From Yantian to Hamburg, world trade in the doldrums

5th May 2009, Comments 0 comments

The shipment of goods is down in Hamburg, Germany's largest port and Europe's second-largest after Rotterdam, in yet another sign of the global economic downturn.

Hamburg -- From Yantian to Hamburg, world trade is in the doldrums and Christian Blauert, who heads the largest container terminal in Germany's northern port of Hamburg, needs only to check the webcams to know things aren't getting better.

On his computer he has access to a live-feed of pictures from Chinese harbours like Yantian that show mountains of empty containers that are waiting for exports to pick up.

"The situation in the international port of Yantian is typical," he said, referring to the site near Hong Kong. "You can hardly see the full containers because the terminals are crowded with empties."

The pictures illustrate that when the container ships come steaming into Hamburg from China, in six to seven weeks' time after going round Africa to save paying Suez Canal transit fees, they will be carrying far fewer television sets, bicycles, T-shirts and toothbrushes than at the same time last year.

At the HHLA (Hamburger Hafen und Logistik Aktiengesellschaft) Burchardkai terminal, where giant cranes on rails dominate the skyline, Blauert declines to say when business might pick up.

"It's like navigating in the fog, you can only see what's just ahead," he said.

His firm expects turnover to be down by more than 10 percent this year because of the economic downturn and a number of HHLA's 3,700 Hamburg employees will be facing short-time work as of this summer.

Axel Gedashko, economy minister in the city-state about 100 kilometres (60 miles) down river from the North Sea, does not mince his words: "The situation is dramatic," he said.

"Trade in volume in the port of Hamburg is down by a quarter compared to last year" when nearly 10 million TEU -- twenty foot equivalent unit, the figure used for calculating the number of containers shipped -- went through the harbour, said Gedashko.

Shipping these days in Hamburg -- Germany's largest port and Europe's second-largest after Rotterdam -- is all about containers because 97 percent of goods are moved that way.

China was Hamburg's most important trading partner last year, accounting for 32 percent in volume of the 140 million tonnes shipped through the port. Singapore came second place, followed by Russia.

The world crisis "is hitting us badly because the port is at the centre of logistics for northern Germany," says Gedashko.

"And the situation here reflects the state of the world economy, not just in Hamburg and Germany, but for the whole of eastern Europe" because Hamburg, especially since the fall of the Iron Curtain, serves as the gateway for much of central and northern Europe, he adds.

In this city-state of 1.8 million people, unemployment is up to 78,000, including 10,000 in the logistics sector, with at least 30,000 more on short-time, according to Gedashko.

The town is worried. According to a poll by the Haspa bank, some 30 percent of firms connected with the harbour expect a bad year, 60 percent stagnation, and just six percent think business will be good.

"We have not reached the trough of the wave," warns Raimund Klinker, chairman of Germany's logistics association (BVL).

Last year, the sector -- the third largest in Germany with some 2.7 million employees -- posted 215 billion euros (280 billion dollars) in turnover. Klinker expects the figure to be down by five percent this year for the country as a whole.

Germany, the world's top exporter, has seen the figures crash to an all-time low this year. And the World Trade Organisation expects a nine percent slump in global trade, the worst figure on record since World War II.

Klinker confirms that shipment of goods is down in Germany. By 33 percent for cars and automobile parts -- the country's leading industry -- and by 10 to 20 percent for machine tools over the first quarter of the year.

The crisis "doesn't just affect volumes, but pushes down shipping prices," says Thomas Wimmer, a specialist at the BVL who suggests that the worst hit shipping routes out of Hamburg are those to China and South America.

Compared to a year ago, container shipping prices have dropped by between 40 and 60 percent, he says.

Blauert will not discuss prices, but he acknowledges that shipping lines are taking container ships out of business because of over-capacity.

According to a study unveiled at the Global Shipping Conference earlier this month in London, some 11 percent of container ships worldwide have been taken out of service, and average charter rates have dropped by 80 percent.

These vessels are being replaced with fewer, but much larger, container ships as shipping lines try to stay afloat through economies of scale, said Blauert.

Francis Curta/AFP/Expatica

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