The Pandemic Has Barely Affected Seaborne Trade… Why?

The Pandemic Has Barely Affected Seaborne Trade… Why?

Analysis of new data from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) shows that the total volume of global seaborne cargo in 2020 through September is only 2% lower than in 2019. This has been achieved through a pandemic AND a global recession?

How? Why?

It is clear that some types of cargo saw significant drops in the peak months of global lockdown (April and May.) Here we can see vehicles were affected, but this is a small category in terms of weight.

And again, a decline is noticeable in the much more significant category, containers, during lockdowns.

With the big drop in how much we’ve been driving around, a decline in traded oil (here combined with chemical cargoes) was expected and seen.

So what is propelling overall stable figures despite massive declines in other industries and turmoil in markets?


Trade in bulk commodities (Iron, Metals, Coal) is highly variable, and in early 2019 these were relatively low, but are spiking up from July, 2020.

The upturn has been so significant that across the first 9 months of trading in 2020, the differences in seaborne cargo between 2019 and 2020 don’t amount to much; 2020 doesn’t look so unusual in the context of the last few years’ seaborne trade. Commodities have seen gains where other industries have lost out, but the overall amount of change is negligible.

Here you can see the same data presented as monthly totals, where the variation in number of days per month shows up strongly in the signal.

Romco’s internal data reflect the same trend, growing significantly during the pandemic where other sectors have faltered. According to the latest Q3, 2020 Report, Romco’s production increased 367% and revenue was up ten-fold (994%) compared to Q3, 2019.

Aluminium and Copper have also set yearly price records this month, echoing strong demand. This signals the fortitude and resilience of the sector, reinforcing the idea that metals are a safe-harbour investment during turbulent markets.

All this data is courtesy of the IMF analysis of ships’ AIS data:

It is also worth noting that there is a completely different story from air cargo, where unavailability of capacity has constrained trade. Global cargo carried by aeroplanes dropped by more than 20% between January and April this year. As with other areas, this was driven by both supply and demand: reduced manufacturing capacity and reduced consumption.