It's that time of year again. That time when the crystal ball is rolled out and the gurus are expected to predict the obvious, and shy away from the uncertain.

The new millennium beckons, and the clouds of uncertainty of 1999 are taking on a more nimbus appearance as the year 2000 races toward us.Your writer is really not some strange guru blessed with knowledge abounding about this industry of ours, but I personally do believe I understand what makes it tick.

I am English and proud of it, and with that label, I feel confident in applying my logic to the most volatile environments.

Consolidation, that intriguing word that means you survive by giving someone else a share of your business, is the catchword for 2000.

Since the waters were first tested when maritime Britain and Holland joined together in perfect P&O Nedlloyd harmony, there has been increased speculation over who will be next.

We have seen the American Presidents bought up with Singaporean dollars with a bit of help from people in high places.

We have seen the likes of Hamburg-Sud acquire part of the Brazilian container shipping industry, and watched the world's largest shipping line, Maersk, become even larger through an acquisition of the old container workhorse, Sea-Land.

We have seen the might of the British maritime force come a close second on most occasions.

We have also seen Canadian Pacific buy up Mexico's largest shipping line, after having said, a year or so ago, that such a move was not being considered.

Maersk obviously needs time to consume its culinary delight. NOL needs more than a few months to make it work practically, rather than theoretically.

P&O Nedlloyd also needs time to look around for the other 3 million containers it wants each year to reach its 5 million TEU annual target.

Hamburg-Sud does not see eye to eye with Hapag-Lloyd, and Canadian Pacific's logic makes it plain that you cannot make your views plain one year and expect them to stand through the next.

So in the crystal millennium ball, it's a case of don't read too much into anything in this business. Even the smartest change their ideas.

But perhaps we should say that P&O Nedlloyd wants a bit more than a meager 2 million TEUs per year. Perhaps the might of the British-Dutch shipping empire does not take too kindly to coming runner-up in the chase for the big meat.

And the netting of Blue Star and the Harrison Line East African business looks somewhat less than robust by comparison with the achievement of others.

So the millennium must surely be a year for P&O Nedlloyd. For P&O Group to succeed so well in the cruise shipping business is a big boost.

But it is a different ball game in the container shipping world, especially when you have made your aims quite clear many months ago.

Of course, the problems with P&O Nedlloyd's ambitions in the Pacific is that they limited development potential. Hong Kong's container shipping empire, under Orient Overseas Container Line, is not about to come under the auctioneer's hammer.

Cosco is not about to throw the political world into disarray by entirely merging with Evergreen, and China Shipping Group will not be as big as its ambitions for a while.

The most obvious choice for the 2000 crown of consolidation does lie with P&O Nedlloyd. The company does want an increased market on the Pacific, but there are other areas where development of volume could be made to happen.

Personally, I like the German angle for next year. That Hapag, Hamburg-Sud idea. Mergers of companies of a kind, where cultures are equivocal and P&O Nedlloyd fits in.

The Canadian Pacific logic? It looks simple on paper. It's consolidation within, as the Transportacion Maritima Mexicana buy-up in Americana proves. And never say ''never'' when you could mean ''possibly.''

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