Hoping Against Hope

As I prepared to write my last monthly column for 2011, I couldn’t help but think that I had just “recently” written my December 2010 article, which looked back over the first decade of the 21st century. Frankly speaking, this year has passed so quickly that time really does seem to have spiraled out of control, or at least out of my control.

I looked over all of my 2011 columns just to refresh my memory (which seems to need an inordinate amount of refreshing these days) of what I had written about during 2011. The good news was that each piece was familiar, the subjects still interesting (at least to me) and all relevant enough that they could be followed and pursued. Somehow, this was quite a satisfying experience and one we should all think about doing sometime: If our work has any real meaning or substance or relevance, even if only personal, it ought to continue to hold some meaning over time.

So what about the soon-to-be-over 2011? We were all pretty uncertain as we entered 2011. Hopes for economic revival in 2011 were more or less, well less. Our business had a few moments of hopefulness during the course of the year, but unfortunately the center did not hold and 2011 was just not that great a year.

At least we’re consistent: The expectation that adding more capacity will somehow magically produce more cargo to fill the massive spaces of gigantic ships seems to have attained a life of its own. The result was a lot of empty space moving around the main east-west trade lanes and another year of dismal performance by the ocean carriers.

Or, when ships were “full” (a word that has become flexible in its meaning), the rates were so awful that profits had to be placed on the endangered species list. As I wrote last May: Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose — the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The good news is that once a year is over, it is really over. We can look back and reminisce or produce lots of after-the-fact analysis, but we don’t and won’t have to live it over again. What we do have to do is learn from what has happened and then look forward and try to come up with some meaningful projections for the coming year.

Many of you are already deeply into this, or certainly ought to be. In many cases, 2012 budgets have been submitted, and I hear the sharp intake of held breath as you ponder your calculations: “How much under what I think will happen do I dare to go in order to make what I say look better when the result is better than my budget?” Or, “How much over than I expect to spend on travel and entertainment can I get away with in my budget to make what I actually spend look much less than I really think I need to spend?”

You know who you are, and you know what I mean. Is there really any way to know today (or last month or the month before that) what is likely to happen all the way to the end of 2012, or at least through whatever remnants of a real peak season actually materialize during the third quarter of next year?

Still, there are a few things we may want to keep our eyes on for the coming year.

For example, will there still be three Japanese majors floating around at the end of the next 12 months? Is the complaint filed with the Federal Maritime Commission regarding those nasty Canadian ports really worth the effort of an investigation, and where are the complaints from the shippers? You remember them — the customers we’re supposed to serve and who seem to like the Canadian gateway, but based on the less than stirring volumes, maybe not that much.

What about the stories circulating that our elected and appointed officials may have some ideas of making our business even more difficult by imposing additional restrictions, documentation, regulations, trade barriers and myriad other bureaucratic devices without giving much if any consideration to the inevitable imposition of the law of unintended consequences that is bound to raise its ugly head just nanoseconds after any new rules are put in place. Please, please, please, elected and appointed officials, don’t do anything without taking multiple deep breaths, having lots of meetings with the people and companies that will be affected by your actions, and take into account that America, just like any other country can (to a large extent) trade its way out of an economic funk. Try to stay calm.

I wish all of you and your families, friends and colleagues the very best for the upcoming holiday season and the best of health, happiness and success for the new year.

Barry Horowitz is the principal of CMS Consulting Services. Contact him at 503-208-2232, or at barryh@cms-cs.com.

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