The benign post-World War II conditions which allowed Greece to become the world’s top shipowning nation are changing. On the eve of Posidonia, lead columnist Andrew Craig-Bennett questions whether Greek dominance will continue much longer.
It is too easy to think that “Greek shipping”, by which we mean the ownership of ships by Greek private companies, is “always with us” – after all, “Greek shipping” has been around on a large scale for well over a century and has moved quite smoothly from triple expansion three island tramps financed with mortgages to what we see today.
I’m not so sure. I think that the global political, economic, and environmental issues that are just around the corner may be about to make life very much more difficult.
Let’s start with what “Greek shipping” is not. It rather famously is not liner shipping and equally it is not bulk carrier or tanker chartering. It certainly isn’t “logistics”. It’s shipowning – the most romantic and the most fun part of the business of moving stuff by water. “Greek shipping” can extend, and has extended, to shipbuilding and ship repair and to port operations and to the many businesses that hang off shipowning, but owning stuff that you can walk up to and pat, to quote a prominent British shipowner of the last century, is what it is really all about, and there are two assumptions that go with the Greek way of owning ships which tend to pass unquestioned. One is that there will always be a market for ships and for the employment of ships – a market with a very low entry premium – and the other is that cross trading is always going to be easy to do.
The Greek way of shipping flourishes under conditions that we now call globalisation
To put those two points another way, the Greek way of shipping flourishes under conditions that we now call globalisation, conditions in which the barriers to trade by sea are low, and in which any ship can carry more or less anything pretty much anywhere. There is a specific unstated assumption that the world’s oceans are going to be policed by the dominant naval power in a way that is not hostile to Greek merchant seafaring enterprise. If we look back to, say, 1815 we can see that there have been two dominant naval powers – Britain up to 1939 and the United States from 1945 and both have been perfectly happy to have cross trading Greek shipowners around. Generations of Greek shipowners have been perfectly happy to base themselves in London and in New York, (or perhaps we should now say Greenwich, Connecticut) and to work out of those places.
Things might change. First, the entry premium into shipowning might increase. It may become difficult for a new entrant to shipowning to get a start – indeed, many will say that this has already started to happen. Finance for small shipping enterprises is notably more difficult to come by whilst finance for big shipping enterprises seems to have got easier to secure.
Looking a little deeper, the business of finance has been changing. Is there anything that those dreadful Russian oligarchs have done with their doubtless ill-gotten gains that Greek shipowners didn’t do first with their doubtless hard-earned freights and S&P returns? No. There isn’t. The whole offshore world was first developed to benefit Greek shipping, and for as long as only Greek shipping was using it, nobody minded. But now that huge industries and giant corporations are choosing to pay the tax that they feel like paying, nation states with vast populations to educate, to defend and to care for are worried to see their tax revenues looking like the Cheshire Cat.
The entry premium into shipowning might increase
Nobody minds when Greek shipping copies the Cheshire Cat, leaving the taxman with nothing but the smile, but when most of the tax base does it, political leaders develop a sense of humour failure.
The benign conditions that allowed cross trading to develop may be coming to an end. As I write this, two Greek ships have been seized by Iran because a Russian ship with a putatively Iranian cargo has been detained in Greece at the request of the US. If Greece is trying not to be noticed, Greece isn’t doing very well at it, this week.
For now, trading conditions are set fair; we are enjoying a spell of really very fat cows, but as every Greek shipping enterprise knows, the thin cows will be along presently, and the thin cows may be accompanied, this time, by political weather which is decidedly “Winter, North Atlantic”, and the load line of Greek shipping enterprises should perhaps be adjusted accordingly.