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The throughput of the top 10 Chinese container ports increased by 6.1% in 2013, compared with the previous year, to reach 146.8m teu. Shanghai comfortably held its top-ranked status processing 33.6m teu, representing growth of 3.3%, followed by Singapore, up 2.9% at 32.6m teu.

Generally last year, growth across Asian ports was healthy, particularly in South Korea where a year-on-year increase of 3.9% saw throughput rise to 23.4m teu.

However, at the other end of the world’s busiest tradelane, the northern range ports of Europe saw growth flatten in 2013 – the cumulative total throughput for the Le Havre-Hamburg range was 39.8m teu, against 39.9m the year before.

Indeed, the largest port in the range and a major hub for transhipment, Rotterdam, saw throughput decline 2%  to 11.7m teu.

Port of Rotterdam chief executive officer Hans Smits, commenting on the disappointing container figures, said the main reason for the lack of growth last year was “the continuing economic slump”; but according to Global Port Tracker’s Ben Hackett it had more to do with consumers hesitating to open their purses against a backcloth of mixed economic signals.

So, faced with a lacklustre European market and an increase in EU protectionism-induced hikes in import tariffs, Chinese exporters looked for and found new markets to compensate: in ASEAN countries, Russia, South Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.

However, the sustainability of these emerging markets has been the subject of much angst in global stock markets since the turn of the year, with for example European bourses carrying over an average 7% loss into February, and the chat on trading desks focusing on the possibility of a “10% correction in the first quarter”.

Ironically this “emerging market crisis” has been fuelled by events in the world’s two biggest economies, the US and China. In the US, the announced scaling back of its quantitative easing economic stimulus programme, and in the latter a surprise dip in the official Purchasing Managers’ Index – a barometer of China’s economic health.

Emerging markets, particularly in Latin America, depend heavily on investment from the likes of China and the US, and the markets have reacted to the negative implications of a scaling back by the two economic super powers.

After a good 2013 for global stocks and a raft of encouraging economic indicators in Europe, the outlook for 2014 was positive prior to the emerging market jitters, indeed in December’s Global Port Tracker for north Europe, Ben Hackett’s editorial was upbeat. He wrote: “Our projection for 2014 remains positive and we continue to forecast a recovery in the first six months of the year after weak growth in the past six months.”

How much further stock markets will fall is more difficult to predict than if, and for how long, ocean carriers can maintain general rate increases, but there is no doubt that the two will be linked and will depend on the return of positive sentiment.

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