Delayed Evolution

Friday, April 14, 2000
While e-commerce continues to reshape international business, many industry insiders reason that maritime - as usual - will be slow to catch the wave.

A frantic dash to set up tanker trading and information websites is being touted as the end of the traditional shipping marketplace, but insiders say there will be no overnight revolution. Two oil majors last week joined forces with the biggest shipbroker and leading agribusiness trading house to set up an online shipping exchange which aimed to transform the $100 billion market in moving bulk commodities by sea. Shell, BP, Clarksons and Cargill said their bulk shipping venture, LevelSeas.Com, offering a start-to-finish voyage chartering service would be "a real catalyst for change in the industry."

Other shipbrokers are now rushing to update their websites and a rash of dot.com shipping information ventures are also in the pipeline. But many in the industry say it is unlikely the web revolution will undermine the secretive tanker broking trade.

Too many deals are done off-market by close personal contacts and almost everyone is reluctant to go public with prices, they said.

Brokers fear some market players - whether oil companies, traders or shipowners - will use the web to try to cut out the middleman, the broker. Yet several said there were too many operators who did not want their information bandied about.

"Greek shipowners are very traditional. They are happy the way things are and they don't want the apple cart being rocked," said one broker. "Oil companies will not want rivals knowing their business, and nor will traders," said another.

Many brokers are setting up or improving websites to provide market information - but only to those willing to pay for it. A rash of shipping information sites, with names such as MaritimeDirect, Chartering Solutions and Sealogistics.com, are also being developed. "People are getting on the bandwagon, but it does not mean everything will change overnight," said one broker. "Since the advent of the telephone, charterers and owners have been able to cut out the middleman by talking directly," he added. The LevelSeas partners stressed the neutrality of their venture, saying they wanted all involved in the business, including other brokers, to use the exchange.

However, rival brokers said the market would not perceive it that way. "I cannot believe Shell or anyone else will put their private cargoes up for everyone to see," one broker said.

"Each individual fixture requires a rate to be negotiated. Traders won't want to lose their advantage by exposing their positions and competitors will not want to work with each other. Once you put all your cards on the table you would end up paying the worst possible rate," he said.

Shell Trading and Transport crude chartering manager Brian Davis said LevelSeas would probably become its preferred mode of trading, but only after an unspecified transitional period.

Brokers said it was unlikely that oil companies, which currently used panels of brokers for some fixtures and went direct to one broker for other private deals, would put all their eggs in one basket. Standard contract business could be displayed, brokers said, and the new sites could drive some smaller brokers unable to provide information services out of business.

"The Internet is going to shake out the industry and may damage the middlemen," said another broking source, "but why should brokers give out free information if they are not going to get the benefit of the business." - (Reuters)

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