Are we seeing enough economic recovery this spring to support growth in volumes of U.S. containerized imports and exports? Economists are seeing some hope, especially in the U.S., but the spring is still looking pretty chilly on a global scale. In the U.S., housing starts and employment are up, but much of southern Europe is mired in recession and growth in emerging Asian markets is slowing.
On the whole, a global recovery is under way, but there are plenty of risks that could cause growth to sputter, especially if it encounters another “black swan” event in the form of an unpredictable catastrophe such as the tsunami and nuclear disaster that struck Japan in 2011.
Any recovery in Europe could be upset by eruption of a fiscal crisis in southern Europe. “Optimism has started to take hold in recent months, but the economic hangover is still very much with us,” said Nick Kounis, head of macroeconomic research for ABN Amro Bank. Yet trade volumes are likely to get stronger this year and even stronger by the second half of 2014 when the global recovery takes hold. Global trade volume, which increased 3% in 2012, is likely to grow 3.3% this year and 3.9% in 2014, Kounis said.
But persistent global economic clouds are causing some economists to cut their forecast of U.S. trade growth. In March PIERS/The Journal of Commerce, economist Mario Moreno reduced his forecast for the growth of U.S. containerized exports this year to 2%, to a total of 12.1 million TEUs, compared with his previous forecast of 4.1%, “in light of the fourth quarter’s weak performance, the general deceleration of volume growth during 2012, and less optimistic economic forecasts across the globe.”
Moreno also cut his forecast for 2014 export growth to 3.4% from the 4.4% rate he estimated in December. “While fiscal uncertainty in the U.S. has been largely contained, in Europe, questions remain on how solid the commitment to austerity is, especially in Italy, where anti-austerity candidates made progress in the last election,” he said. “Such an outcome makes already nervous investors less willing to commit capital to projects and could delay the economic recovery across the European continent.”
Moreno expects import volumes to grow 2.6% in 2013 to a total of 17.6 million TEUs, compared with just 1.5% in 2012. But he remains cautious in view of the 3.9% dip in total U.S. import volumes in the final quarter of 2012, which capped a disappointing 2012 for U.S. inbound container trade. Annual containerized import traffic expanded just 1.5% during the year, decelerating from the 2.7% pace set in 2011 and a far cry from the 14.5% increase posted in 2010.
He said the 2012 performance was significantly below the two-year moving average of 10.4%, which indicates further sluggishness going forward. Although the fourth quarter 2012 performance can be partially attributed to Hurricane Sandy and labor disputes at U.S. ports, he said the slowdown was primarily due to worsening U.S. economic conditions, particularly fiscal uncertainty and its impact on private investment, which was keeping a tight lid on containerized import growth. “I do not see these conditions appreciably improving during 2013 and am therefore compelled to lower our projection to 2.6% growth,” Moreno said.