Sometimes, just sometimes the best intended and most well meaning advice can turn out to be some of the worst. Take my mate Dirty Digger as an example. Like me, he cut his teeth diggin’ in the dirt way out west hoping to find his fortune. It’s a tough, lonely existence out there, always working on the promise that tomorrow you’re gonna get rich. As a result, men tend to be real men, and that leaves very little time for a love life.
Digger was lonely. Digger wanted a wife. Digger wanted little Diggers running around the yard. Digger got himself a date. On the evening before his big date we sat by the light of a mechanical crusher unit, drying our underpants on the engine cowl. Digger turned to me whistfully and asked if I had any advice for his date. As I turned over my toasty undercrackers to dry the gusset I looked up at the moonlit sky and sighed.
‘Well Digger, I could tell you to do this, do that, say this and that, but at the end of it you know what? The best thing to do is just to be yourself’, I said. ‘That’s mighty fine piece of advice’ he said while peeing on the dying embers of a pile of burning plastic sacks. I went to bed feeling like I had done a good thing.
When Digger returned to work on the following Monday the first thing I asked him was how his date went. ‘Well I took your advice Prospector’ he said, staring into the distance. ‘And at the end of the date she told me that I was the biggest asshole she’d ever met in her life.’ With that, he swung into the cab of his JCB, turned the key and chugged off over to the far side of the mine. I guess I just plain forgot that Digger is in fact an asshole.
Here’s another piece of useless advice that I have heard recently. An investor told my ship owner pal Private Ryan that shipping companies should be getting closer and more involved with the commodity markets of the piles of stuff that they’re transporting. With a name like Mr Prospector you might well expect me to know a bit about digging up stuff and selling it. So not surprisingly Private Ryan told me he called Agent Orange, a trader friend or ours to see what I thought.
There’s some pretty sharp pratices in the dry bulk business. That we all know. Slick Eddy told me about a guy who was known to his enemies as Superman. His favourite trick was to book a long term contract to ship some stuff each mid-December, then put the address commission straight into his PnL. He’d trouser the bonus due for his great work then try to cancel the contract come the first day of January. There’s a lot of people right now lauding ‘the Greek way’ of doing things. I asked Les Miserable about what he thought that meant. He told me that if he chartered a ship from a Greek owner these days one ‘Greek way’ is to steam so slow that to the naked eye the ship is going backwards. Under-performance? Well, the way to deal with that is just to delete the word ‘under’ and blame it on the weather.
It seems that fiddling the bunkers has become a legitimate form of poker, whereby what you get and what you paid for might not be exactly the same. And assessing the balance is like assessing an Alsatian’s favourite poet. Luckily it has been legitimised for you to try it as the worst that can happen is that you pay back the difference for what you say happened and what really happened. Why would you not try it?
But these, along with every other ‘sharp’ trick in the freight market would give you the impression it is full of scoundrels. That might be true, but while shipping has a collection of naughty boys, the commodity trading world is where Ted Bundy trades with The Boston Strangler. Agent Orange, a commodity trader at the nether regions of the business told Private Ryan to approach the commodity trading business like running through a field of nettles in a pair of Speedos. Incidently he’s called Agent Orange because his head is exactly the same shape as an orange. He was asked to tell me a few war stories and replied ‘Would a top 100 would do?’ Hmmmmm, let’s just stick to the basics.
‘Let’s take a typical easy trade’ he said. ‘We were selling RB1 coal to India. I bought a panamax cargo off a very regular supplier. Now RB1 is RB1 right? Terms for that are 100% load port test. Standard. I take it, ship it, buyer unloads it and calls me and says ‘this ain’t RB1 buddy. It’s too late for me to do too much about it with the seller as he’s been paid. My buyer is hopping mad. I end up having to trim the price to get it accepted by the buyer. I’m out of pocket. So what happened?’
Me and Ryan were listening to him silently, thinking ‘Say nothing and I won’t look stupid’. He fires up ‘I’ll tell you what happened. They took some RB1, got it tested and its all OK. Then like a miracle some other coal got in there and got mixed up with my nice RB1 that I paid for!’ he howls. is this standard? ‘Well yes, but today it’s worse’ he said. Give me some examples?
‘Now I’ve seen a stockpile of grey iron ore on Monday turn into nice orange iron ore on Tuesday. I went to a coal trader’s office and he showed me a cupboard full of blank test reports from a very well known testing company. All ready to print when required. The stamps were there as well.’ I was starting to get a bad impression here so asked him to describe a really bad one. Surely it can’t be that bad?
‘I know a guy who didn’t check an iron ore cargo before it was loaded and didn’t attend the inspection by the testing company. He got told by his boss that he better get a helicopter out to the ship, which had sailed with no certificate from a testing company in hand. He couldn’t do that of course. The testing company strangely failed to produce the certificate so the LC couldn’t be cashed until the ship arrived off China 30 days later. Then it showed that the cargo was 7% down on the FE content. That was rejected, no LC paid, the ship couldn’t go back. Stuck paying demurrage. To make matters worse, this guy decided to try to fake the test certificate. That’s possible of course by paying a bribe, but not helpful. The idiot then went and paid a $10,000 bribe to the wrong testing company! A nice lady there had a great Christmas courtesy of the strange man from the East.’ By now my man was boiling.
‘It got worse. The cargo got rejected, but the ship was on demurrage, so they paid off the owner to discharge it into a bonded yard for a premium. It was discharged and they all flew to China to sell it on the ground. It turns out when they got there it was not in a bonded yard. The original buyer had paid the port handlers to move it into into their own yard. Now it has been rejected, the ship was gone, it was in somebody else’s yard which they had no access to and funnily enough they got a bid from the yard owner at shall we say ‘distressed seller’ prices. That little lot cost them $3m, their entire reputation in the Chinese market and when they complained to the miner they found out that he’d already been murdered by a previously disgruntled buyer. And I’m not joking. Dead.’
But surely at least it is all done by LCs? ‘Bah! Big companies use small banks. The LC process is a massive tune up in terms of fees. So the banks are fighting for a big importer’s business. You present your documents as a seller per LC terms then nothing happens. You pretty much always get the first payment as you’ve got the bills of lading (in theory – provided you’re paying the ship owner), but everyone knows that’s fiction so it’s factored in. When it comes to balance payment, firstly the testing agency at the importing port seemingly never get around to it. When they do you can expect at least 1% off the quality that the load port report said. That depends on who bribes them the most. Incidently I don’t think it even gets tested most of the time. I went to a testing facility once and saw about 10,000 unopened bags of coal. They just clip off a standard amount based on the origin, then have the biggest summer barbecue ever. Then the bank just sits on the payment until the buyer gets round to saying ‘OK pay them’. And that is an irrevocable LC!’ he raged.
It sounded like a pretty rough sort of business. ‘Rough? I had a fist fight on a bulk carrier at anchorage two miles out to sea when the testing guys, all eleven of them, spent the whole day asleep. I woke ’em up to ask if they were going to test and ended up going at it with half a dozen of ’em until the crew intervened. I genuinely thought I’d have to stay on the ship until it got to Singapore as the trip on the lauch back to shore with the locals looked, to put it mildly, a bit dangerous.’
‘So what would you say to a ship owner thinking of getting a bit closer to the cargo?’ I asked, while bracing myself for the onslaught. ‘Well, this is literally skimming the surface of the top 100 scams and rucks. If you work in an office in a reasonable city then get your kicks by being welcomed onboard a vessel you’ve chartered like Prince Charles. Take some pictures of you in a boiler suit with a load of smiling crew members, have a beer with the captain and then head straight back to where you came from. Leave the rest of it to the poor hapless idiot who actually owns the cargo. You’ll recognise him because he’s the one who’ll look like Christopher Walken at the end of the Deer Hunter.’
This week I decided to stay indoors. I am not going to moan about shipping, or anything else for that matter, but I’ll leave you with a joke. An old ship owner dies. Not surprisingly he goes to hell. When he gets there the devil tells him that he needs to pick a room to stay in for eternity. He looks into the first one and sees a group of men covered in blood all fighting eachother. ‘Ship brokers’ the devil says. The next room is full of people being repeatedly slapped around the head with large planks of wood until they are black and blue and bleeding. ‘Ship owners’ says the devil. The third room is full of men standing up to their knees in human waste sipping cups of tea. ‘Commodity traders’ says the devil. The dead ship owner says ‘This doesn’t look so bad. I’ll choose this one.’ And in he goes. He is given a cup of tea, but before he can take a sip a bell rings. Out comes a huge ogre with a huge wooden club over his shoulder who bellows ‘Alright lads, tea break’s over for this year, back on your heads.’