With about 90% of the world’s traded goods by volume transported by sea, a resurgence in seaborne freight movement would be a major sign of a world economic recovery.
Indeed, lately, the Baltic Dry Index (BDI), which gauges the cost of shipping resources, including iron ore, cement, grain, coal and fertiliser, has been climbing and hit a new 2009 high last week.
But analysts and shipping industry officials said the jump in the index was driven by Chinese demand for iron ore, coal and grains, as well as rising port congestion in Australia and China, and did not necessarily bode for a broader world recovery.
”It is not really Japan, European or other Asian demand that is driving this (rally). It continues to be China,” Martin Sommerseth Jaer, analyst with Arctic Securities, said.
The main index, which was launched in 1985, has remained volatile this year due to swings in demand by China for iron ore – the primary material in the manufacture of steel.
“Last year, the BDI did work quite effectively as a global economic indicator,” Peter Malpas, group research manager with shipbroker Braemar Seascope, said. “This year it definitely has not.”
The Baltic Exchange said it had never set out to provide economic insight and analysis through the main index, “but an independent and accurate view” of the cost of moving dry bulk commodities such as iron ore and coal by sea.
”With so many factors coming into play and driving freight rates, what these figures mean for the wider economy is for economists to decide,” a Baltic Exchange spokesman said.
Strong appetite for iron ore and coal in India and China and other industrial activity helped push the Baltic index to a record high in May 2008 of 11,793 points. But global turmoil, compounded by a reduction in demand for raw materials, manufactured goods and consumer products drove it back down to as low as 663 in December.
The volatility this year on the main index has also been driven by the availability of large capsize ships, typically hauling 150,000 tonne cargoes such as iron ore and coal, rather than signals of appetite for raw materials from the wider economy.
In June and November, when the main index rallied, port congestion in China, as well as at coal ports in Australia, tightened the availability of ships, helping to sustain gains.