crystal ball 2018 © Shutter999
© Shutter999

While some of last year’s heat seems to have evaporated from the air freight market, it retains growth and demand is edging up again after a soft March.

Freight tonne kilometres showed demand rose 4.1%, year on year, in April, a recovery from the 1.8% growth seen the previous month.

Capacity outstripped supply, however, with available freight tonne kilometres growing 5.1% year on year, only the second time it has done so in 21 months.

Freightos reported yesterday that air freight rates remained stable for the tenth straight week, with rates between $2.90 and $5 for China-US; $2.80-$4.50 for China-Europe; and $1.80-$2.70 for Europe-US.

Drewry’s East West Airfreight Price Index, however, reported that rates overall rose 5% in April thanks to high demand on transpacific eastbound routes.

The figures were published as Air Charter Service reported record-breaking first-quarter cargo numbers, which included a 33% rise in charters and turnover up 12% to £41.5m ($56.4m).

“When you bear in mind that 2017 was our record year across all divisions and exceeded even our wildest expectations, the growth shown so far this year is even more remarkable,” said Dan Morgan-Evans, group cargo director.

“The other thing to note is that February to April is the quietest quarter for much of the industry, with cargo charters often half their autumn and winter peaks.”

IATA, which tends to be the most bearish of the data providers, warned that despite better April figures, “the forecast appears to have increasing downside potential”, although it remains “cautiously optimistic that demand will grow in the region of 4% this year”.

It said the end of the restocking cycle and a softening of global trade had begun to affect demand. It also noted that the Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) for manufacturing and export orders fell last month to its lowest level since 2016.

But there are other issues which may affect trade and fuel prices could have a big impact. Jet fuel is 44.6% higher than a year ago and carriers are increasing surcharges. This is particularly noticeable in sea freight, where lines are imposing emergency bunker charges of up to 45% on some lanes.

Then there is the US, where President Trump yesterday “flip-flopped” (according to China), saying the US would push ahead with tariffs on $50bn of Chinese imports, with the people’s republic saying it would respond accordingly.

The list of goods to be targeted by the US will be released on June 15, with tariffs imposed shortly afterwards. But Robin Xing, chief China economist at Morgan Stanley, tells Bloomberg he thinks negotiations will continue.

“The two parties can reach a deal by China increasing imports. De-escalation over time through negotiation remains our base case, because we see areas where China and the US can find some middle ground to make some mutually beneficial progress – for example, to meet China’s own demand for upgrading consumption.”

Nevertheless, bodies such as the IMF warn that trade wars can destabilise growth, and IATA director general Alexandre de Juniac noted that the rise of protectionist rhetoric could harm economic growth: “We are all disadvantaged when [borders] are closed.”

And with air freight rates between May and June historically difficult to forecast – as likely to go up as down – there is little to reassure shippers of an easily predictable future.

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