The facade of the Laeiszhof on Hamburg's Nikolaifleet radiates the traditional awareness of the local shipping line family. The exterior of the brick palace celebrates the Wilhelmine era, with statues of Emperor Wilhelm I and his Chancellor, Prince von Bismarck.
The landlord endeavors to achieve Hanseatic understatement: Nikolaus H. Schües, dark blue suit without gold buttons, blue and red patterned tie. His father once took over and managed the F. Laeisz shipping company, Schües grew up here. He did an apprenticeship as a ship merchant, studied economics, started in the shipping company in 1993, and took over management six years later. What appeals to him about the industry? Sure, the water - after all, the man is Hanseat. The internationality, the contact with people. And: "The big fluctuations between up and down have something exciting."
So it has to be very exciting for Nikolaus Schües right now - because it's going through a wave valley. The German merchant shipping sector was completely hit by the corona crisis. World trade has slumped, never before have so many container ships anchored without an order: over 500. Schües will probably have to reduce its fleet by a few ships. Prices are falling, the world's largest shipping companies have cut their profit forecasts. Especially since the outlook is bleak: If the many predicted regionalization of the value chains actually occurs, this is catastrophic for merchant shipping.
The Association of German Shipowners (VDR), the lobby body of the industry, raises the alarm: Shipowners' sales collapsed on average by 30 to 40 percent in March and April. Almost half have problems with liquidity. Accordingly, shipowner president Alfred Hartmann calls for the state: "Everyone tries to keep their employees and thus their maritime know-how. Whether we can continue to do so depends on the extent to which there is concrete support in this serious crisis." He calls for a reduction in insurance tax on ship insurance and clarity as to whether the "tried and tested instruments for shipping promotion" will be retained.
It is not unusual for an industry to call for the state. Almost everyone calls, in a wide variety of decibel numbers. The only problem with the shipping companies is that they always wanted something from the state. No matter whether it was going well or bad. And because the presence on the world's oceans is still something of a question of prestige, the politicians almost always fulfilled the wishes. Federal Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) has been a major shipowner since his time as Hamburg's first mayor.
But in the face of the corona crisis, the entire Federal Republic is now threatening to mutate into a kind of shipping economy: federal and state governments have mobilized hundreds of billions of euros, grant loans to companies such as TUI, examine new subsidies such as the purchase premium for BMW, Daimler and VW - and participate directly to companies like Lufthansa. There was no longer so much state in the economy.
The shipowners are a warning example of what happens if politicians are too financially comfortable with an economic sector: Because the arms race for subsidies has not just led to the fact that the industry is flourishing and prospering. On the contrary: the number of ships and the number of German seafarers nevertheless shrank.
So what are the lessons that the state, and thus taxpayers, can and should learn?