Life’s a bowl of Junket!

A junket by any other name is still a junket. Port authority personnel and politicians, however, prefer to call them sales trips, or business development missions, or economic development missions, or anything that might sound purposeful to the public.

This past February three of the top officials at South Carolina’s State Ports Authority took a nine- day “sales trip” to Europe and Asia to drum up some new business. They had to do something after the port’s poor performance in 2007, and the best way to look busy, of course, was to make a few sales calls. That way folks would think that TEU volumes depended on how attractive a port could be made to look to shipping lines. Enamored shipping lines would simply deliver thousands of containers to that port – free of charge – offload them, and then be off. But as a few people know, that isn’t the way the system works.

Then in March, the governor of Oregon made a similar trip to advance the container terminal development in Coos Bay. No doubt this new port will be inundated with containers as a result of his efforts. Ship after ship will answer the call. It’s all so simple.

The Times-Picayune in New Orleans covered two such efforts last week, reporting on the departure of a delegation of Louisiana politicians and business leaders to Greece and the five-day maritime industry exhibition called “Posidonia”. The entourage hopes to lure international business to the state’s ports with the message that “New Orleans is open for business”. Yup. It’s that simple.

Even the mayor got into the act … not for the first time, however. He went to China in April to promote the Port of New Orleans, and in the coming days he’ll visit South Africa and then Panama. The port considers itself a “fundamental economic development building block”, a spokesman said, and sees its $ 1 billion expansion program as crucial in its effort to compete with such ports as Houston and Mobile. But that $ 1 billion expansion program is just speculative fantasy. Mobile is already building its new container terminal, and if … and that’s a big “if” … if there’s a future increase in container volumes for Gulf ports, that increase would be directed to Mobile, and the “Big Easy” will be out in the cold.

Speaking of “sales trips” and economic development missions taken by politicians, Alabama Governor Bob Riley has already met with business officials in Chile and has asked shipping officials to consider using the new container facility in Mobile … if any containers are headed to the U.S.

It’s almost laughable. All these guys are quite familiar with the principles of economics because they’re up to their ears in it all day long. They know all about supply and demand. They know that no containers will hit their docks unless, and until, somebody in their community orders and pays for the goods. Then and only then will an overseas producer or manufacturer cram the goods into a container and arrange for shipment to a U.S. port. Buying power is all that really matters.

But if the public ever wises up, those junkets – those sales trips – will be history.