Shipping has lots of league tables, but the “Top Shipping Nation” deserves a special mention. Admittedly this eclectic title does not feature at any awards dinner, at least so far. Like Forbes calculating the wealth of the world’s richest men, working out which country owns the most ships is tricky and subjective. But it is worth the effort as the ten nations battling for the top spot tell a fascinating story, so read on…

Battle for the National Crown

At the top of today’s chart there’s an odd couple. For twenty years Greece, the big risk taker, has been locked in competition with Japan, that sober nation of corporates (well, that’s the perception). From the mid-1990s Greek owners kept well ahead of Japan, but when the 2000s super-boom arrived Japan surged ahead to become the top shipping nation. But Greek owners who were quite restrained during the boom, made up for it in 2010 and by the start of 2014 they were back at the top of the charts, with a fleet totalling 164m GT. So the perception of the two titans turned out to be wrong. Perceived risk taker Greece held back in the boom, whilst Japan’s bulk investors had a flutter, from which they now have a bloody nose.

Germany versus China

The battle for third and fourth place is a case study in cargo versus capital. Back in 1996 Germany had a fleet of 12.4m GT and China about 24m GT. But by the start of 2002 the German fleet, supercharged by the KG finance sector, reached 29.1m GT, compared with China’s 28.9m GT. Germany held onto its lead until 2011, when China surged on into 3rd place in the shipping league.

Korea, USA, Norway

Over the last 15 years, Norway and the United States have battled for 5th and 6th place, growing their fleets from 30m GT in the late 1990s to about 50m GT today. These long-established shipping nations both have an active market for shipping stocks. But in 2012 newcomer South Korea took over the number 5 slot, and by the start of 2014 had a fleet totalling 53m GT. Another case of cargo versus capital?

The Final Three

Singapore, Italy and Denmark, three very different shipping nations, occupy the final three positions. Singapore is a tiny island, operating a meticulously organised shipping centre for companies working the Asian market. Italy plays a stylish game with bulk carriers and small tankers, whilst Denmark, another very small country with a strong maritime history, has the world’s dominant container business, balanced by a highly professional bulk operating sector.

The Game Continues

So there you have it. Shipping’s top 10 shows that shipping nations have just as much character as the flamboyant ship-owners who inhabit them, and there are many routes to the top. Each has its distinctive character, leveraging off strengths from the past and opportunities in the present. So on that happy note, it’s hats off to Greece. Things may be tough at home, but after 3,000 years Greek shipping still knows how to play the game and win. Have a nice day.