Singapore — Singapore's container volumes and ship arrivals posted record highs in 2019 but cargo throughput hit a three-year low and bunker sales declined to the lowest in four years amid a slowdown in global trade growth.
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Singapore's container throughput increased 1.6% to 37.2 million twenty foot equivalent units, or TEUs, last year, Lam Pin Min, Senior Minister of State in the transport ministry, said late Monday at an event organized by the Singapore Maritime Foundation.
The increase came despite 2019 being a challenging year when global economic activity was weak with an annual growth rate of 3%, he said.
Growth in global container throughput has generally slowed with trade differences between the US and China being a major source of uncertainty, dragging down sentiment across markets, the minister said.
However, Singapore handled more than 626 million mt of cargo in 2019, he said. According to official data, this was the lowest in three years, as the country had a cargo throughput of 630 million mt and 628 million mt in 2018 and 2017, respectively.
The country's bunker sale volumes declined 4.6% on the year to 47.5 million mt in 2019, the data showed.
Bunker sales have declined for the second successive year in 2019, and was the lowest volume sold since 2015, according to official data.
The decline comes in the run up to the IMO 2020-mandated global low sulfur marine fuel norms.
The International Maritime Organization has lowered the amount of sulfur that ships can emit as they burn bunker fuel on the high seas to 0.5% from 3.5%, effective from January 1, 2020.
"For most part of last year, shipping companies did not know for sure whether compliant fuels would be available in sufficient quantity and [of] a quality required to meet the sulfur cap regulation," the minister said.
The price cap differential between compliant fuels and high sulfur fuel oil was also an issue of much speculation, the minister said, and added that Singapore was prepared for the new regime and established regulations well in advance.
Ship arrivals in Singapore increased 2.2% on the year to a record 2.85 billion gross tons, or gt, last year, the minister said.
The tonnage under the Singapore Registry of Ships was currently at a record level of 97.3 million gt, almost doubling in the previous decade of 2000-2019, according to official data.
These sets of data are significant because Singapore is globally the largest bunkering hub and is located along one of world's busiest waterways, with close to 1,000 ships anchored there at any given time. A ship calls at Singapore port every two to three minutes, bringing the total to around 130,000 ships a year and making its performance critical for economists studying trends in global economic trade.
Escalating trade tensions and a slowing global economy led the World Trade Organization to sharply downgrade its forecasts for trade growth in 2019 and 2020. The WTO said in October 2019 that world merchandise trade volumes are estimated to rise by only 1.2% in 2019, substantially slower than the 2.6% growth forecast in April last year. The projected increase in 2020 is 2.7%, down from 3% previously.
Economists caution that downside risks remain high, and that the 2020 projection depends on a return to more normal trade relations.