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From the News Desk: What’s in store for shipping in 2021?

As 2020 draws to a close, attention turns to the challenges to come

Time will tell what lessons shipping has learnt from the pandemic-led disruption of this year, but 2021 will bring issues such as the transition to decarbonisation and digital integration closer to the fore

LLOYD’S List has presented its Outlook 2021 report, with a sector by sector breakdown of what lies ahead for the various segments of the global shipping industry.

Most of the forecasting comes with a ‘coronavirus caveat’ but after the disruption and upheaval seen in the past 12 months, the industry heads into the new year with a certain level of optimism that things will get better and may even bounce back to pre-virus levels.

Container lines got through the pandemic by implementing tight cost controls and strict capacity management and look well placed to thrive in the coming year. Indeed, a quick glance at the third-quarter financial results for carriers confirmed what had been apparent for some time — that box shipping had a stand-out year.

Despite a massive collapse in volumes in the second quarter, low oil prices, tight capacity management and strong demand in the second half of 2020 meant that the sector as a whole turned around a potential $20bn loss into what is likely to be a remarkable $14bn in earnings for the year.

Lines were already managing capacity prior to 2020 but having seem the financial success of the strategy against such an economic backdrop, they are unlikely to let go now.

Low fleet growth is the main factor behind the bullish sentiments for dry bulk market participants. Dry bulk commodity demand growth of around 4%-5% in 2021, against estimated fleet growth of 2%, provides optimism that rates will rise after the downturn that started in 2016.

China was the key driver of dry bulk trade in 2020, largely due to it mass infrastructure spending, and is the only major economy expected to record GDP growth this year. However, with the expectation that other economies will return to growth in 2021, there is hope that latent demand will ping back.

For the tankers sector, as with the rest of society, they are largely pinning their hopes on the mass rollout of the Covid-19 vaccines to stimulate demand for seaborne oil and refined products.

The incredible highs and lows of 2020 translated to record tanker rates and record profits, quickly followed by desperately poor earnings — some touching 11-year lows.

Over the final quarter of 2020, rates on most routes equated to sums that barely covered operating expenses, as the coronavirus pandemic’s second wave again dented oil demand and slowed the pace of recovery. No significant rebound in tanker earnings is expected until late into 2021.

The market for seaborne liquefied natural gas similarly saw demand disruption and historic lows in spot trades this year but began to pick up again in the second half of the year. US LNG exports are expected to beat the odds and record a 30% increase year-on-year, but an expected 9% growth in the global fleet next year may dampen the optimism.

But as Lloyd’s List editor Richard Meade points out, for all the troubles that shipping has had to endure in 2020, the real paradigm shift is yet to come and will be even more disruptive to the industry.

While low orderbooks, capacity management and tight controls on spending have helped the sector weather the storm over the past 12 months, mid-term challenges such as decarbonisation deadlines and the path to digitalisation will be at the forefront of strategic planning next year and for many years to come.

As a recent Lloyd’s List/Inmarsat report demonstrated, the pandemic has accelerated the shift towards digitalisation, and the benefits are becoming clearer, but challenges remain such as concerns over cyber attacks, a lack of data standardisation and worries that the investment may not deliver value for money.

Meanwhile, by this time next year, the European Commission will have unveiled exactly how it wants to regulate shipping emissions, while the International Maritime Organization may have begun its own debate on market-based measures.

This turn of events could deliver a significant shift in shipping’s path to a decarbonised future, with regionalisation in policy becoming a fact of life.

So while a repeat of 2020 is extremely unlikely in terms of the unprecedented nature, it may act as a precursor of what is to come in terms of how shipping needs to be both flexible and strategic in addressing the bigger challenges not so far down the road.

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