By Leo Ryan, AJOTIn the global environment of sluggish economic growth and turmoil on financial markets, leading ports in eastern Canada are striving hard not to lose valuable cargo business in the container and bulk sectors. Some are, so far, succeeding better than others, as demand diminishes for Canadian raw materials while container shipping’s major reversal of trends is spreading to the trans-Atlantic trades. Not encouraging for 2009 is the fact that room has apparently run out for expansion of Canadian exports following only marginal growth this year. The federal agency, Export Development Canada (EDC), sees no increase in the value of Canadian exports in 2009 following just a one per cent rise in 2008. “The considerable excesses of the boom years, including lending, housing, and commodities, will take considerable time to work off,” says EDC Chief Economist Peter Hall. He does not expect significant recovery to take place before 2010, at the earliest. The EDC anticipates that Europe and the United States – the biggest markets for Canadian exports – will record barely one per cent economic growth in 2009. The Canadian economy itself is moving at a slightly stronger pace, with possible growth of 1.5% in 2009, thanks in part to still relatively solid export demand for agri-food products and fertilizer. MONTREAL CONTAINER GROWTH Maritime trade with Europe accounts for the bulk of Montreal’s container traffic, whose growth in the first nine months of this year outperformed its rivals on North America’s East Coast. The Port of Montreal recently announced a nearly 10% growth in containerized cargo for the January-thru-September period versus a year earlier. The port’s container volume for the period added up to 1.1 million TEUs. “This confirms the Port of Montreal’s position as leader, in terms of growth, compared to its competitors on the North American East Coast, four of seven of which even posted declines,” commented Patrice Pelletier, President and CEO of the Montreal Port Authority (MPA). Canada’s second biggest container port after Port Metro Vancouver regards New York/NJ, Hampton Roads, Baltimore, Charleston and Savannah as its chief rivals for the North Atlantic trade. Close to 60% of Montreal’s box traffic is generated by shipments to and from the US Midwest and Northeast. Port officials have also identified potential more container business from Europe and Asia via a Caribbean transshipment hub. “We deal in a mature market and our North Atlantic business has been holding steady,” Kevin Doherty, President of Montreal Gateway Terminals Partnership, which is the largest container operator, with two terminals (Racine and Cast). “Our tonnage is up 2.5% so far this year, and we anticipate moderate growth in 2009,” Doherty told AJOT. For 2008 as a whole, industry observers consider that Montreal’s container growth could approach the high single-digits, but 2009 will likely be not as impressive as various negative shipping and economic factors firm up. Looking to the long-term future, Pelletier earlier this year outlined an ambitious expansion plan that would triple Montreal’s container-handling capacity to 4.5 million TEUs by 2020. Between 2008 and 2020, the port plans to invest C$2.5 billion, with the lion’s share going to the container sector. The latter will include building a big box terminal at Contrecoeur, downstream on the St. Lawrence River. With world container growth, since the early 1990s, constantly surpassing global GDP growth, Pelletier stresses that Montreal must position itself to take advantage of forecast average annual global box growth of nearly seven percent in the years ahead. Earlier this fall, Pelletier expressed confidence that the uncertainty on financial markets will not undermine the port’s funding resources. The sums borrowed, he said, will be invested in port infrastructures, assets with a long life, and financed on a long-term basis – “consequently little exposed to short-term market fluctuations.”