Third quarter 2020 trade figures reflect unprecedented trade volatility

The UK’s Q3 port freight statistics from the Department for Transport released today provide further evidence that 2020 continues to be an unpredictable year for global trade flows.

When comparing throughput at major ports from July to September 2020 with July to September 2019:

  • Total freight tonnage decreased by 10% to 102.4 million tonnes
  • Total volume of unitised traffic decreased by 26% to 4.9 million units

The Q3 figures released today cover a period in which the UK economy saw record growth of 15.5% as lockdown measures were eased - however, compared with the same quarter a year ago, the UK economy reduced in size by 9.6%, which bodes poorly for overall port tonnages.

While these figures represent a significant drop in trade on this time last year, they indicate a better picture than numbers for the second quarter, where the total volume of freight tonnage decreased by 18% to 96.1 million tonnes and the total volume of unitised traffic decreased by 44% to 3.2 million units.

The fall in overall freight tonnages this year can be partly be attributed to a drop in demand for bulks - including coal and crude oil - due to a vast decline in car journeys and aviation activity, as commuters were asked to stay at home and travellers were grounded.

The fall in unitised freight (goods transported by containers, trucks and trailers) captured in Q3 numbers indicates that UK ports were still experiencing the fall out from the sudden halting of production in China in early Spring.

Figures released today provide evidence that between April and September, there was a vacuum of unitised movements, which paved the way for a sudden surge in containers in Q4, amplified by a shift in consumer behaviour to enhance demand for finished goods through an acceleration of internet shopping.

Commenting, Phoebe Warneford-Thomson, Policy and Economic Analyst, at the British Ports Association said:

“This year has spelt a tumultuous time for global trade flows - notably for unitised freight. Production of goods in China slowed dramatically in Spring when the virus caused many factories to close. In Q2 numbers, and to a slightly lesser extent, Q3 numbers, we can identify a vacuum of unitised movements - paving the way for a surge in Q4 that has caused ports around the world, including some in the UK, to experience congestion.

We will have to wait until March 2021 to access figures that will fill in the blanks regarding fluctuating demand in Q4 2020 - though industry experts attribute this period of congestion experienced by some container ports in the UK to have been driven by a rise in unitised freight in a ‘post-peak of the pandemic boom’.

Dramatic shifts in consumer behaviour will have also added to the chaos. Grounded by the pandemic, household budgets have not been spent on travel, leisure or commuting; encouraging online shopping and a surge in spending on household goods - such as electronics, clothes and other finished goods – many of which are imported from Asia in containers.

However, with a tough winter stretching ahead before the widespread roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccine and the looming prospect of a no-deal Brexit, unpredictability in trade patterns will no doubt remain the zeitgeist for Q1 2021.”

Click here to access the Q3 Port Freight Statistics.