crisis. Still, the trade and container volumes recovery was swift, with significant growth in containerized volumes.
  • E. 2011-2020. Since 2011, the relationship between exports and throughput resumed as the residuals went from negative to positive. Still, the relationship is volatile, 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. Further, trade sanctions imposed by the United States on Chinese goods had depressing effects in 2018 and 2019. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in both the value of trade and container volumes dropping, but to a relatively lower extent than the financial crisis of 2008-09.
  • F. 2021-. In 2021, the value of trade substantially bounced back in part due to deferred demand, changes in consumption patterns, and stimulus packages. However, the growth of global trade, value-wise, embarked on a new trajectory with much less association with container volume growth. For instance, the growth of container volumes was the lowest in more than 40 years.