European container ports are unlikely to be able to maintain the strong growth rates of the past three decades, Fitch Ratings says. Combined with the trend for ever-larger ships making fewer unloading stops, this makes risks highest for small- and medium-sized ports. These could be drawn into a price war in times of falling volumes, or could miss out on cargo even if they invest to accommodate larger ships. These risks are already factored in to our ratings in the sector.
Since 1985 European container ports have averaged 6.5 per cent annual growth in container throughput, or three to four times GDP growth, but this has been driven by trends that are unlikely to continue.
In particular, the rise of Asia as a manufacturing centre was a major source of growth, but is likely to slow as exporters rebalance their economies to focus on domestic demand and as labour costs converge with Europe. Much of the growth also came from goods that used to be shipped in general cargo vessels being switched to containers. This trend will probably continue for the next decade, but must eventually run out of steam.
We believe that as these drivers gradually diminish, container throughput growth will align with underlying growth in the supply and demand of transported goods. GDP, industrial production or private consumption may therefore be better indicators of future growth, all of which have tended to be between 1 per cent and 3 per cent in Europe over the last couple of decades.