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Comparative maritime policies: a U.S. dilemma.

We live in an era of expanding global trade and interdependability despite the real and/or alleged protectionist trade policies of many sovereign nations. In order to facilitate any expansion of global business and trade, efficient transportation systems are a sine qua non. Even through deep-sea shipping no longer enjoys a virtual monopoly in the global movement of cargo, it is still the most efficient means of transporting a majority of cargo across the oceans and even regionally in many cases. Thus, the importance of commercial shipping has only increased in the contemporary era.

Given the importance of international shipping, it is natural to look upon shipping policies as something beyond cogs of the wheel of a national transportation policy. For many nations, particularly those that are less developed, shipping policies tend to be a significant component of public policy. This is because the terms of trade of international merchandising can make the difference between making an export or not, and whether or not valuable foreign exchange is generated. Noncompetitive pricing of shipping movements enhances commodity competition and may close export markets for a trading nation, severely affecting its balance of trade. Thus, an effective shipping policy can facilitate economic growth and enhance standard of living in addition to accomplishing other auxiliary goals.(1)

Arguments such as the above have led many nations and their policy makers to place shipping on a pedestal, as an important subset of their trade policy. Indeed, a review of the history and evolution of shipping policies, dating back to the period of the early eastern Mediterranean civilizations of the Phoenicians, Greeks, Rhodanese, and Romans, and the later expansionist policies of western European nations such as those of the Dutch, British, and French, lend credence to the extraordinary significance attached to shipping policies.(2) The U.S. has also given significant attention to merchant shipping policies in the past, and one of the first acts passed by the very first U.S. Congress -- the Tariff Act of 1789, for the promotion of industry, trade, and shipping -- was to promote U.S.-built, -owned, and -operated merchant marine.(3)

The U.S. flag merchant fleet has depleted rapidly from its post-WWII peak to what it is today, 16th in rank by number of ships and 10th in rank by deadweight tonnage.(4) According to the latest available data, the market share by weight of U.S. flag vessels in the oceanborne foreign trade of the U.S. is 17 percent for liner cargo and 2.1 percent for non-liner cargo, and by value, 20.9 percent and 3.4 percent. respectively.(5) A number of U.S. flag shipping companies -- including the illustrious United States Lines -- have declared bankruptcy during the past two decades.(6) The remaining U.S.-based shipping companies, active in the international shipping market, are sincerely soliciting permission to exit the U.S. flag.(7) From the standpoint of ship construction, while 601 new commercial vessels of 21,159,000 deadweight tons were delivered worldwide during 1991, U.S. shipyards did not build any during that year.(8) The order book of U.S. shipyards, which built 4,976 steel ships during the WWII period,(9) continues to be negligible. One writer has concluded that the current status of the U.S. merchant marine is due to overly restrictive promotional policies that became counterproductive.(10) Some observers have gone as far as stating that the U.S. has no effective merchant marine policy.(11)

There have been some attempts to rejuvenate the status of U.S. merchant marine, such as the abortive attempt towards the end of the Bush regime by the previous Secretary of Transportation and the present initiative by the Clinton administration. However, all those attempts, whether aborted or ongoing, center around subsidies of one nature or the other for which adequate appropriations can only be fancied.

Before one castigates maritime policy making as an exercise in futility, it may be helpful to understand the intricacies involved in such policy making. It may also be useful to scrutinize the policies of those nations where shipping appears to be thriving. This article will address the above issues and make relevant recommendations.


The complications in maritime policy making arise from many sources. To begin with, exports of one nation are the imports of one or more other nations. Hence, it is essential to maintain international comity while formulating maritime policies. As a result, it is not unusual for a nation's domestic maritime policy to be in conflict with its international maritime policy.

In all shipping markets, the freight earned by a vessel depends upon the type of cargo it carries. Thus, it is highly unlikely that a shipowner will earn the same revenue during the front-haul as during the back-haul between two ports. As new vessels enter a market, old vessels are rarely sent to a scrapyard, contributing towards global overtonnaging. Furthermore, newer vessels are often built with the explicit goal of exploiting economies of scale and lowering the unit cost of transportation, thereby leading to a diminution of freight rates. All components of ship costs -- capital cost. running cost, and voyage cost -- are going up. Manning cost, a significant component of running cost, is becoming the proverbial Achilles' heel of shipowners from developed countries. Efforts by shipowners in traditional maritime countries to lower manning costs are often defeated by powerful seafarer union interests. At the same time, shippers all over the world are becoming increasingly vocal and having a greater say in their transportation requirements. With the availability of alternatives that were lacking in the past, they are taking full advantage of their market power and establishing the most cost-effective transportation systems to enhance their global competitiveness. Thus, while shipowners seem to be embattled on one major front due to the intensified global competition from other shipowners and deteriorating freight earnings, the developments on the other major front --- in dealing with their clients -- do not offer any more comfort. Such developments have polarized shippers and shipowners, and complicated the contemporary maritime policy-making process.

Another major development in shipping is the emergence of new maritime countries based primarily in the Asia Pacific region. It has been argued that these nations, such as Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore, are achieving dominance in the maritime industry.(12) The evolution of this new order in merchant shipping is partly because of the forces of comparative advantage, which favored the newly industrialized nations. Shipowners based in these nations have also benefitted from their national maritime policies.(13) Quite apart from. this group, there has also been a significant growth of national flag shipping lines based in other third world countries and, more importantly, from the now extinct Eastern Block.(14)

Over and above these developments has been the phenomenal growth of open registries(15) in the last three decades and that of second registries in the 1980s. Typical open registries, such as the Liberian, Panamanian, and Cypriot, offer shipowners cost savings through flexible manning requirements and tax concessions, and freedom to enter or exit the chosen flag almost at will. The evolution of second registries has been interpreted as the policy response of those traditional maritime countries that restructured their maritime fleets in response to the contemporary realities of the shipping world.(16)

The availability of such shipping options based in non-traditional maritime nations also complicates maritime policy making. Generally speaking. policy dialogues involve lengthy discussions between the different interest groups and the policy makers. As a result, by the time a consensus is reached, the policy measures formulated become outdated even before they are implemented. The developments discussed above have the effect of prolonging the policy-making process into perpetuity, as has been the case with maritime policy making in the U.S.


Politicians, industry leaders, observers, and other interested parties have been lamenting the absence of an effective maritime policy in the U.S.(17) A former U.S. maritime administrator, when questioned by a congressional committee, is said to have remarked, "I wish I could give you an answer."(18) Indeed, this underlying uncertainty extends to the very definition of maritime policy.(19)

It has been observed that in the U.S., the various interest groups in maritime policy making can come to rational and expeditious conclusions only during times of calamity and that as a result, the U.S. merchant marine has always emerged stronger after each such crisis.(20) Such postulations appear convincing because the industry seems unable to consolidate its gains made during periods of instability. The interest groups involved in maritime policy making have become more polarized and their conflicting goals and values even more entrenched because of the market developments discussed earlier. As a result, consensus building is rather utopian, despite the availability of sophisticated conflict resolution techniques in policy formulation, such as the analytic hierarchical process.(21) In the past, wealthy nations such as the U.S. could overcome obstacles in policy making by offering direct and/or indirect subsidies to the disgruntled parties, effectively putting truly vexing problems on the back burner. However, with the current budgetary problems facing the nation, continuing with the failed policies of the past is no longer an option. This is the main reason for the renewed interest in maritime policy making in the U.S.

Other elements which have made a perceptible influence in the U.S. maritime policy debate include the contemporary trends of privatization and deregulation, and the philosophical justifications provided by contemporary industrial organization models such as the Neo-Chicago(22)/UCLA(23) school of thought, according to which performance determines structure via natural selection process in market economies, and the theory of contestable markets,(24) which emphasizes the need for elimination of entry barriers for potential entrants.


Traditional Maritime Countries

This section will examine the shipping strategies of three leading traditional maritime fleets.

The Norwegian Model

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, shipowners based in Norway deserted the traditional Norwegian flag in large numbers and sought the open registries. As a policy response, the Norwegians introduced a "new deal" for shipping in July 1987, called the Norwegian International Ship (NIS) register. The NIS offers a combination of the advantages of a traditional maritime nation with its shipping milieu as well as the typical cost savings associated with a low-cost registry. Major features of this registry include absence of nationality requirements with respect to crew or equity capital; freedom to negotiate wages and other conditions of employment with any representative union regardless of nationality; freedom to be incorporated outside Norway provided there is an owner's representative in Norway and part of the operating functions are located there; non-taxation of foreign owners; low level of registration fees; and liberalization of currency requirements and regulations.(25)

The subsequent growth of the NIS register during the past five years has been spectacular. Within two years, NIS became the second largest tanker registry, the seventh largest dry bulk registry, and the fifth largest fleet overall.(26) In April 1993, the NIS fleet consisted of 835 vessels of 34.7 million deadweight tons.(27) Between 1983 and 1987, the number of Norwegian seafarers had decreased from 24,150 to 10,000. However, by the beginning of 1993, the number went up to 11,500 despite the increased automation and manning reduction on board vessels.(28) This number does not include the numerous land-based jobs which were created to support the large shipping fleet.

The Norwegian model of introducing a second registry is catching on and other traditional maritime nations are following that lead. A good example is France, with its Kerguelen registry. In the U.K., as of now, there is a strong push by the Baltic Exchange to set up an NIS-style British Open Registry (BOR).

Norwegian sailors -- who are paid higher than those working on land -- pay less income tax on a given income than other Norwegians. The cost of repatriating a seafarer who has spent six months on a vessel in the foreign trades is subsidized 50 percent by the government.

The Japanese Model

Among the traditional maritime countries, the current Japanese fleet is the third largest in the world, next only to Greek and Norwegian. Despite the high appreciation of yen during the last decade and the high cost of living there, the Japanese have maintained a strong maritime presence.

Even though there is no law which mandates the use of national crew on Japanese flag ships, the Japanese Ministry of Transport does not encourage the employment of foreign crews. However, Japanese companies are able to lower their operating costs by registering vessels under a foreign flag and investing in highly automated vessels as well as through creative chartering arrangements, mixed manning, and government subsidies.(29) This article examines only the last three strategies.

Creative chartering arrangements: There are two variations of this theme as practiced by Japanese operators. In the "tie-in" arrangement, a foreign shipowner with connections to a Japanese shipping company builds a ship in a Japanese yard. Upon completion, the vessel is chartered for long term by the Japanese company. However, the vessel will have a foreign flag and foreign crew.

With the other variation, "charter-back" arrangement, a Japanese shipowner sells a ship to a foreign shipowner and charters it back under a foreign flag and with foreign crew. In both of the above cases, the foreign shipowner may be a subsidiary of the Japanese shipowner.

A Japanese shipowner who makes use of either of the above strategies stands to lose shipbuilding subsidies. It is possible to overcome that by bareboat chartering the Japanese flag vessel to a foreign shipowner, which may be a subsidiary of the Japanese owner, and then time-chartering the vessel back with a cheap foreign crew.(30)

Mixed manning: This strategy, adopted in October 1989, allows Japanese flag ships which are newly constructed "in principle" to be operated with a minimum of nine Japanese officers and ratings to bring down their operating costs. As this relaxation did not satisfy all Japanese shipowners, further negotiations have lowered this number to a minimum of six officers subject to a case-by-case approval from the Japanese seafarers' union.

Government subsidies:(31) In the Japanese fiscal year 1990, the government authorized $450 million in loans through the Japan Development Bank to Japanese flag carriers for the financing of domestically constructed oceangoing vessels, and the Maritime Credit Corporation was authorized to make $460 million in loan for the financing of coastal vessels. Furthermore, in 1990, the government authorized $19.5 million in loans and subsidies for the development of environmentally sensitive tankers and $27.8 million in subsidies for domestic services. The government also authorized $41 million in loans for streamlining production in Japanese shipyards. This resulted in consolidating 44 companies (in 1980) into eight groups (in 1991).

The Greek Model

The Greek-controlled merchant fleet now consists of about 2,750 ships of 104 million deadweight tons,(32) which makes it the largest merchant shipping fleet as of now. A large number of Greek owners flag their vessels in open registries. Despite that, Greece has the largest shipping fleet among the traditional maritime nations and ranks behind only the open registry Liberian and Panamanian fleets.

In Greece, ship ownership and operation is more or less a national ambition.(33) Many entrepreneurial Greek owners buy ships without borrowing any money, which allows them to easily lay up their ships without worrying about mortgage payments. At the same time, such a strategy also leads to the purchasing of somewhat older and, in some cases, rather dated tonnage. Furthermore, Greek tax laws allow significant exemption for vessels constructed and registered in Greece. The Greek government also issued Law 814/78 to attract foreign economic interests, including shipping companies which may or may not be controlled by Greek interests, to relocate to Greece.(34) Thus the Greek shipping strategy is a combination of fiscal conservatism and unshackled entrepreneurial adventure.

The "New Order" Maritime Nations

This section will examine the shipping policies that have led to the outstanding growth of the tonnage registered in two prominent, newly industrialized, dynamic Asian economies.

South Korea

The South Korean shipping industry has been posting dramatic growth during the last three decades. From 1962 to 1981, gross tonnage of the Korean fleet grew at an average rate of 22.8 percent per annum." The Korea Shipowners' Association has predicted an increase of 12 percent in freight revenues for 1993.(36) Three large container operators are based in South Korea despite the small size of that nation. The continued spectacular growth of Korean shipping is due to a variety of government initiatives: Growth from 1962 to 1981 that has been traced to a waiver system which reserved considerable amounts of cargo for Korean flag ships; a highly successful industrial policy which was export-oriented during the 1960s and oriented toward import substitution in the 1970s; maintaining the Korean won at an exchange rate close to the free market level; tax exemptions on the imports of second-hand ships, ship's stores, and income in ocean-going shipping companies; the "Kaihek Zoseon" scheme, which gave preferential loans for the government-financed shipbuilding program; government investment in maritime infrastructure; the BBCPO (BareBoat Chartered with Purchase Option) arrangement; and the availability of low cost and well trained personnel.(37)

When global shipping was undergoing a recession in the early 1980s, the South Korean government embarked upon a strategy to streamline its shipping industry. A large number of shipping companies either merged with their bigger counterparts or went out of business. As a result, not only did the South Koreans overcome the recession but they also came out stronger than ever before. Although the number of vessels flying the Korean flag has gone down, the deadweight tonnage has gone up due to the government policy of replacing dated and inefficient ships with a fleet of larger and more efficient vessels.


The Singapore strategy is unique for many reasons. The Singapore government made a major policy shift in 1985 in deciding to promote service industries rather than manufacturing industries. As a result, the Singapore Trade Development Board introduced the Approved International Shipping Enterprise Scheme in 1991 with the goal of making Singapore a board-based maritime center. The scheme will provide tax exemption for recognized, good quality shipowners on income from the operations of all their vessels regardless of where they are flagged, provided at least 10 percent of their fleet is flagged in Singapore and they spend at least S$4 million per annum there. As more shipowners move their operations to Singapore, the requisite shipping milieu -- consisting of shipbrokers, surveyors, lawyers, banks, P&I clubs, and other supporting services -- can also be expected to relocate. The AIS scheme has resulted in attracting about fifteen shipping companies -- based in China, Hong Kong, ASEAN countries, Europe, and even the U.S. -- to Singapore. It has been reported that the scheme has already met its initial objective of attracting 100 ships operated from Singapore, which will directly contribute about S$125 million to the local economy.(38) In addition to the AIS scheme, Singapore will also permit foreign shipowners to set up and run their own shipping agencies. It is also intended to attract more foreign shipowners to make a local presence and eventually shift their operations to Singapore.

The Erstwhile Eastern-Block Nations

The Soviet era Eastern-Block nations built up a large fleet of merchant ships and played a significant role in shipping. Admiral Gorshkov, head of the Soviet Navy for thirty years, and the chief strategist of Soviet buildup, has reportedly remarked that "among the factors which characterize our country's military power, its sea power is taking an increasingly significant role. It is in that sea power that is expressed the true scope for actively using the oceans of the world to build Communism."(39)

The Soviet merchant fleet, considered a strategic instrument for political indoctrination as well as for earning hard currency, increased its market. share through drastic undercutting and also by providing other incentives to shippers. Accordingly, shipping lines and cargoes were allocated so that Soviet presence was felt on all trade routes. In some cases, through judicious allocation of cargo, they even penetrated the secretive conference boardrooms.(40) Thus, the rationale for the Soviet maritime buildup was more political than commercial.


This study examined the various pitfalls in maritime policy making in general and specifically in the case of the U.S. The absence of an effective contemporary shipping policy has led to the rapid deterioration of the U.S. flag merchant fleet. The first step to correct this situation should be to make a distinction between shipping and shipbuilding policies. A highly intertwined relationship between shipping and shipbuilding policies can be detrimental to both industries, as has been the U.S. experience. It may also be advantageous for a healthy merchant marine to have its policies formulated in the Department of Commerce rather than in the Department of Transportation, where shipping will be competing with the politically more powerful domestic modes of transportation. An examination of successful shipping policies of other nations, traditional maritime nations as well as those belonging to the new maritime order, provides some significant directions for the U.S. policy makers to choose. The Norwegian model has good merit and should be considered seriously by the U.S. If the U.S. is able to set up an international registry for its deep-sea fleet without bureaucratic hurdles, it might bring back some shipowners who deserted the U.S. flag. Setting up an international register may result in reducing the number of seafaring jobs for U.S. citizens in the short run and hence will lead to resistance from seafarers' unions. However, given the current status of the U.S. flag fleet, it may be better to have some seafaring jobs than none at all. Furthermore, establishing an open register will encourage more shipping business to flow through commercial centers in the U.S. and also generate new shore-based managerial and operational job opportunities.

Another model to be considered is the AIS scheme formulated by Singapore. Parts of such a shipping-friendly scheme in combination with a U.S.-based open registry policy may further strengthen the shipping milieu that already exists in this country. Such a catharsis may be the only solution to the currently debated iterations of a dated subsidy policy concocted in 1936.


1 Non-commercial goals of having a merchant fleet include lending support to the military forces, showing the national flag, etc.

2 For a brief review of the early development of the law of the sea and maritime policy, see Bruce Farthing, International Shipping (London: Lloyd's of London. 1987), pp. 1-12.

3 For more details on U.S. maritime policies from 1789 to 1979, see Irwin M. Heine, The U.S. Maritime Industry in the National Interest (Washington, D.C.: National Maritime Council, 1980), pp.3-27.

4 U.S. Maritime Administration, Marad '92 Annual Report (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of Transportation, 1993) p. 14. (Hereafter referred to as Marad '92.)

5 Marad '92, p.15.

6 Other U.S. flag shipping companies that have ceased operations either due to bankruptcy or other reasons include Columbia Streamship (1970), Gulf and South American (1971), American Mail Lines (1973), States Marine Line (1973), American Export ISB (1978), Pacific Far East Lines (1978), States Streamship Company (1978), Seatrain (1981), Delta Streamship Lines (1982), Moore-McCormack Lines (1983), and Prudential-Grace Lines (1986). For details, see: President's Commission on Merchant Marine and Defense (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1988).

7 Robert C. Waters, "Federal Regulations and the Competitiveness of U.S. Liner Ship Operators," Transportation Journal 33, No. 1(1993), 53-58.

8 Marad '92, p.6.

9 Over 96 percent of those vessels were completed after the attack on Pearl Harbor (on 7 December 1941). Source: Irwin M. Heines, P. 121.

10 Clinton H. Whitehurst, The U.S. Merchant Marine: In Search of an Enduring Maritime Policy (Annapolis, Maryland: U.S. Naval Institute, 1983), p.43.

11 Leslie L. Kanuk, "Politics of Merchant Shipping Lecture Series," Lectures at Maine Maritime Academy, Castine, Maine, 20 Sept. 1986.

12 G.K. Sletmo, "Shipping's Fourth Wave: Ship Management and Vernon's Trade Cycles," Maritime Policy and Management 16, No. 4 (1989), 293-303.

13 E.g., see Tae-Woo Lee, "Some Reflections on the Causes of Growth of Korean Shipping," Current Issues in Maritime Economics, K.M. Gwilliam, Ed., (Dordrecht, Holland: Kluwer, 1993), pp. 8-21.

14 For a discussion on the effectiveness of Eastern-Block shipping policies, see Patrick Gautrat, "Eastern-Block Shipping Policies and European Shipping Industries," Shipping Policies For An Open World Economy, G.N. Yannopoulos, Ed. (London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 145-175.

15 The International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) refers to these registries as Flags of Convenience (FoC). As per the existing ITF criteria for such classification, there are seventeen nations which fall under the FoC category.

16 Gunnar K. Sletmo and Suzanne Holste, "Shipping and the Competitive Advantage of Nations: The Role of International Ship Registers," Maritime Policy and Management 20, No.3 (1993), 243-255.

17 E.g., see Office of Technology Assessment, An Assessment of Maritime Technology and Trade (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, 1983), p. 141.

18 Maritime Questions," editorial, Journal of Commerce 17 Mar. 1987, p.8A.

19 "Maritime Questions," p.8A.

20 E.G. Frankel. "U.S. Shipping Policy Under Conditions of a New World Economic and Political Environment," Maritime Policy and Management 7, No. 1 (1980), 31.

21 The analytic hierarchical process (AHP) was developed by T.L Saaty. Decision Making for Leaders -- The Analytic Hierarchical Process for Decisions in a Complex World (Univ. of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh: RWS Publications, 1988). The AHP model was applied to shipping by E.G. Frankel, "Hierarchical Logic in Shipping Policy and Decision-Making," Maritime Policy and Management 19, No. 3 (1992), 211-221.

22 George Stigler, The Organization of Industry (Homewood, Illinois: Irwin, 1968).

23 H. Demsetz, "Industry Structure, Market Rivalry and Public Policy," Journal of Law and Economics 16 (Apr. 1973), 1-9.

24 W.J. Baumol, J.C. Panzar, and R.D. Willig, Contestable Markets and the Theory of Industry Structure (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1982).

25 Karen Fossli, "Rallying Under Fire," Seatrade Review June 1993, pp.6-9.

26 "NIS Success as World Fleet Grows," Lloyd's Shipping Economist May 1990, p.27.

27 Fossli, pp.6-9. The NIS fleet went as high as 915 ships in 1991. The recent decline is due to ongoing restructuring, the objective of which is to come out with a leaner and meaner fleet. For further details, see Janet Porter, "Norwegian Merchant Fleet Contracts," Journal of Commerce 9 Aug. 1993, p.5B.

28 Source: Rolf Saether, Director General of Norwegian Shipowners' Association. Quoted here from Tony Gray, "British Open Register -- Ghost that Haunts Shipping Industry," Lloyd's List 9 Sept. 1993, p.5.

29 John Crichton, "Japan's Economy Crews," Containerisation International Feb. 1992, p.37.

30 One would imagine that all this is illegal. But that is not the case, and it is done with the full blessings of the Japanese Ministry of Transport. This scheme is referred to as "Maru-Ships." There are about 160 such ships in the Japanese fleet. Source: Crichton, p.37.

31 Source: Marad '92, pp.24-26.

32 Porter, p.5B.

33 Most Greek seafarers dream about owning their own vessel one day. Source: Author's personal conversations with Greek seafarers during his twelve years at sea.

34 U.S. Maritime Administration, Maritime Subsidies (Washington, D.C: U.S.G.P.O., 1988), pp. 57-58.

35 Tae-Woo Lee, P. 8.

36 Fleets Expand to Keep Up with China, Russia Trade," S. Korean Special Report, Journal of Commerce 10 Aug. 1993, p. 4C.

37 Tae-Woo Lee, pp. 10-20.

38 David Hughes, "World In Focus: Singapore -- Being Useful," Fairplay Special Report, 29 July 1993, pp.34-44.

39 Gautrat, p.147.

40 Gautrat, p. 146.

Mr. Shashikumar is master mariner and associate professor of transportation and management, Maine Maritime Academy, Castine, Maine 04420.
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Author:Shashikumar, N.
Publication:Transportation Journal
Date:Sep 22, 1994
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