Back to the future

Does anyone remember when, in the late 1990s, economic commentators started talking about a 'weightless' economy? How far away and improbable it all seems – the concept took off around 1996 and disappeared when the market collapsed in 2001.

by Joe Gill
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Since 2001 two of the most dynamic growth sectors turned out to be commodities and container ports. These sectors are not only of the solid, weighty variety, they are the same growth sectors that helped drive the late 19th century phase of globalisation.

The primacy of commodities and the importance of international shipping were hardly predicted in the fervour of the internet boom, when trendy stocks resided in the ether, in brands and the intellectual property they represented.

In 2000 the 'weightless' speculative bubble reached its absurdist peak, along with the hyperbole around the boundless growth of hi-tech stocks built up by companies with few assets and very little revenue.

Today, the hot stocks are very much of the old economy – unglamorous but highly profitable. The reason is simple enough: worldwide container traffic increased by a remarkable 52% from 2000 to 2005. As a result, ports and cargo traffic have become a hot property in the takeover market. Investors are hoping to cash in on demand for state-of the art container facilities, and so are looking to add warehouses to portfolios dominated by office and retail.

Not surprisingly, China is the driving force behind the boom in commodity markets and port infrastructure. Dubai Ports World has been one of the beneficiaries – container volume in the United Arab Emirates increased by 18.5% last year, while growth in Europe and American container ports has also been double digit. Cargo from China has tripled through Hamburg since 2000.

For the immediate future, the world is in thrall to shipping and oil, copper and steel, just as it was in the golden age of the late 19th century. Meanwhile those ‘weightless’ industries, like mobile telephony, are burdened with the debts they accumulated during the last splurge of the internet bubble.

Joe Gill

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