One evening five years ago, an American Public Radio programme came on RTE Choice. Susan Lee, an economist, explained the significance of something called the Baltic Dry Index. It was hardly earth shattering stuff, or was it?
What was the Baltic Dry Index about? Ms Lee explained:
Essentially the Baltic Dry tracks the average daily price for shipping dry bulk like coal, iron ore, wheat and soybeans. There are three things that make it such a good leading indicator. One, the index looks at raw materials, so it captures activity at the very beginning of the production process. Two, it looks at ocean shipping, so it reveals what’s happening to international trade — the critical driver of global growth. And, three, the shipping business depends heavily on credit, so the Baltic Dry indicates whether credit is tight or loose.
If you were looking for the first signs of a turnaround in the fortunes of the world, then they should have come with the Baltic Dry Index. It’s not a market for speculators; you can’t order a ship to take goods from one corner of the world to the other in the hope that the following day you can sell the hire on to someone else to turn a quick profit. Ships are not like numbers on a computer or pieces of paper; they are very tangible, very costly, and very slow and steady in their progress.
The Baltic Dry Index fell calamitously at the end of 2008, losing something like 95% of its value as it dived from a high of 11,793 to below 700. But by March 2009, as a Bloomberg chart at the time showed, it had trebled since its low point:
Could it have been the beginning of a change in the fortunes of the world? Or was that just an irrational hope?
Turn the clock forward three years, to the beginning of 2012, and the Baltic Dry Shipping charts looked altogether more pessimistic. There were peaks in 2009, but it had slipped into a second dip:
If orders placed for shipping to carry goods around the world are a barometer of the state of the economy, and by implication, a forecaster of how much money we have in our pockets, then things were looking icily cold.
As 2014 begins, the record highs in the stock markets seem to rest on more than just investors seeking returns more attractive than those available from government bonds, the Baltic indices suggest real expenditure on real ships carrying real goods.
The realities behind the charts and numbers can easily disappear. The realities are about whether people losing have jobs, about whether families have homes, about whether hospital beds are available, about whether school budgets are adequate. And, for the people at the sharp end of our world, the state of the economy is about survival, about whether or not you have enough to pay for medicine, or school, or, even, food. One hopes 2014 will bring a warm mood in the Baltic Exchange, but there has to be a better way of running the world.