Independent journal on economy and transport policy
Levelling the seas
Shipping has always cultivated its distance from
other industries, no doubt due to the fact that it ignored national
frontiers even before the present lines were drawn on the map. Ships
have always conjured up the sense of adventure, risk, possibilities of
rapid fortune and conquests in every sort of commerce.
At the dawn of the third millennium, the world of
shipping is seeking a proper recognition and appreciation for its
fundamental role in the development of international trade. No longer a
domain unto itself, the sector is in the midst of a sea of change, in an
age when marine transport is under the ever-increasing pressures of the
media, public opinion, international organisations, national and
international policy makers. The commercial environment, in fact, is
creating new pressures, compelling evolution through mergers and
consolidations and integrating the shipping industry ever more closely
with other sectors worldwide.
Our Western society has reached zero tolerance for
ecological accidents, and while one has the right to complain that an oil
soaked seabird gets more media exposure than a list of third-world
seafarers who perishes at sea, the fact remains that companies
transporting, or just simply owning, possible polluting cargoes, must
develop a "crisis management" plan and keep it on the desktop,
ready for deployment. Communication skills must be learned by the shippers
and owners of possible pollutants if they want to manage perceptions and
protect their commercial image.
The debate on safety and the prevention of accidents
has led to a fundamental change in the attitudes of operators. This
discussion is no longer between a few shipowners and isolated policy
makers. Safety is now a major concern shared by the entire maritime
Politicians, always prompt to react to public opinion,
have been quick to introduce both in France and throughout the European
Union a raft of legislation along with increased controls in European
ports. The maritime industry is now compelled to participate, and take
care that as professionals they maintain an active role in preventing
short term solutions crafted by politicians seeking the favour of public
opinion, or remedies based on unproven technology.
The imposition of double-hulled vessels is a perfect
example of an uncertain technological solution. There is still lively
debate on whether or not double-hulls makes the transportation of
petroleum products any safer. Owners, managers, classification societies
as well as port state control, will all have to pay particular attention
as these double-hulled tankers advance in age.
In any event the advanced elimination of single-hulled
tankers will at least contribute to the modernisation of the global tanker
fleet, and can only have a positive impact on safety over the short and
The idea of "unfair" competition surfaced
during the year in the shipbuilding sector. The question was raised by the
European Commission at the request of some EU nations. In contrast to the
situation of the early nineties when European shipbuilding was in the
midst of massive restructuring and downsizing, today's complaints come
at a time of success, due in part to a competitive euro exchange rate but
primarily as a result of the rationalised management achieving greater
productivity by shipyards coupled with an increased specialisation on
higher value niche markets.
Up to now the Commission's investigations are far
from complete, but irrespective of the ultimate results one can question
the appropriateness of this action launched by an industry which itself
was well supported by generous subsidies over many years. It has been
observed by some, that the complaints of "unfair" competition
are motivated simply as a late reaction to the European Union finally
ending shipbuilding subsidies. The cries of "unfair" are
reminiscent of the ex-smokers who become the strongest critics of those
who still puff.
A major factor in the distortion of competition between
the European shipbuilders and their Korean counterparts is to be found in
the violent swings in exchange rates, a factor originating well beyond the
realms of shipbuilding, but which merits a useful remedy being sought.
Bear in mind that it was not long ago that currency devaluation was part
of the industrial competition policy of some European nations. Unilateral
devaluation helped certain European shipyards fill their orderbooks at one
time or another. Without a doubt there are other factors, not always
transparent, that have equally contributed to the emergence of Korea as a
strong competitor. But is European shipbuilding industry in a position to
preach a liberal attitude and entitled to rail against the possible
support given to others, after years of being subsidised itself ?
The challenges of the "new economy" have not
left the world of shipping unscathed. After overcoming an initial streak
of conservative scepticism, the maritime industry quickly adapted the
Internet's new tools, with entrepreneurs emerging from the ranks of
owners, brokers, bankers and charterers to contribute finance, innovation
and demand for developing new systems. The initial vacuum was quickly
filled by a wide variety of "federated sites" and other
"market platforms". The unbridled enthusiasm that existed even
up to few months ago has now given way to more calculated considerations,
showing that the principles of the old economy have not been forgotten by
the financial markets.
The question remains as to which economic model should
be established for the electronic commerce of the maritime industry, a
part of which is certainly destined to be conducted "virtually"
over the "net". Will we see one immense exchange open to all
where the majority of transactions take place, or a series of boutiques
run by select or established cliques ? What will be the resistance from
existing special interests, and who will add value, when and why ? The
coming year may not bring answers to all these questions, but the
continued survival of different business models testifies to the diverse
needs that the "real" world imposes on the various players in
the shipping industry.
For years, the shipping community has been searching
for a means by which to monitor, measure and evaluate efficiently its
activities. Having failed to find satisfactory self imposed mechanisms,
the shipping industry is slowly having to accept standards and systems
imposed from outside.
A favourable environment of high freight rates and
fully-booked newbuilding capacity in a buoyant global economy have greeted
these most recent evolutions, making it easier for the maritime market
participants to incorporate these changes. However, each player knows from
experience that the impact of the unpredictable price of oil, and the
slowing down, softly so far, of the American economy along, with the level
of the world's newbuilding orderbook, are forces and influences that
will dictate tomorrow's maritime markets and rates.
The challenge of change is unavoidable. From the
beginning of time, watching the horizon has been the essence of maritime
survival and the success to levelling the perils of the seas.
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