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Hamburg shippers calm amid downturn

By James Coomarasamy
BBC News, Hamburg

File photo of Hamburg harbour
Hamburg's shipping industry has suffered because of the economic downturn

There is a point where the River Elbe flows out of the port of Hamburg at which every cargo ship is given a traditional, musical greeting or farewell.

A small pair of speakers plays the Hamburg anthem and the voice before the national anthem of the country to which the vessel belongs is piped into the ether.

But while maritime traditions have not been affected by the global economic downturn, the flow of sea traffic has.

Over the past two years, the cargo passing through Hamburg's harbour has dropped by about a third, with significant knock-on effects.

Not only have fewer national anthems been played, but fewer containers have been filled.

And that means that hundreds of ships which have been ordered are no longer required - a serious blow to a city where ship building, ship repairs - and ship financing - form an important part of the economy.

Yet there is no real sense of panic.

'Huge possibilities'

Carsten Rehder, who runs an eponymous shipping firm that has been in the family for over a century, remains calm.

Carsten Rehder
Carsten Rehder says previous generations had it worse

"People say this is the 22nd downturn in 300 years," he told me, sitting beneath a row of family portraits, "so we are approaching the 23rd upturn.

"My father's and grandfather's generation had it much worse - with world wars and inflation like we've never seen."

And it is not just the bosses who can afford to take a pragmatic view.

Although many workers have had to go onto short or part-time work, Germany's social safety net has been unfurled, topping up their wages so that neither they - nor their employers - have lost out.

As the German economy begins to pick up, there is a sense of confidence in Hamburg that global trade will do the same, leaving Germany's export-driven economy in a strong position.

Far from rebalancing its economy away from exports, as US President Barack Obama would like, Germans think the balance is just about right.

Olaf Preuss of Hamburger Abendblatt is a long-time chronicler of the shipping business, and he is optimistic.

"Yes, it is true that we depend on the revival of export markets, but there are huge chances and possibilities over the next few decades," he says.

"The Bric countries - Brazil, Russia, India and China - will need Germany's core exports: machinery, cars."

Note of caution

This sense of optimism has been reflected in the general election campaign.

Germans are attracted to the apocalypse so their decision to remain calm in the recession was a wise intellectual choice
Ruediger Kruse
Christian Democrat candidate

Germans seem pretty happy with the way the Christian Democrat (CDU)-led grand coalition government has shepherded them through the economic crisis.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's campaign posters sing the praises of her smart choices.

In the election, this is a problem for the opposition Social Democrats (SPD), as Hans Ulrich Klose, one of the party's senior figures and a former mayor of Hamburg, admitted.

"The real problem for us Social Democrats," he told me at an SPD rally, "is that there is no real conservative party in Germany.

"Half the CDU behave like Social Democrats. It is good to work together to solve problems, but it makes for tough campaigning."

The CDU are feeling pretty pleased with themselves.

According to one of their candidates for the Bundestag in Hamburg, Ruediger Kruse, the German people should be, too.

"Germans are attracted to the apocalypse," he smiled, "so their decision to remain calm in the recession was a wise intellectual choice."

But some Hamburgers are sounding a note of caution.

"We have a saying in German," said Christian Jespeneite, chief investment officer with the MM Warburg private bank, "the light at the tunnel could be the light from the train that is coming towards you."

He warns that if there is a follow-up, or double-dip, recession, the next German government will not be able to prop up the economy for a second time.

And he wonders whether a German public that is used to being cushioned from a recession would understand if left to fend for itself.



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