THE CHALLENGE OF BIGNESS

THE PERILS AND REWARDS of bigness are nowhere better illustrated today than in the shipping industry. The difficulties experienced by United States Lines in its round-the-world service illustrate the perils, the seeming success of Taiwan-based Evergreen in virtually the same trades, the rewards.

Just where will bigness lead? The inevitability of change in ocean shipping, its cost and its benefits, were cogently outlined by Ole Skaarup, founder of Skaarup Shipping Co. of Greenwich, Conn., in predictions he made last fall at a shipowners' seminar in Luxembourg. Borrowing from trade jargon, he envisioned a time when ocean shipping would be dominated by VLSCs and VLCCs. (Mr. Skaarup gave his own variation of VLCC, heretofore used to designate a very large crude carrier, or tanker of more than 250,000 dead- weight tons.)In his words:

"I believe that ocean transportation will be dominated by very large shipping combines (VLSCs). They will consist of powerful financial entities and funds that will own the ships, probably some in joint ventures with shipbuilders. The fleets will be operated by large management companies experienced in ship operations. Some will be present-day tramp owners who are already planning to convert their companies for such operations."

The fleets would be run on special contracts and in close cooperation or as joint ventures with shippers or shipper industries. And enterprising wholesale brokers or entrepreneurial carriers will help put the deals together. Again in his words:

"It seems logical to me that when businesses and industries are merging into very large commercial combines (VLCCs), the shipping business must follow suit. The stakes are becoming too high for ordinary shipowners, and banks and financing institutions are becoming increasingly fed up with the old pattern of financing the major portion of the cost, realizing only a small interest spread if a venture is successful, and carrying the entire down-risk.

"If you look at Japan Inc., you can see this pattern in full operation. The owning companies are really not independent shipowners in the strict sense of that term. They are service companies for industry and trading companies, all working hand in hand with Japanese shipyards and banks with suitable control and assistance from the government.

Mr. Skaarup said the pattern also was apparent in the liner business, where the capital requirements for ships, boxes, trucks and port facilities are so enormous that only a few extra-large companies can make the necessary investment and borrow the needed funds. Even they, he noted, may have to pool their resources to stay competitive.

This raises the question of antitrust immunity. Shipping in the United States for generations has enjoyed limited immunity from the antitrust laws, in recognition of the special place of rate-making ocean conferences and agreements. If ocean shipping and trading are to evolve as Mr. Skaarup believes, will the boundaries of antitrust have to be redrawn?

Pressures in that direction certainly will mount if the trend toward the ''very large" entities - embracing ships, inland carriers, importers and exporters, ports, banks and government working hand in hand - develops as he prophesies.

Much of what Mr. Skaarup foresees is exciting and promising. A good deal already is taking shape, not only in Japan. But very large commercial combines can expect a high degree of public scrutiny, especially in the United States. Prophesies must take that into account, as must industry. Mr. Skaarup's predictions should not be seen just as a vision of things to come. The underlying message is that the transportation industry must give serious thought to what these close-at-hand trends will require of it in terms both of legislative and economic planning.

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