About The Uncontained
In 2019, AJOT’s coverage of breakbulk, energy and projects was a global undertaking with reports being filed from locations like northern China, Europe, and Australia as well as stories from closer to home in various parts of Canada and the US. Of course, there is also the day-to-day business of moving commodities like steel, aluminum and forest products that keeps ships moving - often to ports other than the mega-containerport destinations. It is the “uncontained” shipments that draw a lifetime allegiance of purveyors of the business. As one MPV (Multi Purpose Vessel) analyst bluntly said as an aside, “Boxes are boring.”
From a purely “breakbulk” perspective, steel and steel making dominate the commodity moves, whether that is iron ore, scrap or finished and semi-finished goods. And the steel industry is heavily influenced by China - both the movements of inbound raw materials and outbound steel goods. For that reason, the ongoing Sino-US tariff war has had a dampening effect on trade, as outlined in Peter Buxbaum’s various articles on the steel industry. The aluminum business has been impacted greatly in North America as it is closely linked to the auto industry - another downstream issue of the US-China dispute.
Forest products are also a big breakbulk product, especially moving out of the North American Pacific Northwest. Canadian correspondent Leo Ryan’s covered the topic for over twenty years and brings a perspective from north of the border that highlights the issues not only with China trade but the USMCA (US-Mexico-Canada) debate as well.
Perhaps the commodity most influenced by international events is the soybean. Early in the trade dispute, Beijing targeted US agricultural exports - and soybeans are the largest export agricultural commodity - in retaliation for tariffs on their own exports to the US. Soybeans thus became a mainstay of the breakbulk editions in 2019 and will likely remain so until the tariff wrangle is resolved.
The “project” side of the breakbulk business is perhaps the most fascinating. Specialized vessels loaded with oversized freight like wind turbine parts, massive generators, oil and gas industry loads and even gantry cranes for container ports are awe inspiring to see.
Wind power represented a big part of the 2019 coverage. Whether it was shipments to Canada’s wind farms in the western provinces or the emerging offshore market in the Northeastern US, it is clear wind power is rising unabated. AJOT business & finance correspondent Matt Miller has covered the subject on both sides of the Atlantic with an in-depth view of the fledgling offshore business in the Northeast US and the mature wind power industry in the Netherlands - a close look at what the US might become over the next two decades.
Another major segment of the power segment of the project business is LNG (liquefied natural gas). LNG exports from the US are increasing as more “export” facilities come online - particularly in the US Gulf region. But it is a global phenomenon. Peter Buxbaum’s “The natural-gas economy” is a sneak peek into the application of a transforming technology that’s likely to reshape energy product moves over the next two decades.
What will 2020 be like for a business that must be at once attuned to the day-to-day but with an eye to projects that frequently take decades to bring into reality? Our (albeit cautious) guess is a resurgence of business as trade issues ease and project money and regulatory reforms release projects that have been in stasis - but with apologies to the Bard, the future is indeed the undiscovered country.