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29 November 2021 The on-line newspaper devoted to the world of transports 15:41 GMT+1

Virtual and Real

Only some hyper-imaginative video game scriptwriters had conceived the destruction of New-York’s twin towers. September 11th, sadly, the real overtook the virtual, shattering the confidence of the most powerful nation, questioning the very notion of risk, and undermining the world’s biggest insurance and reinsurance groups.

This unthinkable drama will have little effect on the shipping industry, apart from temporarily on cruises, but it has been a brutal reminder of the worsening world economic situation during the year 2001.

As from the second quarter, the slowdown in the American economy, followed by Europe, weighed heavily on seaborne trade and thus on freight rates, first with dry bulk ships and containers, then somewhat later on tankers, throwing a light on the fear of overcapacity.

Even though the shipping world is accustomed to cycles, they are nonetheless aggravated by unreasonable actions of players outside the market, financial and fiscal investors - such as in Germany with containerships - who inflate newbuilding orders beyond all reason; virtual in the hope of non-ending growth, real in the actual economic downturn and overcapacity.

This year has also been marked by the meltdown of technology shares, which has affected all the financial markets, although it is not the technology itself to blame but that of irrational market values.

In shipping as in other sectors, e-business counts its survivors amongst the websites which have been developed on the basis of the real service provided.

In the energy business, a leading company, Enron, a model of its kind by inventing, innovating, and arbitrating as a market-player in new energy areas, has collapsed. Its virtual success was stricken down by the real needs and by questionable accounting methods; virtual commitments off-balance sheet, real accounts in balance sheet, or the reverse?

This rude awakening reminds everyone that markets impose inherent rules like gravity, impossible to ignore, and that the real economy has taken a cruel revenge this year over the virtual economy.

In France the incentives for promoting the French flag fleet are being held back whilst some of our European neighbours have made successful progress and are able to expand their fleet under national flag. French shipping policy no longer corresponds to our economic ambitions and here again we can deplore the virtual political discussion compared to the real action needed.

The much hoped recovery, whose return is predicted by some in the course of the second half of 2002, will depend primarily on the health of the American economy; but a close watch has to be kept over the Japanese currency whose weakness could bring about a series of devaluations in the Far East, which could put into question the fragile balance recovered since 1997, and weigh heavily on newbuilding prices amongst others.

The prosperity of the shipping sector will obviously depend on the economic revival but also on the respect shown to the strong balancing forces at play - newbuildings, fleet in service, demolitions - to which any excesses will quickly bring us back to the fundamental reality of supply and demand.


Shipping and Shipbuilding Markets in 2001


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