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Marvel's Iron Man, as depicted in the 2008 film, features industrialist and genius inventor Tony Stark creating a powered suit, later perfecting its design and fighting evil. While it was a gold titanium alloy rather than iron which was used to make the futuristic armour, iron-based materials such as steel are used incredibly widely in the world's industries today, with clear implications for shipping too.
Steel At The Heart
The strength of Iron Man's suit was what helped turn Tony Stark into a superhero. The versatility and strength of steel has made it today's most important construction material, with 1.6 billion tonnes of steel produced last year. Over recent decades, steel became one of shipping's superheroes, with the unprecedented growth in Chinese steel production leading to a doubling of global steel output between 2000 and 2014, and helping to underpin the biggest shipping market boom in history. Growth in China's raw material demand was explosive, and by 2014, global seaborne iron ore and coking coal trade totalled 1.6 billion tonnes, one seventh of total seaborne trade.
A Dangerous Weapon
But even superheroes have weaknesses, and reaching new heights was problematic for Iron Man, when the build-up of ice on his suit at high altitudes brought him back down to earth with a bump. A distinct chill in the air has recently surrounded the steel industry too. Slower economic growth in China, which uses half of the world's steel, led Chinese steel consumption to drop 5% in 2015, undermining steel prices. Difficult economic conditions elsewhere also limited steel use, with consumption in Latin America and the Middle East declining 7% and 1% respectively last year, and overall, global steel output fell 3%. Weaker demand for steelmaking materials was a key driver of the fall in seaborne dry bulk trade in 2015, despite a 20% surge in Chinese steel exports. The steel market remains challenging with world consumption expected to fall again in 2016, and dry bulk trade still lacks the power to boost the bulker markets back into higher altitudes.
In Need Of A Shield
Of course, steel also impacts the supply side of the shipping industry. In Iron Man's final showdown with the 'Iron Monger', in the end it all comes down to a good design and precise timing, concepts close to any shipowner's heart. As the very fabric of the ships themselves, steel is a key cost for shipbuilders, but volatile prices have just as big an impact at the older end of the market. With continued exports of surplus steel from China maintaining pressure on steel prices, there is limited light at the end of the tunnel for owners scrapping ships in difficult market conditions for values around 50% lower than just two years ago.
So there you have it. An Iron Man with a will of iron can save the world, whilst steel can bring the world's shipowners fortune and challenges in equal measure. Steel may no longer be the superhero of seaborne trade growth, but it is still the glue that quite literally holds the shipping industry together and keeps 11 billion tonnes a year of cargo afloat. Now that's a superhuman effort. Have a nice day!