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April 23, 2015

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Growing together or growing apart? Sea Asia 2015

Singapore is very much about delivering a cluster of maritime-focussed services that put the stress on government backing and encouragement in many forms. Where else could a cabbie talk knowledgably about regional port competition or you can hear radio adverts encouraging families to visit an exhibition about shipping put on to support Maritime Week?

The city-state has achieved much by force of will, but it was not for nothing that Transport Minister Liu Tuck Yew opened Sea-Asia 2015 by laying out a three-legged strategy based on technology, infrastructure and human capital.

But reality encroaches too. Though Singapore likes to think it can levitate the markets from the doldrums using positive thinking, the rest of the world takes a rather more nuanced view.

A Norwegian shipping CEO was asked recently if he was optimistic about the future, to which he replied that fragmentation and polarisation would be more influential than globalization. Capital access would be harder to come by and protectionist policies would hamper growth.

Luckily the participants in Sea-Asia’s global outlook session were rather more optimistic.

Nordea Bank President Christian Clausen predicted that the next three years would be better than last three, with economic growth returning to Europe and GDP growth of 2% “it’s a huge change from minus one”.

He had less good news for borrowers, saying there would be lending, but not as we have known it. “It’s either going to be expensive or unavailable industries that cannot change their balance sheet structures”.

Precious Shipping boss Khalid Hashim is a survivor of the 1997 Asian crisis and for him the fall in commodity prices means more shipping not less. “Every drop in the oil price means a potential GDP increase. Before the Asian crisis, oil was $24 after 1997 it was $9 and it helped our economies come out of the crisis. My hope is that oil remains low long enough for the global economy to improve.”

For AP Moller-Maersk, the threat of protectionism is perhaps its biggest risk but Klaus Hemmingsen, though cautious on world trade growth, said he didn’t see trade embargoes becoming the norm. “Logic will prevail; trade provides for growth, what we need is rational government policies.”

That might be putting too much faith in our elected representatives but he was far from the most bullish on the panel. That fell to BW Group Chairman Andreas Sohmen-Pao who pointed to “the incredible rise of middle class affluence, the huge amount of wealth creation and the liberating forces of education and technology which will make unthinkable things possible over the next 20 years”.

Needlessly admitting to being ‘super optimistic in medium term’ he also said he was not blind to near term risks; too much slack in the global economy, over-production and too much liquidity caused by QE and other fiscal policies. These days a local, Sohmen-Pao got his passport stamped for good measure. “Whether or not you are optimistic depends on global governance. More countries should follow Singapore’s leadership.”

Clausen was keen to stress the continued role of the debt markets – $475bn compared to private equity’s $20bn with the capital markets at $40bn but he welcomed the diversification, noting “a richness of liquidity that has helped to bring shipping to a lower the level on the risk curve through more diverse sources”. Liquidity might be cheap he said, capital was not.

Either way, the result is more ordering, a supply demand imbalance and more volatility.

Though Hemmingsen pointed out that shipping has managed to provide transport at virtually unchanged cost, in the short term supply and demand deterred optimism. “Long term, efficiencies will prevail but growth will be more volatile; get used to it.”

Sohmen-Pao was more bearish. “We will have excess shipyard capacity forever. Any sector that does well for five minutes gets overbuilt. There will be no corner to hide.”

Boardley observed that the liner trades have begun to resemble their former selves with increasing optimisation and route-specific vessels, reflecting changes in the bulk carrier market, creating some cautious optimism.

For volume growth, owners of all stripes look to China and beyond that, a new India finally coming of age. Despite the falling raw materials prices, Hashim said China will still need government stimulus to get anywhere near its former growth trend. Sohmen-Pao agreed the need was for organic growth because low prices could only stimulate trade so far.

And so the crystal ball. What did the panel see as the biggest risk to shipping over the next five years?

Tom Boardley suggested a major disaster involving passengers and close enough to shore to be the first real social media casualty. “The industry has had a good record recently and there is so much regulation we have a responsibility to make sure it doesn’t happen.”

For Khalid Hashim it is the withdrawal of QE and a subsequent abrupt rise in interest rates, “in the end, though we’re all dead,” he quipped.

Hemmingsen identified adverse geopolitical risk and PIL Lines Managing Director SS Teo agreed, reminding delegates that piracy still existed but was less well reported. The destabilisation of Yemen had the potential create chaos, he said.

For Pao the risk remained the low cost of money for such a capital intensive industry. “I’m most afraid that in five years time we will still in be in QE, still building with money still pouring in.”

It will be Sea-Asia again in two years’ time so there will be plenty of opportunity to judge whether the market is growing together or apart.

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