March 20, 2009

Simple minds

Pardon me for saying this, but nobody on earth knows what is going on with the global financial meltdown.

Take shipping. Just when I rejoiced as the Baltic Dry Index hit its highest level this year, Bloomberg quoted Seafin saying that a third of shipping lines would go bust. And even as I broke out the champagne after I heard from a friend that a few shipping companies have raised salaries even in these times, Lloyds List quoted DNV saying that fleet overcapacity could eventually hit the ten thousand number. One third, and ten thousand, are huge numbers. DNV President Madsen says, further, “To believe it will be over in one or two years is a bit naive.” (The ‘it’ being, obviously, the impact of the meltdown on shipping).

Other reports swing from absolute despair to a resolute sighting of a glimmer of hope. Nobody is jumping for joy and there is no euphoria, of course, but there seem to be many experts in various contradictory states of depression and hope. This is terribly confusing to me, and makes me feel like those two blind earthworms that were trying to have sex in a noodle bowl.

My own opinion is that much of the industry is in a state of denial. Remember that the teenage like excitement over the BDI’s recent rise ignores the fact that it is still at a fifth of last May’s peak, when tonnage was being booked as if it was on sale. Recent higher Chinese commodity demand notwithstanding, that thinking ignores the huge demand supply mismatch in global tonnage today. In addition, it ignores the fact that China is facing large economic problems of its own: 650,000 businesses have shut down and 20 million people have lost jobs. That piper will have to be paid, too.

Some in shipping are looking wistfully at curves, predicting a U shaped recovery, though, slowly, the chances of this recovery happening this year are being ruled out. Others, in acute depression perhaps, predict an agonising L shaped recovery spread over many years. In my opinion again, this is conjecture. Looking at Salma Hayek’s curves would be more rewarding, even more productive. At least those curves are there and real; the U’s or the L’s are all in the future, and subject to fancy guesswork.

So what do companies and individual seafarers do at a time like this, then? We in the industry can hardly give up and die. We must snap out of the ‘deer in the headlight’ mode, though, and the sooner the better. Strategies for survival, whether individual or collective, and strategies for future growth must be planned, realistic and put in place. I suggest we do this right now: spend less time on the crystal ball and more on the ball that has landed right at our feet in the middle of the soccer game.

The game will go on. Play it well at every stage. When the game turns your way, you will win.

It is actually that simple.


Simplicity is underrated. More and more people realise this now that the economic monster hides under our beds: agony aunt columns are full of tips on rejecting blind and vapid consumerism, ‘resetting the button’ and the advantages of simple living and high thinking.

Those of us who have been trying to live simply (or at least live a life less complicated by clutter) find all this amusing. Some of us have lived simply for years; some have even tried to apply this thinking to our responsibilities at sea, knocking out the clutter and the information overload and paper that uselessly decimate time. Instead, we have tried to concentrate much more on what is essential: safety, efficiency and conscientious professionalism. Some have even tried to do this in an ethical, even moral, manner.

Many of us have failed, or as the Americans say in Afghanistan, we have not succeeded. Some of the reasons for failure are human and some are forced by the very complicated way ships are being operated these days. I am here to tell you that the financial crisis (shouldn’t that be plural?) is an excellent time for us to push personal and professional simplicity. I do believe that the advantage to us will be many: as individuals, a more peaceful and prosperous existence. As professionals, this advantage will include higher ethical efficiency at lower cost.

One man’s simplicity is another man’s luxury, so I will not enumerate the ways in which this can be done. I can say from experience, however, that for one to drive a smaller car than one can afford, or to buy what one needs more often than what he desires, is a very peaceful thing. For those of us who have been there, done that and bought the TShirt, an unlittered life has proved to be more serene. And isn’t tranquility more important than aspiring to be King Rat on the treadmill?

At sea, too, the sweet spot has been hit for me most often while ship handling, solving people’s problems or surviving a storm. I cannot think of similar satisfaction gleaned from any of the multitude of clerical tasks being increasingly thrust on a ship these days; those are a chore. I do not say that those chores should be ignored; unfortunately, as the lady says, before you meet Prince Charming, you have to kiss many toads. All I am saying is, kiss them, don’t embrace them.

Finally, for the hardheaded businesses which some of us choose to run, there are obvious commercial advantages in cutting away the flab that has invidiously crept in. Complicated or duplicitous systems, needless administration and communication overload consume resources. Cut the fat out. I would much rather my employees at sea spend their time keeping on top of lowering unnecessary inventories and managing commercial efficiencies than spend it filling up unnecessary checklists. Get your priorities right: tough times give opportunities for innovation and pruning of lard. Keep it simple.

Incidentally, I may have disagreed with Oscar Wilde for the only time in my life here. He said that the truth was rarely pure and never simple.

I beg to differ, sire. Sometimes less is more.