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Moving a container 150km by lorry from Birmingham to Southampton costs the same as moving the same container 10,000km by sea from Southampton to Beijing. It is cheaper to transport melons from Istanbul to Naples than to drive melons from a village up in the Italian mountains, to the same market.

This overwhelmingly huge difference in freight costs will be one of the single greatest drivers of future global trade, despite increased energy costs. It is the primary reason why global trade has grown at twice the rate of global production over the last 30 years.

Look out for trade growth in Latin America and Africa – both of which have huge manufacturing potential close to the sea. Areas with major container ports will on average grow up to 40% faster over the next three decades than cities, regions or nations that are landlocked.

Expect over $28 trillion a year of global trade by 2030, up from more than $18 trillion in 2019. Global trade will continue to grow around 25-35% faster on average than the entire global economy. For two decades, the use of shipping containers grew twice as fast as international trade, as companies seized the opportunity to be more efficient. But the container revolution is now complete, and so the growth difference will ease.

Regional trade will grow – and global trade will slow

Ten years ago, many global manufacturers were stampeding to move factories to China and other parts of Asia to save costs, while banks were shifting call centres and IT support to India. Several years ago I predicted that outsourcing would go into reverse, which has happened. Asia is becoming more expensive. Long supply chains are easily disrupted. Cultural gaps, tariff barriers and varying exchange rates can be troublesome. Local demand in Asia is growing.

So we will see more clusters of regional suppliers, delivering components to make products to be sold in the same area. That is why ‘south to south’ trade will grow significantly (e.g. India to Brazil, China to Malaysia, or South Africa to Tokyo). Such trade doubled from 12 to 24% of global trade from 2000 to 2011, and will increase to more than 40% by 2030. Half of all trade in Asia is already within the region.

A significant amount of offshoring is already being replaced by nearshoring or reshoring of manufacturing – ‘jobs moving back home’. Jobs are also moving around Asia. So Intel has built a new $1bn chip factory in Vietnam, just a few miles from the border with China where labour is twice as expensive. Samsung witched almost all manufacturing of electronic goods out of South Korea to many other lower-cost locations within Asia.

How to save money on logistics

It is a scandal that 30% of trucks on the road in the EU are empty, transporting just air over 150 million kilometres a year. Tens of thousands of journeys a year are wasted carrying identical end products, components or raw materials in opposite directions from different producers, factories, warehouses – literally passing each other on motorways. Expect new websites to sort out waste, and become money-spinners.

We will also see great efforts to speed up shipping. Automated cranes can already unload a giant container ship and reload it in 24 hours, re-sorting containers on the dockside as the Post Office sorts letters and parcels.

Every day counts. An average delay of a week on the shipping time can mean a loss of up to 25% of trade. It is often 20% more expensive to trade with a low-income country than a middle-income country, because of lack of infrastructure, red tape, slow customs, form-filling and maybe pressures for bribes to keep goods moving.

Paperwork and customs delays still account for over 10% of all shipping costs in many countries. We will see huge efforts by the World Trade Organisation and governments to solve this with secure electronic bills of lading and other freight records, together with wider use of electronic tags on every item.  

Expect experiments with Blockchain and other secure ledgers to make this more efficient and safe. However Blockchain is still a very expensive and inefficient process from the energy point of view.

Many emerging economies will also invest in combined rail, road and port facilities. Mexico has spent over $220bn on such a super-hub in the past eight years.


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