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Balancing act with view to the west

Seldom has the US been as intensively scrutinised as at present. But despite its problems, the land of opportunity remains a trading partner that Germany can’t afford to ignore.

Photo Montage: Heike May; Shutterstock/Aun Photographer, Georgia Port Authority, Freepik.com

It’s a difficult situation to be in. On the one hand, the US is an important trading partner for Germany; on the other hand the country is currently governed by a president whose trade policy, to put it mildly, has steered the transatlantic relationship into rocky waters. Since June 2018, EU steel and aluminium producers have had to pay high customs duties on exports to the US. Since October 2019, the Americans have been levying retaliatory duties on EU goods such as wine from Germany, butter from Ireland and olive oil from Spain. It is not yet clear whether and in what form duties will be levied on European car imports. How should Europe in general and Germany in particular react to this? One thing is for sure: tit for tat retaliations are unlikely to be the answer. A difficult balancing act is required, as Germany’s prosperity depends on good political and economic relations with the US. In 2019, the US was Germany’s most important export market in 2019, and Germany’s third largest supplier in terms of imports. The figures for Bremen and Lower Saxony, which of course predate the pandemic, tell a similar story.

Bremen’s largest trading partner outside the EU

“The US is by far Bremen’s largest trading partner outside the EU,” says Torsten Grünewald, North America Officer at the Bremen Chamber of Commerce. “Around 14 % of Bremen’s total foreign trade, which of course is transacted via Bremen and Bremerhaven, is with the US.” More than 400 companies in the city-state do business with the US, and more than 80 Bremen companies, including suppliers to the automotive industry, logistics companies and aerospace companies, maintain an office there. In 2019 alone, goods with a total value of around €5.5bn were transacted between Bremen and the US, with exports via Bremen’s ports forming the lion’s share at €3.25bn. According to the current Hafenspiegel, this corresponds to 6.5m exported tonnes, as opposed to imports of €2.23bn or 2.6m imported tonnes. “Automotive accounts for about three-quarters of Bremen’s exports to the US,” says Grünewald. “Then there are goods such as coffee, measuring instruments, medical technology and tools and knives.”

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Production in VW’s US plants has also been affected by the pandemic. Experts expect a significant decline in vehicle sales in 2020.

As Canada’s largest seaport, Vancouver handles not just cars, breakbulk, bulk and containers. Even cruise ships dock here.

Lower Saxony’s fifth largest trading partner

In Lower Saxony, the situation is similar to that in Bremen. According to the state’s Ministry of Economics, Labour, Transport and Digitisation, trade between Lower Saxony and the US in 2019 totalled €10.26bn. This makes the US the the state’s fifth largest foreign trade partner. At €6.2bn, Lower Saxony’s 2019 exports to the US were 29% up on the previous year’s. The main export goods were watercraft (29.1%), vehicle parts (6.6%) and machinery (5.9%). In return, imports from the US in 2019 totalled €4.06bn, with aircraft (33%), oil and gas (5.5%) and coal and briquettes (3.6%) being the most in demand. LOGISTICS PILOT asked Volkswagen, BBC Chartering and Messe München what the distinguishing features of the US market are and what challenges await companies in the coming months.

Different states, different models

One of the most important automotive suppliers in the North American market is the Volkswagen Group of America. With 8,500 employees in the US alone, it has 66 sites and sold 363,322 cars there last year, not including Audi, Bentley, Lamborghini and Bugatti, which are also part of the company’s US portfolio. The company currently uses seven different ports for its logistics chains, in Benicia (California), Chattanooga (Tennessee), Davisville (Rhode Island), Houston (Texas), Jacksonville (Florida), Midlothian (Texas) and San Diego (California). According to information from VW, an eighth port facility is to be put into operation this summer in Baltimore (Maryland). “These ports are vital for our logistics activities,” explains Mike Tolbert from the corporate communications department of Volkswagen Group of America in Herndon (Virginia). “We use them to handle the transport of around 650,000 vehicles every year.” In 2020, due to the impact of the pandemic, VW will probably not be able to reach the same figures. Instead the company expects the American car market, which in 2019 comprised around 17 million vehicles, to shrink by 20 percent this year.

A journey in the shadow of the US

One of the world’s largest economies, Canada is a member of the G7 and G8. The country is a major agricultural producer and raw materials provider, especially zinc, uranium, potassium carbonate and sulphur. In recent years, however, the focus of Canada’s economic activity has increasingly shifted towards services and future technologies. At present, around one hundred Bremen companies have trade links with Canada, with the total trade volume in 2019 amounting to around €400m according to the Bremen Chamber of Commerce. Exports to Canada (amounting to €275m) significantly outweighed imports. Principle products are vehicles and spare parts, coffee, machinery and technical equipment, and wind and measuring technology. In 2019, the total volume of trade between Lower Saxony and Canada was around €1bn, according to information from the Lower Saxony Ministry of Economics, Labour, Transport and Digitisation. This makes Canada Lower Saxony’s thirtieth most important foreign trade partner. At €524m, the value of Lower Saxony’s exports to Canada was 46% higher in 2019 compared to the previous year. The main export goods were cars and mobile homes (24.5%), electricity generating equipment (19.1%) and agricultural machinery (5.2%). In 2019, Lower Saxony’s imports from Canada were worth €520m, 55.9% more than in the year before. Aircraft (36%), iron ore (17.5%) and coal and briquettes (16.4%) were at the top of the shopping list. (bre)

According to Tolbert, Americans have a particular fondness for SUVs. “At the beginning of this year, SUVs accounted for around 53 percent of our VW sales in the States.” By way of comparison, in Germany pre-pandemic, the combined market share of SUVs and off-road vehicles was just over 30%. “We respond to these different customer preferences with specific products for the American market. These include the ID.4 electric SUV, which is scheduled for launch within the next twelve months,” says Tolbert. The vehicle will initially be imported from Zwickau before manufacture commences in Chattanooga in 2022. At the end of last year, VW began expanding its site there, which from 2022 will be the group’s production facility for electric vehicles and battery systems for all of North America. VW already produces the seven-seater Atlas SUV, the five-seater Atlas Cross Sport SUV and the North American version of the Passat sedan there. The Arteon, Golf R and e-Golf models are all imported from Europe.

Price of oil a key factor

For over 20 years, the Leer-based shipping company BBC Chartering has been docking at ports in North America with its multi-purpose and heavy lift vessels. It has recently been making over 800 port calls per year, 660 of them in the US alone. The company has two sites in North America. From its Houston office, in addition to its worldwide APAC (any port, any cargo) service and liner services to South America, it has also been offering BBC Caribbean Service since May of this year, with the main destination ports being Cartagena, Point Lisas and Georgetown. “Our activities in the North American market continue to be strongly influenced by cargoes from the import market,” says Jennifer Thornton, Vice President for Global Projects and Business Development at BBC Chartering in the US. “The main volumes are shipments for the wind energy and oil and gas industries, including refinery expansions.”

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BBC Chartering has been operating in North America for over twenty years. The Leer-based shipping company focuses on the wind energy, oil and gas sectors.

Against the background of the current global situation, Thornton’s assessment of the development of these markets is surprising. She does not expect cargo volumes to decline in the wind energy sector in the next 18 to 24 months, whereas she has already noticed a significant decline in refinery expansions and other investment projects. “This is due in particular to Covid-19 and the unprecedented slump in oil prices. Many projects have been postponed indefinitely or cancelled until the market stabilises.” Thornton also thinks that the data for exports from North America, where BBC Chartering mainly transports bulk cargo and smaller quantities of equipment for the oil and gas industry, is sobering. “So far this year we are experiencing an all-time low in the bulk cargo segment. We don’t expect a recovery until the last quarter of 2020 or the first of 2021.” In Thornton’s opinion, stabilisation of the oil price is particularly important for a revival of the North American market and the sea freight sector. But despite current conditions, Thornton is confident about the future. “The North American market will recover. We are well positioned and have an excellent team. We look to the future with optimism.”

Logistics clarity required

Another company active in North America, in its core areas of capital goods, technology and consumer goods, is Messe München. It is organising the first ever “transport logistic Americas” event, which is to be held at the Miami Beach Convention Center from 10 to 12 November. At the same time, the Air Cargo Forum is taking place, also in Miami under the direction of the Munich-based company. “The international air cargo association TIACA asked us whether we would like to hold their Air Cargo Forum trade fair in Miami,” says Robert Schönberger, Head of Transport Logistics, Air Cargo and Ceramitic Exhibitions at Messe München, of the double event. “We gladly accepted the invitation and took the opportunity to point out that logistics trade fairs work best when representatives from all modes of transport come together.” Messe München is now closing a gap in the American market, where no logistics trade fair of this size has ever taken place before.

Messe München is not just active in Germany. It is also behind the “transport logistic Americas” event, which is due to take place for the first time at the Miami Beach Convention Center in November.

“The US market, which is dominated by trucking, is extremely expandable and offers good opportunities for intelligent solutions with high logistical standards,” says Schönberger. But he has learned that the logistics world of North America seemed to be further away for many European suppliers than, for example, China or India. One reason for this could be the completely different understanding of logistics that prevails on each side of the Atlantic. “For North Americans, logistics is seen as part of an overarching supply chain management. Here in Germany and in most parts of Europe it is the other way around,” says Schönberger. “In other words, when people talk about logistics in the US, they usually mean the pure transport of goods by truck on the highways and roads. In our view, this conception is too restrictive, as it largely excludes the deeper intervention of service providers in production and their participation in the value-adding logistics process. There is still a lot of consulting required in this area in America.” In view of current developments in the US, and despite the country’s huge importance for the German economy, some neutral observers may be inclined to add, “And not just in that area either.” (bre)

Into the Valley

Exactly one year ago, in August 2019, the Northern Germany Innovation Office (NGIO) launched in San Francisco. Backed by the three federal states of Bremen, Schleswig-Holstein and Hamburg, it is run by the business development agencies and other private partners. Together they put companies and other interested parties from the north in touch with Silicon Valley, enabling them to identify new technologies and business models, find business partners and develop networks in IT and tech. “We’re in contact with universities, large companies, venture capitalists, authorities and politicians. We also have contacts outside the big players like Google and Apple, because these days lots of start-ups have exactly what local companies need,” says Tim Ole Jöhnk, director of the NGIO in San Francisco. So far the focus has been primarily on helping companies from the three federal states in the maritime, aerospace and agriculture sectors and in cross-sectional areas such as AI. “For NGIO to work, it must go both ways,” says Jöhnk. “In the first phase we’re concentrating on connections from Germany to the US. The second step is to help start-ups from the Valley to gain a foothold in Europe and set up in North Germany.” In his opinion, what German companies can learn from the Americans is the importance of speed. “Processes from the recognition of a new technology to the first steps still take far too long in Germany,” he says. (bre)

Based in San Francisco, Tim Ole Jöhnk helps companies from Northern Germany find partners in the US.