WHAT TO EXPECT IN 2001

WHAT TO EXPECT IN 2001

The year 2000 is nearly behind us. What did we learn this past year, and what does it mean for 2001? We learned that the growth in containerized trade imports is unrelenting but doesn't come without a price. Pressures are building for a significant upgrade of technology to avoid gridlock at West Coast ports. That, of course, can only happen with buy-in from the entrenched International Longshore and Warehouse Union. Look for progress here. The ILWU knows it can drag its feet for only so long before the growing problems at West Coast ports begin to be noticed in Washington. The more importers get directly involved, the faster the ILWU will consent to changes. Pressures are also building to better compensate harbor truckers, a repeated source of disruption at North American ports in 2000. Look for sporadic disruptions to continue, but no long-term resolution. Unionization of drivers is a long shot and consolidation within the fragmented trucking industry -- which conceivably could lead to higher rates -- is occurring at only a snail's pace.

We learned that non-vessel-operating common carriers did not disappear from the policy scene after their crushing defeat in 1998 with passage of the Ocean Shipping Reform Act. But for all their protests, NVOCCs are making little if any headway. The Federal Maritime Commission will report in June that OSRA is working, so don't expect any legislative tinkering with U.S. shipping law in 2001. One possibility: A deal in which NVOCCs abandon their campaign for an end to ocean carrier antitrust immunity, in return for carriers' agreement to end requirements for publishing of tariffs. The FMC would probably go along.We learned that confidential contracting under OSRA, while driving a stake through the heart of conferences such as Anera and the TWRA, does not mean carriers will eschew the use of antitrust immunity to influence rate levels. Look for more coordinated rate increases and surcharges by discussion groups such as the Transpacific Stabilization Agreement.

We learned that when importing companies are prepared to put their names to a legislative campaign, they get results. Case in point: Congress appropriated $130 million for the Customs' Automated Environment after years of inaction only after importers got directly involved in making the case. Look for Customs and the importing community to resolve differences over what data the government needs at the moment a shipment is imported, and for ACE development to finally move ahead in earnest.

We learned that not all dot-coms are a panacea for international logistics. In ocean shipping, two centers of gravity are emerging in dot-com land. One involves carriers and their two portals, Maersk Sealand-led Inttra and Tradiant-led Global Transportation Network. The other involves shippers using logistics tools-based services such as Logistics.com, Celarix, Vastera, SupplyLinks and Freemarkets. Still unclear is the role of forwarder-based websites such as OceanWide. How these two clusters interact and interconnect will determine the future of the Internet in the ocean sector. Look for more consolidation among dot-coms. In the air cargo side, look for greater dominance by the forwarder-carrier portal Global Freight Exchange, or GF-X.

We learned in 2000 that multi-user marine terminals fit in well in developing ports, as shown by the global expansion of such companies as P&O Ports, PSA Corp. and Hutchison Port Holdings. But in major ports such as Singapore and Rotterdam they're increasingly at odds with major ocean carriers' determination to control their own terminals. Look for continued pressure on multi-user terminals at big ports around the world and in the U.S.

We saw how disruption resulting from the merger of Union Pacific and Southern Pacific and the breakup of Conrail rose to the level of national policy, leading to the 15-month moratorium imposed by the Surface Transportation Board in March. Despite the STB's stringent merger requirements, look for another round of large railroad mergers, perhaps late in 2001, and for mayhem to ensue just like it did before.

We learned in 2000 that there's no urgency to replacing the Harbor Maintenance Tax with a challenge-proof source of funds for harbor dredging. With the HMT on imports covering the federal share of maintaining channel depths, and alternatives too divisive to contemplate, look for another year of inaction on this question.

Best wishes from all of us at JoC Week for a happy holiday and a successful 2001.

Peter Tirschwell is editor of JoC Week. He can be reached at (973) 848-7158, or via e-mail at ptirschwell

oc.com.