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    Trade growth in 2013 to improve, but remain subdued

    Maersk Line South Africa, a subsidiary of the world's largest container shipping company, forsees a moderate trade growth for the country in 2013 after a challenging 2012, this despite significant socio-economic challenges in the local market, including the impact of industrial action in the mining and agricultural sectors during the second half of last year, and a decline in consumer spending on the back of rising fuel, transportation, electricity and food costs.
    Trade growth in 2013 to improve, but remain subdued

    The 2012 financial year was definitely a tale of two halves. While the first half of the year was firm - showing growth in demand for containers for both imports and exports - the second half brought flat performance in the import sector and a decline of 3% to 4% in the country's total containerised exports.

    This trade report follows on the back of the Maersk Group 2012 results, which showed an improved profit of USD461 million after the losses posted in 2011, while South African operations are anticipating mid-single-digit growth in both the import and export sectors in 2013.

    A classic efficiency and cost-containment strategy

    On a macro level, intense competition fuelled by an oversupply of capacity had a strong influence on global freight rates and, thus, revenues. Maersk responded to these with a classic efficiency and cost-containment strategy; managing capacity carefully, reducing unit costs by 1.7% in 2012, improving volumes by 5% and increasing rates by 1.9%. This approach ensured that, while the return on invested capital for the year remained low at 2.4%, cash flow from operating activity was improved at USD1.8 billion.

    At home, the mining sector strikes in the autumn and winter of 2012 combined with a decline in commodity prices (chrome in particular) and a slowdown in commodity demand in the Far East had an effect on the export markets. From an imports perspective, increases in CPI, largely fuelled by the well-publicised hikes in food, transportation (fuel) and energy (electricity) costs, have had a direct impact on levels of disposable income and, thus, consumption. The weakening of the exchange rate in the second half of 2012 has also started to impact on imports due to increasing cost of imported items, although the full impact of this is likely to be felt in 2013.

    A strong resurgence for containerised commodity exports

    Commodities make up approximately 35% of South Africa's containerised exports and in the third quarter of the year, mining production decreased by 13% compared to the same period in 2011. Further, exports usually improve as the rand gets cheaper, although this does take a while for the full impact to be felt, but last year it was a decline in demand for commodities that was largely responsible for pushing down containerised export levels. Positively, though, containerised commodity exports have showed a strong resurgence from December.

    As severe an effect as this had on the country's export revenues, positive developments on other fronts are beginning to counterbalance the negative trend. For example, China's GDP is expected to grow by 7% to 8% this year, which is likely to continue to drive demand for commodities. Supply disruptions due to industrial action in this critical sector of the South African economy can hopefully be kept to a minimum.

    If the rand remains at around ZAR8.50 to the US dollar, this could represent a boost for exports. Historically, South African exports have tended to increase with the weakening of the rand (typically after a short period in which exporters gear up their operations to cater for demand). It could, in fact, see total containerised exports trade growth reaching into the high single digits during the course of the year.

    We're less optimistic about Europe, though, with GDP decline in Q4, as well as retail sales and industrial production continuing to decline, but we do see encouraging signs in the US with consumer sentiment improving. The recovery in the housing market, increased hiring and expectations of manufacturing production increases indicate that the economy is hopefully warming up after the financial crisis of 2008 and the deep recession that followed.

    Unfortunately, while the situation looks brighter for exports, the same can't be said for imports.

    The flat trend in the second half of 2012 bucked all trends, as this is usually the time when retailers begin stocking up for the festive season. South Africa's import container market is driven largely by consumer demand for finished goods and, if this dips, the impact on imports is quickly felt.

    Consumers have to tighten their belts

    While inflation remains relatively low at 5.4%, consumers nevertheless have to tighten their belts as prices of essential goods and services rise. Together with a tepid GDP growth forecast of 2.6% for 2013, this means that the year is likely to be another tough one for consumers, and that demand for imports is likely to remain below par. This could, however, be offset by a certain level of restocking if interest rates remain low.

    We nevertheless feel that the South African market will remain competitive on the whole. With respectable growth expected in 2013, it's a case of "steady as she goes" for the local container industry.

    About Jonathan Horn and Matthew Conroy

    Jonathan Horn is the MD and Matthew Conroy trade and marketing manager of Maersk Line South Africa.
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