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The embarrassment of riches

I stole that title from a book by Professor Simon Schama, who, before he was famous, was one of my supervisors at Cambridge. It’s a jolly good book, as are his other books. Professor Schama has a giant brain and a good sense of humour. This one is a cultural history of the Dutch Republic in the seventeenth century, when the Seven Provinces, who had fought the global superpower of the day for 60 years and eventually gained their independence, quite suddenly found themselves immensely rich, and had to deal with the consequences.

The big containerlines have made more money this year than the FAANG. This has consequences, because, like Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google, the big containerlines don’t really make their money in a place where it is easy to tax them, and that means that they are about to fall into the trap that the OECD has carefully built to catch the FAANG in. Both their turnover and their margins have been of greater than FAANG proportions. The Financial Times has noticed.

Unlike the Dutch Republic, the Big Five have not fought their way to this position as a military power, and that means that they don’t have an army, a navy or an air force of their own. Like the FAANG, they provide services that everyone on the planet wants, but unlike the FAANG they have not disguised themselves as friendly, welcoming presences on almost everyone’s mobile phone and computer. 

Decades ago, the Port of Long Beach found itself with breakbulk general cargo warehouses that it no longer had a use for, but unlike the Port of London, Long Beach was entrepreneurial enough to rent out its spare cargo sheds to Hollywood, as slightly scary film sets for shoot-em-up films. Alas, this caused most people who watch those films, which is most people, to conclude that there is something rather dodgy about what we see as the noble and uplifting business of carrying goods from where they are not needed or wanted to where they are needed and wanted, in exchange for rather little money.

2021 was the year in which the public everywhere noticed merchant shipping, and not in a good way

And now some shipowners have made truly obscene amounts of money, and most people assume that all shipowners have done so. Don’t waste time trying to tell people the differences between tankers, bulk carriers and boxboats; they don’t care, any more than they care about the actual impact of the Ever Given grounding on the volumes of world trade. Humans like narratives and we particularly like narratives in which there are Good Guys and Bad Guys.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are the bad guys. And we are not very bright. We have been puzzling over these tales of Amazon and others chartering their own ships “to get round port congestion”. We think, “That’s silly, because why would they get berth priority?” That’s not what this is about. This is about making us out to be the Bad Guys, who are profiteering and driving up prices to the point where global inflation is about to set in with a vengeance.

As the Bad Guys, we can also be blamed for wrecking the planet, unlike, say, people who drive faster than they need to, or people who fool around with Bitcoin, etc. As noted, we don’t have our own armed forces, and nobody likes us. 

Nobody liked the Dutch, either, and when they found themselves without allies and invaded by the French, they ate their prime minister, out of sheer rage and frustration. Suggestions for shipowners whom you fancy a slice of may be placed in the columns below.

I am not sure that the implications of the events of 2021 have really sunk in across the shipowning business. When they do, many shipowners will be far too busy hiding their 2021 profits in other businesses to pay much attention, whilst the brighter ones did a little gentle greenwashing. Do people really think that building a ship that runs on hydrogen, methanol, ammonia or what have you is going to make the slightest difference if that fuel is itself made by a process which adds carbon dioxide, methane or any other nasty to the atmosphere? It seems that shipowning board rooms are full of people who think just that.

2021 was the year in which the public everywhere noticed merchant shipping, and not in a good way. Be afraid. I recommend being very afraid.

Andrew Craig-Bennett

Andrew Craig-Bennett works for a well known Asian shipowner. Previous employers include Wallem, China Navigation, Charles Taylor Consulting and Swire Pacific Offshore. Andrew was also a columnist for Lloyd's List for a decade.


  1. An excellent, if somewhat meandering, situation report which reflects my own musings on the breadth and depth of ‘stupid questions’ posed on a well-know internet platform. In spite of some misleading Daily Mail and BBC articles, there is an absolute dearth of awareness amongst the general populace about maritime commerce.
    Shipping (deep-sea in particular) has many of the traits of the bar of wet soap that can’t be easily found and, even when located, is difficult to grasp. Now that Maersk, CMA-CGM and others are spending their newly found wealth on diversifying, it may soon become even more difficult to define liner shipping in the traditional business model.
    However, the persistence of flags of convenience, pirates, tax-free fuel, a general unwillingness to publish detailed financial records and ethereal debates about carbon offsets and credits all contribute to an image of an industry which really does not want to be transparent to the man/woman/non-binary in the street.

    1. The meandering, like that of a river, is an attempt to cover a lot of ground without undue length. I think we are at a turning point but our structures and our institutions are not really up to what may be needed.

  2. I have to agree, the real bad guys are the politicians and bureaucrats who take advantage of ignorance. The shipping industry needs to educate the public, if its not too late.

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