While an increase in protectionist trade policies, shifts in centers of production, and the advent of disruptive technologies add further complexity in global seaport throughput levels, Fitch maintain that major ocean cargo gateways remain resiliant. 

In a report to be relased next week, Fitch analysts note that this trend has been evident over the past decade with throughput growth outpacing economic growth rates despite volatility through the last recession.

“Containerization of cargo and increasing vessel sizes coupled with supporting infrastructure at ports have all contributed to these throughput trends,” says Senior Director Emma Griffith. “However, growth rates are slowing relative to historical averages as these trends mature, and volume growth, while expected to continue, will likely more closely mirror that of global GDP.” 

Regarding U.S.-China trade relations, “Primary ports of call will be able to weather the storm despite elevated concentration in Chinese trade exposure in some cases,” adds Griffith. “Conversely, smaller and more specialized ports will have less leeway to offset major losses in imports and exports if commodities handled are targeted by tariffs.”

In an interview, Griffith notes that shifts in trade policy are not likely to curb growth meaningfully for ports located in North America.

“Port investment will continue to focus on capacity enhancements to accommodatlarger vessels while investor interest in North American port assets appears to be increasing,” she says. The outlook for ports in Latin America is somewhat more unpredictable, however. Recent changes in trade policy between Asia and the United States are clouding future performance of the Panama Canal’s container business while Brazilian ports are still facing overcapacity challenges.

European and Middle Eastern ports are not directly in the “crosshairs” of the U.S.-China trade battles. However, should the dispute take a toll on global trade flows, the historical relationship between European GDP growth and trade flows would be adversely affected. The bigger issue for European ports over time may be fallout over Brexit with disruption in trade flows possible as new customs processes and non-tariff barriers come online. U.S.-China trade uncertainties could mar the rate of growth for ports in the Asia Pacific, which have been the pace-car for volume growth. Bilateral trade in particular will suffer if the dispute continues to escalate. 

Potential sector “disruptors” to watch in the coming years include: 

  • The advent of 3D printing and autonomous vehicles, with the potential to modify traditional supply chains and logistics management
  • The of global warming and rising sea levels, both in terms of shifting trade routes and directly affecting port infrastructure
  • Shifts in markets and fuel economies, reshaping cargo types and their supporting port facilities, among others.

“Some ports may be investing too much and too quickly in mega cranes and warehousing in misguided anticipation of attracting more cargo,” says Griffith. “But then again, they might be right. For the time being, most major ports in the U.S. and elsewhere are taking a measured approach toward growth.

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