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New UNCTAD Annual Report About the Maritime Scene

by Richard Scott FICS, member of London & South East Branch Committee, 12 October 2018

The 2018 edition of the highly respected Review of Maritime Transport was published by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development in early October. It is available free of charge on the UNCTAD website (link shown below). As usual, the report comprehensively covers developments in international seaborne trade (chapter 1); structure, ownership and registration of the world fleet (2); freight rates and maritime transport costs (3); ports (4); and legal issues and regulatory developments (5).

Authors of the report have highlighted 7 key trends shaping global maritime transport. One of these, the protectionism threat, is a cause of widespread anxiety. Other prominent trends discussed also are often causes for concern. In the report, all these together are referred to as “challenges and opportunities”.

The other six trends listed are the reshaping influences of digitalization, e-commerce and the implementation of China’s Belt & Road Initiative; excessive newbuilding vessel capacity; consolidation among container service providers; the relationship between container ports and their customers; shipping’s greater dependence on leveraging relevant technological advances to create value; and improving the environmental performance of the industry.

In what is arguably an especially bold view expressed in the report, UNCTAD is very positive about global seaborne trade volume over the next five years. An average 3.8 percent compound annual growth rate is forecast in the 2018 to 2023 period, similar to the improved 4 percent rate achieved last year. This expectation is stated as contingent upon a supportive world economy. But there is no hint in the report that, quite possibly, robust historical seaborne trade growth rates may prove much harder to achieve in the future. 

There is, perhaps wisely, no similar long-term prediction for world merchant ship fleet growth. For now the picture on the ‘supply side’ is providing more encouragement for shipping industry professionals. Fleet growth has moderated, although to a varying extent. As the report points out, last year “the expansion in ship supply capacity was surpassed by faster growth in seaborne trade volumes, altering the market balance and supporting improved freight rates”.

Another topic of interest discussed in a separate section of the UNCTAD report is ‘Assessing Gender Equality Aspects in Shipping’ (pages 38-41). The authors suggest that overcoming the lack of gender equality may be a core element in addressing the shortage of skilled professionals within the sector. However, it is acknowledged that an increasing number of women are entering the shipping industry in all roles, including seafaring and operations, chartering, insurance and law. Also, many more women are participating in maritime studies.