Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Decision-making in container shipping: reactive or proactive?

The best monopoly profit is a quite life” used to tell me Sir John Hicks many years ago when, as a student, I was writing my thesis -The Dynamic Stability of Competitive Equilibrium- based on his book Value and Capital.[1]

In our present research, Mike and I have tried to say something similar, albeit with different words: In imperfect markets (collusion, concentration, etc.), mistakes do not cost that much, and they can be easily corrected. Here, carrier short-run capacity deployment decisions could be described as ‘reactive’, or as ‘steady as she goes’. In other words, carriers’ approach is fairly mechanistic:  ‘let’s see what we did in the previous years, or what our competitors our doing, and do the same’. Expectations regarding future developments in their markets do not matter so much and, in a way, decisions are made reactively, like someone who tries to drive a car forward by looking in their rear view mirror. This is the essence of adaptive expectations.[2]

On the contrary, competition obliges you to stand on your toes; to sit on the edge of your chair; to bite your nails; to look around and ahead and try to fathom every scrap of information coming your way which could impact your bottom line. Here, mistakes cost; sometimes they cost a lot, as the bankruptcy of Hanjin Shipping has taught us. Such a decision-making approach reflects  the fundamentals of rational expectations.[3]

Mike and I therefore thought that if, through the use of shipping capacity deployment data, we could discover how shipowners form their expectations on future developments in their markets, i.e. adaptively or rationally, we should also be able to say something about the structure of their industry (imperfect or competitive). Such information, particularly today when the European Commission is considering extending for another five years its antitrust concessions to international shipping, might be of a certain value.

Admittedly, our results are not as strong as we would like them to be, but this is a good thing and a good starting point for other researchers who would like to follow us. We  however have been able to show that, in the more competitive Pacific market, carriers may tend to decide rationally; in the Atlantic market, instead, this could not be established and carriers there seem to be reactive rather than proactive, forming their expectations adaptively.

If true, the latter finding (Atlantic) comes only to validate, for one more time, what we said 15 years ago in our Erasmus Report:[4] “the disbanding of liner conferences from European trades has done little to increase competition in liner shipping”.

Hercules Haralambides
January 2020

PS. The complete paper is freely downloadable here: doi.org/10.1186/s41072-019-0057-2

[1] J.R. Hicks (1939) Value and Capital: An inquiry into some fundamental principles of economic theory. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1939.
[2] See Milton Friedman (1968). The Role of Monetary Policy. American Economic Review, 58 (1): 1–17.
[3] See John A. Muth (1961). Rational Expectations and the Theory of Price Movements. Econometrica 29 (6): 315–335, and Thomas Sargent (1986) Rational Expectations and Inflation. New York: Harper and Row, 1986.
[4] The Erasmus Report: Global Logistics and the Future of Liner Shipping Conferences. DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.1.3225.3200 (Report prepared for the European Commission’s Competition Directorate General “for assistance in processing public submissions to be received in response to the “consultation paper” on the review of Council regulation 4056/86)”.