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Bulk Carriers Fleet Growth: A Decade in Review and 2025 Outlook

Bulk Carriers Fleet Growth: A Decade in Review and 2025 Outlook

Dry Bulk is the largest sector of the maritime industry and impacts almost every aspect of the economy. The bulk carriers’ fleet has undergone significant transformations over the past decade. The period from 2013 to 2023 witnessed advancements in shipbuilding technology, shifts in trade patterns, and varying environmental regulations. Over the past decade, the fleet has experienced significant growth in terms of deadweight tonnage (DWT) capacity, driven by increased demand for raw materials, technological advancements, and evolving trade patterns. This article explores the growth of the fleet over the last ten years and provides an outlook for 2025.

Fleet growth in the last decade

From 2013 to 2023, the global bulk carrier fleet saw a substantial increase in DWT capacity. Key drivers of this growth included the expansion of major economies like China and India, which significantly boosted the demand for bulk commodities. The following points highlight the main trends over this period:

Economic Growth and Demand for Commodities: Rapid industrialization in emerging economies, particularly China and India, fuelled the demand for Dry Bulk commodities. This, in turn, drove the need for larger and more numerous bulk carriers. The Belt and Road Initiative and other infrastructure projects spurred the demand for vessels, as countries involved in these projects required large quantities of raw materials.

Technological Advancements: Improvements in shipbuilding technologies led to the construction of more efficient and larger vessels, contributing to the overall increase in DWT capacity. The evolution of Very Large Ore Carriers (VLOCs) and Newcastlemax dry bulkers, with DWT capacities exceeding 200,000 metric tonnes, made these types more common. The constant growth of the so-called Ultramax bulk carriers fleet over the last ten years illustrates this trend very well. On average, these vessels are only 10 meters longer than the Supramax but have upwards of 12% more cargo capacity. Naturally, this translates to more cargo per voyage, greater operational efficiency, and reduced cost per freight unit.

The shift towards eco-friendly designs also played a role, with many new ships being built to meet stringent environmental regulations. Many older vessels were retired and replaced with newer, more fuel-efficient ones. This modernization was driven by a combination of regulatory pressures and the need to reduce operating costs.

Market Dynamics: Fluctuations in commodity prices, changes in global trade policies, and economic cycles influenced the bulk carrier market. For instance, the downturn in commodity prices in 2015-2016 temporarily slowed fleet growth, which registered a level of only 1% in 2017, but the subsequent recovery revitalized it. Similarly, the COVID-19 pandemic, the uncertainty about the future, the strict lockdown policies in China and the physical difficulties in realizing new orders ultimately halved the fleet growth in 2021 and 2022 compared to the preceding two years.

By the end of 2023, the global bulk carrier fleet (including vessels larger than 25,000 MT of DWT) had reached capacity of over 980 million DWT, reflecting a robust growth trajectory from 730 million DWT in 2013. The total capacity of the fleet increased by over 34% compared to 2013. With an estimated growth of 2.7%, 2024 is the year the global fleet is expected to reach 1 billion DWT.

Outlook for 2025

The outlook is shaped by several factors, including ongoing economic developments, technological innovations, and regulatory changes:

Sustained Demand for Raw Materials: Emerging markets are expected to continue driving demand for bulk carriers. Urbanization and industrialization in regions such as Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America will likely sustain high levels of bulk commodity imports.

Technological and Environmental Regulations: Stricter environmental regulations, such as the IMO’s 2020 sulphur cap and upcoming decarbonization targets, would push the industry towards more sustainable practices. This may result in further fleet modernization and the adoption of alternative fuels and advanced propulsion technologies.

Sailing Speed and Climate regulations: With the introduction of climate regulations, the sailing speed is decreasing, and this trend is expected to continue in 2024 and 2025. In fact, for the fourth year in a row, we are recording a constant decline in the average speed of the global bulk carrier fleet. 2024 is so far the lowest of the past 4 years, for all sizes, and for both laden and ballast voyages. Logically, reduced sailing speed increases the average voyage duration and therefore more ships are needed to do the same amount of work since the available ships are slower. This factor also has an impact on the supply growth estimated at around 1% or slightly more.

Geopolitical and Economic Factors: Trade policies, geopolitical tensions, and economic conditions will continue to influence the bulk carrier market. For instance, shifts in trade agreements or tariffs could impact trade flows and demand for bulk transport.

By the end of the year, the global bulk carrier fleet (ships over 25,000 Dwt) is projected to exceed 1bn DWT, marking continued growth, albeit at a slightly moderated pace compared to the previous decade. The industry's focus will likely be on achieving a balance between capacity expansion and sustainability. 2025 is also expected to see a similar increase, although smaller than the previous year.

In closing

The last decade has seen significant growth in the bulk carrier fleet's DWT capacity, driven by global economic expansion and technological advancements. Looking ahead to 2025, the industry is poised for further growth, with a strong emphasis on sustainability and innovation. As the world continues to evolve, the bulk carrier market will adapt to meet the changing demands of global trade, ensuring its vital role in the international supply chain.


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