May 21, 2015

Blurred vision 2020



I normally try to ignore anything coming out of Goldman Sachs; according to me, many of its senior employees should have kept Rajat Gupta company in prison. So I will only mention, in passing and with a suggestion that the following be taken with a sackful of salt, that Goldman Sachs said this month that shipping freight rates will remain weak for the rest of the decade.  

We don’t need analysts to tell us that the Baltic Dry Index has fallen through the floor, reflecting the bloodbath out there in the dry market- the BDI has lost a quarter of its value this year alone, and the last couple of years have been an unmitigated disaster. However, 2020 is five years away; much can change by then. Nonetheless, the signs across the container and bulk segments do not look encouraging, and the recent mini-boom in part of the tanker market appears unsustainable to me.

My biggest reasons for unease, going forward, would probably be, not in any priority a) Chinese slowdown and its economic transition from producer to consumer b) circumspection about the speed of the US recovery c) a feeling that the other smaller economies, including BRICS’ members, are not going to do half as well as expected and d) the overtonnaging and reckless over-ordering of ships that continues even today. 

Take container ships. Rates are down close to a third this year in Asia. However, as a Drewry report points out, shipping has ordered as many as 40 Ultra Large Container Carriers (18,000 TEU plus) since January. Clearly, there is a mismatch between supply and demand at a time when many are getting skittish about China, the undisputed driver of Asian trade. Export orders are slackening and the hope that domestic consumption in China will take off remains just that, a hope. The other large Asian presence, India, has seen poor company performances across almost all sectors; a realisation that has pulled its stock markets back sharply in recent times after the puzzling euphoria after Modi was elected Prime Minister. 

The US seems a little more complicated. Numbers on growth and employment were better than expected a few months ago and recent employment numbers remain encouraging, although wages are almost stagnant. Going forward, I am unsure- given the volatility in oil prices and the fact that its shale industry went from hundred to zero in six seconds after oil prices crashed - if the US will grow at the same rate or faster. The US Department of Commerce said recently that first quarter (2015) GDP had grown annually at 0.2 per cent, a niggardly number compared to the 2.2 per cent in the last quarter of 2014. Although this ‘advance estimate’ is based on incomplete data and subject to change, these indications are not good at all.

The US Fed is expected to bump up rates later this year. If it does, (I am not sure it will be in a hurry to do so), the impact of a flight of money to safety on investment elsewhere in the world may be significant. 

Okay. Now that you have read this much, forget it all, for a moment, and consider a possibility-another alternative-to-the-present scenario that will be calamitous for trade and shipping. Humour me for a moment or two.

What if global consumer consumption- particularly discretionary spending- never takes off? What if more and more people realise that things do not make you happy? That buying more and more stuff- and building bigger houses and wardrobes and storage to keep it in- is not such a good idea after all? What if some halve the ‘extra’ stuff they buy- some of which they don’t need and some of which they don’t even like? What if they realise that buying unnecessary stuff is a trap: that you are working for your stuff instead of- as it should be- the stuff working for you? What if they realise that the alternate lifestyle is, additionally, good for the planet and may help take a step back from the precipice?

Our present paradigm of commerce and trade is built on the premise that consumer consumption will increase exponentially (and ad infinitum) in future at the same rate that it has in the past. Forget the fact that the planet cannot sustain the populations of China and India consuming at US rates for a moment, and think about the impact on trade and shipping of even a fifth of the world’s population embracing this alternate lifestyle.

That possibility, if it at all happens, will be a nightmare for shipping. But it probably won’t. I have faith in mankind and its follies.
.

.

May 14, 2015

Wrong end of the stick



I am probably being uncharitable when I suggest that the Mediterranean refugee crisis has received, because of the fact that it threatens Europe, markedly more prompt attention from the UN and the IMO than the Vietnamese boat people tragedy did a few decades ago.  Hundreds of thousands died and a few thousand women were raped before that one ended.

I have written about the present crisis extensively in the last few months, so I will just point out this time (while trying to avoid the litany of statistics and the horror stories of daily tragedies that freeze us in horror) that the steps the EU and the IMO are threatening to take are going to be futile. This ‘exodus without end’ is not going to be stopped by the IMO reviewing legislation on SAR at sea ‘as a matter of priority’ or because, as it says, “Search and rescue systems maintained by the shipping community are not designed for rescuing hundreds of thousands of people drifting on small, unseaworthy boats left in shipping lanes.” (Talk about stating the obvious.)

The tragedy is not even going to be sorted out by the IMO Secretary General’s speeches reiterating this sentiment, or by the organisation calling for “urgent action” on the “complex issue of mixed migration by sea,” or for “gaps” – presumably in systems and processes- to be filled up. 

The humanitarian disaster will not be solved by shipowner or seafarer unions urging the EU to take action. Incidentally, they are wrong when they say the crisis is ‘spiralling out of control.’ It was spiralling out of control a year or two ago, folks. It has already spiralled the hell out of control by now.

The EU has come up with a ‘ten point action plan’ that reminds me of some of the weird articles I read on the internet (like ‘Ten things you didn’t know about women’). Whatever, the crisis is not going to be solved with the EU plan either. Reinforcement of joint operations in the Med, destroying smugglers vessels, fingerprinting all migrants, a ‘return programme’ for refugees (whatever that means) and such stuff will do little, or nothing, to stem the flood. People will continue to try to flock to Europe- refugees and economic migrants included.

All these knee jerk reactions will come to zilch because they are knee jerk and because the EU and the IMO have got hold of the wrong end of the stick. These plans will not even begin to solve the overwhelmingly biggest reason for the problem. Surprising, this oversight from setups like the IMO, considering how everybody in the maritime world just loves the phrase ‘root cause’ these days.

That root cause, as we all well know unless we were on Mars for the last ten years, is anarchy in the countries these refugees originate from and instability in the countries from where they board their rickety boats. In turn, the root causes of much of the anarchy have been military misadventures by, amongst others, many States belonging to the same EU that is under seige today. Maybe they need to learn something from this; the coalition of the absurd is directly responsible, after Iraq, Libya, and others, for much of the mess it finds itself in. Maybe they need to keep this in mind for the future.

Some in shipping are trying to draw parallels between this crisis and the Somali piracy issue, saying that piracy off the Horn of Africa has stopped even though Somalia remains unstable, but that is a false argument. Somali piracy has waned (for the time being?) because we started putting armed men on our ships. We cannot do that in the Med, at least not without saying that ships should not go to the rescue of those in distress at sea- which would be a terrible stand to take and would destroy one of the noblest traditions of the sea.

In all this, the biggest issue for shipping is going to be, sooner, one of security. Since this problem is not going to be sorted out anytime soon I wait in dread of the day when I will open a link online, or a newspaper, and read another story about a merchant ship that went, with a crew of 20, to assist 400 refugees in the Mediterranean. You know, the kind of story and the kind of numbers that are commonplace today. Except that hidden amongst those refugees are a dozen well-armed terrorists who board the ship. 

You can write your own ending to that one.
 .

.

May 07, 2015

False contention



Even in an age where media headlines are everything and content is immaterial, the conclusion drawn after an industry ‘mini survey’ last month is as curious as the findings themselves are disingenuous. I talk of the joint BIMCO and International Chamber of Shipping report; the so-called analysis of statistics supposedly collected from a sampling of seamen has smugly concluded that, by and large, seafarers are a contented lot. 

As can be expected from such an enterprise, the study was padded with inane clich├ęs about ‘happy ships’ and such; as can be expected, the shipping media’s headlines have, almost universally and despite some protests from more than a couple of seamen associations,  reproduced the BIMCO-ICS report canard. I can see, in the near future, these dubious ‘contentment’ findings being used as yet another hammer to beat over seamen’s heads. 

Now BIMCO is an association of shipowners, operators, managers, brokers and agents, whose stated core objective is to 'facilitate the commercial operations of members.' The ICS is a trade association of merchant shipowners and operators whose stated aim is to promote their interests.

To those who choose to miss this, this ‘survey’ is, therefore, tainted with conflict of interest; Any enterprise by associations of employers- who do not even obliquely refer to seafarers as part of their flock- that claims to show that seamen are a contented lot should be laughed at all the way to the door. They speak with forked tongues.

Besides, which seamen is the report referring to? Europeans? North Americans? Africans? Asians? Russians? Chinese? Indians? Does it really want us to believe that seamen are a monolithic group? Does it conveniently assume that the treatment of seamen- a direct contributor to their contentment levels, for sure- is uniform, and ignores nationality or colour of skin? 

What is the real agenda here? Does the industry think that seamen are so dumb that they will buy any drivel dished out to them?

I meet with, or am in touch with, many Indian seamen. I talk to them (I suspect not many are doing this, although many are talking at them, and always have been.) The experiences and attitudes of the younger lot are particularly dismaying. Most of them have gone out to sea as a last preference. Most of them have bribed somebody for their first job, or their first training berth (so much for expecting integrity from them without showing them any). All of them are routinely treated like cattle, lied to, treated with scant respect and shortchanged at every opportunity by the industry. Most of them are wary about losing their jobs. Many spend the time between ships going around the country attending an increasing number of (thank you, STCW!) useless courses, or feel-good company meets that are full of hot air but little substance . 

On ships, they are routinely overworked to the point of fatigue. Their shore leave is often restricted or worse, banned. Many work for months without proper contact with their families even in this internet age. 


The situation is dismal; so dismal that many crews out there do not expect anything from the industry beyond the hope that their monthly wages will be paid on time. Besides, anybody of calibre or confidence is looking for a way out. The smartest will probably move ashore into shipping and inflict on its seamen the same indignities that were inflicted on them, because the lack of respect- to put it mildly- shown to seamen is the industry’s default setting. Worse, it is being passed down from one generation to the next.


Does this look or sound like a scenario in which seamen could be a contented lot? Are they as dumb as BIMCO and ICS would like them to be?


Contentment implies more than a modicum of happiness, you know. The report is not just an embarrassment. It is absurd. It is cynical. 

How dare they.

.

.

March 07, 2015

A one month break

After many years, I am taking a break from this column because I am overwhelmed by a death in the family. This is temporary. I expect- and hope- that I will be back in April.