Millennium Post

Staying afloat in rough waters

Greece's economy may be on its knees, but as evidenced in Athens at the world's biggest maritime trade fair this week, the global titans that are its shipping magnates are still standing tall - for now.

'Shipping is an international industry,' said Theodore Vokos, organiser of the biennial Posidonia fair, an event in its fifth decade this year bringing together a record 1,870 exhibitors from 87 countries, many from Asia.

'Therefore the good thing for Greek shipping is that it is not affected by the Greek crisis,' he said.

Greece is in its fifth year of recession, unemployment is 20 percent, its debts are so high and its credibility among investors so low that it has had to be bailed out twice. It may leave the eurozone after elections later this month.

But the country's shipping industry is still second to none, with Greek firms controlling 16.2 percent of the world's 'deadweight tonnage' shipping capacity, followed by Japan with 15.8 percent, a United Nations report for 2011 showed.

Owners from Germany, Japan and China possess more actual ships, but in terms of nationally flagged and nationally owned tonnage, Greece's 3,200-strong fleet continues to be 'by far' the world's largest, the UN says.

For Greece, the industry accounts for around six percent of the country's economic output. Between 2000 and 2010, it contributed 140 billion euros ($175 billion) to the economy, representing half the national debt of 2009.

However, the families that own the industry, the modern-day equivalents of legends like Aristotle Onassis and Stavros Niarchos, are hardly flavour of the month in the current crisis.

While ordinary Greeks have had to swallow hefty cuts to their pensions and salaries, shipowners have been accused of failing to pull their weight and lacking solidarity in a time of national crisis.

'The Greek state must support and respect the significant potential of the sector which has established Greece at the summit of the global maritime industry,' Prime Minister Panagiotis Pikrammenos said as he opened Posidonia.

But he added: 'I also call upon the Greek shipowners to support our country in these difficult times. You have done so in the past, but today, more than ever before, Greece needs new investments, new job opportunities and more liquidity.'

Alexis Tsipras, the firebrand head of Greece's leftist Syriza party, which polls indicate could come first in elections on 17 June, has vowed to close the constitutional loophole that largely exempts shipping firms from tax.

Shipowners, though, are standing firm.

'If the shipowners leave Greece, then approximately 200,000 people will lose their jobs because if shipowners move to Singapore, they will not relocate (workers from) their ship management offices with them,' warned George Karageorgiou, chief executive of Globus Maritime Ltd, in Ship Management International magazine.

'Shipping is not part of the problem. We are part of the solution,' said John Lyras, chairman of the Posidonia coordinating committee and ex-chairman of the Union of Greek Shipowners.

The industry in any case faces choppy waters ahead, with the global economy still wobbly - partly because of Greece - too many ships chasing too little cargo, high oil prices and banks coy about providing loans.

On 31 May, Moody's said its outlook for the global shipping industry over the next 12-18 months remained negative. In 2011, the Greek shipping industry saw profits fall 8.6 percent.

By Daphne Benoit, courtesy AFP.
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