Global Ports Vulnerable to Coronavirus-Related Volume Declines


Thursday, February 13, 2020   /02:17 PM  / By Fitch Ratings / Header Image Credit: The National


Global ports will see reduced trade volumes as a result of the coronavirus, COVID-19, which would become more severe should Chinese production take time to recover to pre-epidemic levels, says Fitch Ratings. Decreased production in China because of the extended work holiday and factory closures will affect import and export volumes in first-quarter 2020 but diversified revenue streams and long-term contracts help shield most US, EMEA and LATAM port revenues from significant trade volatility. However, some rated APAC ports will be affected if the slowdown in trade is prolonged.


China's trade volumes have grown significantly since 2000 in tandem with China's expanding role in the world economy. If more companies suspend Chinese operations or withdraw from production in China, shipping volume may take longer to recover. A sustained dip in volumes could pressure ports with a large exposure to China cargo and would constrain throughput growth compared with expectations prior to the outbreak.


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Reduced trade due to the virus exacerbates the effects of the 2018-2019 trade barriers on US West Coast port volumes in particular. US-China trade levels were expected to pick up somewhat with Phase One of the US-China trade deal set to go into effect on Feb. 15 but this rebound may take longer to take hold because of the virus-related production slowdown.


Most European and Middle Eastern ports have significant exposure to China through the global supply chain and port revenues will be stressed if volumes remain depressed through March or beyond. Some EU manufacturing sectors are dependent upon the Chinese market. Middle East export volumes will be hurt by significant declines in Chinese demand for oil. Balance sheet flexibility and the ability to defer capex should help ports manage through short-term volume declines. Ports with additional congestion such as shipping boxes piling up could potentially charge more for storage and handling, which could be a partial offsetting factor for lost revenue.


In some cases, ports' long-term guaranteed contracts or lease agreements with most tenants provide a revenue floor, which helps to insulate port revenue from trade-related volume volatility. This is the case for the more exposed US West Coast ports, where minimum annual guarantees cover 70% plus of operating revenue, and the Port of Melbourne in Australia, where one-third of revenue is independent of shipping volumes.


Fitch-rated Australian coal export terminals will see a volume impact from prolonged slowdown in industrial activity in China. However, the revenues of these export terminals are largely independent of throughput due to the use-or-pay nature of their contracts with the coal mines. Indonesian coal terminals, however, will be hit as Indonesia exports about one-quarter of its coal to China. Throughput at other Indonesian ports will also be affected as China is the country's top trading partner. India, on the other hand, has less trade exposure to China than Indonesia, and Indian port operators are better placed to absorb a reduction in trade.


Ports have established screening procedures related to virus containment, which may delay or discourage cruise ship traffic in particular. Most of Fitch's rated ports are predominantly cargo-focused, limiting the direct effects of cruise sector quarantines and related measures. Restrictions in the cruise sector will have limited revenue effects at cargo-dominated ports, although ports handling a higher share of cruise business may see a dip in passenger revenue as negative traveller sentiment limits cruise demand.


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