Trends in Global Shipping Trade Demand A New Canal

The first decade of the 21st century saw an unprecedented transformation in global maritime trade. The years preceding the global financial crisis witnessed an explosion in global trade driven in part by the growth of China’s economy and its emergence as a key trading partner for the world’s developed economies, including the United States. At the same time the maritime industry took a dramatic leap forward as the world’s largest container ships nearly tripled in size between 1996 and the present. These trends combined provided the rationale for Panama in 2006 to undertake the construction of a third set of canal locks that could accommodate the larger class of ships coming onto the market at that time. Since 2007, the Panama Canal Authority has invested $5.3B to build a third set of locks to allow longer and wider ships to transit. In response to the Panama Canal expansion, US and Asian ports have been making their own investments to handle the larger ships that will transit the expanded canal, due to be completed in 2015.

In the years since the Panama Canal expansion was announced, however, maritime trade has continued to grow, only temporarily abated by the recent economic slowdown. Both trade volumes and ship sizes have continued to grow and signs suggest that the Panama Canal by itself may be insufficient to meet the requirements of 21st century global trade. In particular, we believe there are three fundamental trends that will create demand for a new, significantly larger canal in the coming years.

Global maritime trade is expected to continue to grow, especially between Asia and the Americas

Globalization, technological advances and the emergence of new, strong commercial players, have resulted in rapid growth in global trade. Between 2000 and 2008 global trade grew at an average rate of ~12% per year. While growth slowed significantly after the financial crisis, trade levels have since picked up again and in 2011 the dollar value of global trade reached a record US$18.3 trillion. In 2013, this number is currently expected to reach US$19.9 trillion and is projected to continue to grow at a rate of 9% p.a. to 2020.



Maritime shipping is the cornerstone of global trade and the preferred means of transport. Seaborne trade has historically represented 75% – 90% of global trade volume. The growth of maritime trade, which reached 9 billion tons of shipments in 2011, has been most recently spurred by the growth of iron ore shipments and container traffic carrying manufactured goods.

2This growth of maritime trade is currently expected to continue at a steady pace of 3-4% p.a. through 2020. In particular, the rapid emergence of China as a manufacturing center has stimulated significant expansion in container traffic between the United States and Asia, with a majority of that traffic destined for US East Coast ports. While a large portion of that traffic has transited the Panama Canal, an increasing share of the trade between Asia and the US East Coast has shifted to larger ships travelling west from Asia, passing through the Malacca Strait and the Suez Canal, a longer voyage through at times dangerous regions, or has been landed in US West Coast ports and completed the journey by rail. The importance of these alternate routes is projected to increase in the coming years suggesting that Panama may not fully meet the needs of shipping companies plying the Asia to US East Coast trade route.



In addition to the flow of manufactured goods from Asia to the US, US exports to Asia are also expected to grow, including the export of coal from the US East Coast, and increasingly the exports of LNG and, soon of crude oil, from the US Gulf Coast. All these flows would benefit from an alternative transport route to the Panama Canal.

Trade between Latin America and Asia is also poised to grow in the coming years, consisting primarily of commodity exports such as iron ore, coal and other mined minerals, as well as lumber, grains, salt and increasingly crude oil. Today iron ore, the most important of these exports, departing from northern Brazil to China represents an important component of global seaborne iron ore trade. However, Asia-bound Brazilian iron ore sails a longer route around the Cape of Good Hope due to ship size limitations in the Panama Canal. Brazilian miners need to keep costs low in order to be able to compete with other seaborne iron ore suppliers to China, such as Australian producers who benefit from much shorter transport distances. The Nicaragua Canal will give them – and other exporters of goods and commodities – added cost competitiveness and further opportunities for growth.


Finally, given this tremendous growth in global shipping volumes, periods of congestion at the Panama Canal are possible in the next 10-15 years, despite its recent expansion. A second canal to serve excess demand could be invaluable to shippers, especially since expanding the Panama Canal further could be challenging due to hydrological constraints.

Drive for efficiencies will continue to spur investment in ever larger containerships that exceed the dimensions of the Panama Canal

Shipping companies and shippers are constantly focused on reducing transport costs, shortening travel distances, and enhancing transportation efficiency and safety. Transoceanic shipments between Asia’s major markets and their trading partners in Europe and the Americas accounted for 27% of the global container traffic in 2011.


The high volumes transiting these very long routes create a constant drive for cost efficiencies and higher margins through increased ship sizes and improved fuel efficiency. As they do, ships are rapidly outgrowing the capacity of the existing transoceanic canals, both Panama and Suez. Indeed, some shipping lines are already opting to employ much larger freighters and utilize shipping routes that bypass the Panama Canal, enabling higher margin realization despite the longer distance traveled.

Between 1996 and 2013 the largest container ships have more than tripled in size, from 6,000 TEUs to the recently-constructed Maersk EEE ships at 18,000 TEUs, and the average ship size has grown at a steady 4% over that period.

This trend is expected to continue for the foreseeable future supported by four major trends:

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  •  International container traffic is expected to continue to grow spurred by global economic growth. Asian ports are already seeing the pickup in traffic as the global economy shows signs of recovery. In turn, higher volume along individual trade routes justifies deploying larger ships as they will need to make fewer stops to achieve sufficient utilization. This continued increase in container traffic will also place strains on port capacity – larger ships would allow higher utilization of existing berths reducing the need to expand existing ports.
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  • Shipping lines will continue to seek economic efficiencies through larger ship sizes. Intense competition between shipping lines and continued growth in bunker prices partly driven by more stringent fuel specifications, and customer demands for lower transport costs will cause shipping lines to pursue further cost reductions. Operational strategies such as route optimization and slow steaming are already being exploited leaving investments in larger, more fuel efficient ships the best strategy to gain further efficiencies.
  • Ports are already investing to accommodate larger ships.
    Recent growth in the size of freighters has caused ports to install larger cranes with more vertical clearance and implemented new operating practices to enable more rapid unloading of these huge vessels. Ports in the US have also recently made significant investments in expanding access channels and removing other physical restrictions (such as the raising of the Bayonne Bridge).
  • Ship technology is expected to continue to evolve removing limits to continued growth of container ships. Past limitations on the size of freighters have been overcome in recent years through the evolution of propulsion systems and improved container configurations and container stacking on ships. Designs exceeding today’s largest ships are already under development and there seems to be widespread confidence among industry insiders that these mega-ships will eventually see service.

As ship sizes increase, a significant portion of the world’s shipping fleet will exceed the dimensions of the expanded Panama Canal. Postpanamax containerships (37% of the world’s containership fleet) cannot pass through locks 1 and 2 of the Panama Canal, prompting an expansion to accommodate this class of ship which routinely plies the trade routes between the Atlantic and Pacific. Though the Panama Canal is being expanded to take 13,000 TEU containerships, this limit is already being tested by profitability pressures – the largest Super-Post-Panamax ships now account for over 10% of global container shipping capacity. Since the expanded Panama Canal will not be able to accommodate these ships, the substantial efficiencies that these mega-freighters bring will be partly negated by the longer route they will need to traverse in order to serve the Asia – US East Coast corridor. The Nicaragua Canal would be able to accommodate the largest ships and would be the shortest passage for containerships between Asia and the U.S. East Coast.

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The Americas are expected to remain a vital supplier of commodities, particularly energy, to meet Asia’s growing demand

For the transport of bulk commodities, economies of scale have long demanded enormous ships – such as ore carriers and super-tankers — that simply cannot pass through the Panama Canal. This has constrained the flow of key raw materials from the Americas to rapidly growing Asian markets. For example, Vale, a Brazilian mining giant, has commissioned 35 “Valemax” ships which cannot go through either the Suez or Panama Canal opting for the benefits of scale over shorter transit distances. As a result of both the high quality and plentiful supply of Brazilian iron ore, this trade is expected to grow in the future.

Similarly, the Panama Canal’s size limitations may restrict the efficient flow of crude oil from Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, rapidly growing production from Brazil, and, in the future, of new lighter crudes produced in the US heartland. Although the heavier crudes produced in Venezuela are not particularly well suited to the needs of Asia’s refineries, the same is not true of new crude sources being developed in the United States. Rapidly growing production of Light Tight Oil (LTO) is expected to soon make the United States a net energy exporter and an efficient route for large super-tankers to Asia’s refining centers would create enormous economic benefits for both the United States and Asian countries such as China.

12Beyond iron ore and crude oil, the Americas are expected to also increasingly supply Asia with LNG, coal, and even grains. The recent boom in US natural gas production shows no signs of slowing, prompting energy companies to explore developing LNG export terminals in the US Gulf Coast. The US Department of Energy has recently recognized the benefits to the United States of these exports by granting several export licenses that allow some of these projects to proceed. The Nicaragua Canal would be ideally positioned for the shipment of LNG from the US Gulf Coast to Japan and Korea, providing this highly time sensitive cargo with a much shorter transit route than via the Panama Canal. Coal producers in the eastern US and Colombia, supplying Asia’s power and steel industries, would also see the benefits of this new transit route, providing them with the option to ship cargos using substantially larger bulk freighters. And as Asia’s population grows and increases its consumption of animal based proteins, farmers throughout the Americas should be able to access these markets much more efficiently.

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The Nicaragua Canal will help meet the changing needs of 21st century global trade and complement the expanded Panama Canal

The rapid growth in east-west trade and ship sizes provide a compelling argument for the construction of a second, substantially larger canal across Central America. Trends in ship size alone indicate significant potential market that can only be served by the Nicaragua Canal.

We believe that by 2030 – just over 16 years from now – the volume of addressable trade will have grown by 240% from today. The total value of goods transiting the combined Nicaragua and Panama Canals would exceed $1.4 trillion, making this one of the most important trade routes in the world. In addition, the fuel savings provided by the deployment of larger ships on the trade routes served by the Nicaragua Canal would be substantial. For example, going from Shanghai to Baltimore, the Nicaragua Canal route is 4,000 kilometers shorter than the Suez Canal, and 7,500 kilometers shorter than around Cape of Good Hope. At current fuel prices, for an average size containership, this represents a roundtrip savings of $500,000 and $1.0MM respectively1. For the largest ships the savings would $110/TEU and $327/TEU for the two alternative routes, mostly from lower fuel consumption.


1Assumes a 3,000 TEU all-in cost of $140K per day (78% utilization of 3,000 TEU ship), at 23 knots sailing speed.