Business, Finance & Economics

Hamburg wobbles, does not fall (yet)

Updated:

HAMBURG — There's a storm coming, and in this great port city the usual nautical metaphors apply: They are battening down the hatches and hoping to ride it out at anchor. But there has already been some heavy damage sustained.

Hamburg is the industrial hub of Europe's biggest economy, a center of shipbuilding and aerospace and the entry port for nearly 10 million shipping container units in 2007. By comparison, the largest port in the U.S. — Los Angeles — handled 8.3 million units in 2007. The world's largest port, Singapore, handled almost 28 million units.

Last month the bank that financed much of the port's development and modernization over the last two decades, HSH Nordbank, had to be bailed out by the regional governments. HSH Nordbank had been unable to resist getting in on the global market in securitized risks. In 2008 it lost 2.8 billion euros, about $3.5 billion. The governments of Hamburg and Schleswig Holstein are covering that loss and making 10 billion euros available for further borrowing. Eleven hundred jobs at the bank will be cut, a little more than a quarter of the work force.

But those losses are not being felt yet in the city center.

One of the characteristics of this economic crisis is how much of it is still something that's read about rather than experienced. Certainly that is the case at the Box Prinz cafe, just off the Reeperbahn, overlooking the harbor. A sign on the wall asks, "Are you very bored? Have too much money?" It then invites customers in for happy hour.

Claudia, who owns the place, makes a double espresso for a visitor, and says that so far things haven't changed too much for her business. "I heard some expensive restaurants closed," she said without a trace of schadenfreude. Her own business, mostly lunch time trade and evening drinkers, is doing OK.

OK is a relative term. As recently as 2005 the official unemployment rate in Hamburg peaked at 10 percent. It had been falling ever since — until the last three months.

It's not clear how long the worst will be avoided. Unofficial statistics from the last quarter of 2008 and the first two months of 2009 show a dramatic decline in container traffic.

According to Sylvia Stiller of the Hamburg Institute of International Economics, in the first half of 2008 container traffic showed 2 percent growth over the same period in 2007. By the end of the year traffic was down by 1.5 percent and shrinking dramatically. It is as if overnight Hamburg's share of world trade simply stopped.

So far this contraction has shown up only marginally in the employment statistics. The docks are now highly automated and the workers who survived the shift to automated operations have been specially trained at government expense to run the systems that load cargo. The government does not want to lose this investment, and so is helping to keep the men at work by subsidizing salaries, Stiller explained.

The federal government of Germany is doing what it can to keep things ticking. Particularly new car sales. It has set up the abwrackpremie program — the key syllable in that word is "wrack," German for wreck. Yes, the German government is offering the first 600,000 people who sign up for the program a 2,500 euro bounty to trade in their old cars and buy new ones. That's a 1.5 billion euro program, or about $1.9 billion.

But at the same time last week, the government said it would not provide bailout funds for the car manufacturer Opel. The German brand is owned by General Motors and the Detroit automaker is looking to either offload Opel to a private buyer or get the government to help keep it open. If Opel closes down it will have a mammoth effect not just in Hamburg but throughout Germany.

View Larger Map

According to Stiller, Hamburg may just escape the worst of the storm if the global economic contraction is short and sharp.

The city manufactures for the European Airbus consortium, and sections of those airplanes are built here. There are enough orders to keep people at the factory for a few years. And there are some shipbuilding and ship repair contracts to keep the massive Blohm and Voss shipyard in business for a bit . But if the economic contraction continues deep into 2010, this city is in real trouble.

Back at the Box Prinz cafe, Claudia is celebrating her first anniversary in business. She is not certain about the economic future. The fact that there doesn't seem to be any activity at the big shipyards on the other side of the Elbe is deceiving. "These are the quiet months," she explained. "Hamburg is always quiet in wintertime. At the end of the spring we will see what is really happening."

For more on the global economic crisis:Click here for the full report