Intra-Asian cargo trade movements slowed to about 5.4 million teu (20 ft equivalent units) last year, from 5.7 million teu in 1997, as a result of the regional financial crisis, a UN report says. The annual report on maritime transport by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (Unctad) said the average age of ships flying the flags of developing Asian countries had deteriorated to 19 years, compared with 17.4 years for the world fleet. This showed the 'continued qualitative deficiencies' in fleets of many developing countries. 'Regional ownership patterns remain problematic and unbalanced, with ownership concentrated in Asian developing countries,' it said. 'They own 13.9 per cent of the world tonnage - or 71.8 per cent of the developing country group's fleet.' The world merchant fleet expanded to 775.9 million deadweight tonnes (dwt) by the end of 1997, while the fleet of the developing block expanded to 149.9 million dwt, or 19.3 per cent of the world fleet. The increases were mainly in general-cargo ships, where their share increased to 26.9 per cent. World seaborne trade grew 2.2 per cent last year - the lowest since 1987 - compared with 4.1 per cent for 1997. But trade still grew faster than tonnage, leading to improved operational productivity of the world fleet. East-west trade and transport services had been affected greatly by an economic slowdown since the final quarter of 1995, and by financial crises in Asia since 1997. In liner trades especially, Asian imports in the trans-Pacific trade and European trade declined last year. 'On the other hand, their exports to Europe and North America continue to expand, reflecting sustainable competitiveness, largely due to the devaluation of the currencies of the major exporting countries,' it said. The imbalance in cargo movements between the eastbound and the westbound trade routes would put additional cost pressure on carriers in the Asian trades. The share of freight costs in import values of developing countries decreased from 8.3 per cent in 1995 to 8.06 per cent in 1996. Asia's freight factor in 1996 was 7.97 per cent. The factor for South Korea was 5.22 per cent, and Singapore 5.58 per cent - both relatively low - while Malaysia's factor reached 9.36 per cent, and Thailand's rose as high as 9.60 per cent. India and Indonesia faced the highest charges, with factors of 10.32 per cent and 10.55 per cent.