Getting Maritime Subsidies Right

by Olaf Merk, ports and shipping expert at the International Transport Forum

Many countries support their shipping industry via maritime subsidies. The value of well-functioning maritime transport for trade is undisputed. But is this, in itself, a justification for passing taxpayers’ money on to operators? Clearly, the private sector can provide shipping services. Subsidies would only make sense if they serve a clearly defined public interest that cannot be achieved otherwise. They would also need to be designed in ways that will not distort shipping and logistics markets.

In practice, this appears to be challenging. To begin with, nobody really knows how much governments spend on maritime subsidies. Support often comes in the form of favourable tax treatment, which is largely invisible in most government budgets. Even countries that make an effort to monitor maritime subsidies, notably in Northern Europe, have difficulties in establishing the actual numbers. Many countries seem to be little fussed, perhaps even happy, that the monetary value of their maritime subsidies remains unknown.

More worryingly, maritime subsidies often do not have a clearly defined public interest purpose. The usual justification is that they support the competitiveness of the shipping industry. The standard threat evoked is the relocation of a shipping registry or of ship management activities to low-tax jurisdictions. The problem with that is that hosting these is no guarantee for good maritime connectivity or for a maritime cluster that adds significant value to the economy.

Many subsidy schemes assume specific outcomes, but do not actually make direct or indirect financial support conditional on achieving them – be it on ships flying a domestic flag, operators hiring domestic seafarers or vessels reducing emissions. Unsurprisingly then, only a few subsidies seem to actually achieve their stated goals. Despite an impressive range of subsidies, only 16% of the world fleet sailed under the national flags of OECD countries in 2019, down from 54% in 1980. The share of domestic seafarers has continuously declined in maritime countries like Germany, France and the UK.

A vicious circle is also at work. Maritime subsidies by one country provoke subsidies by others. This happened already in the 19th century, and it continues to be the case. This perverse dynamic has been fuelled by “flagging out” of vessels to countries with low taxes and little regulation. This development has led to the emergence of the tonnage tax in the European Union: a very favourable tax the shipping sector pays in lieu of corporate income tax. In some cases, regulations have been put in place to avoid a race to the bottom. The proliferation of tonnage tax schemes within the EU has prompted the European Commission to formulate maritime state aid guidelines to avoid tax competition between EU member states. Yet the tendency over time has been to allow more generous schemes that opened the door for other countries to apply similar generosity.

Finally, there is evidence that maritime subsidies distort wider logistics markets. A new study by the International Transport Forum at the OECD found that many tonnage tax schemes for shipping companies can also be applied to their cargo-handling operations in ports. The European Commission has approved this practice in its decisions when it reviewed the tonnage tax schemes of individual EU countries. This creates a competitive advantage for shipping companies that are vertically integrated with terminal operators, by allowing theses to profit from a lower tax burden compared to corporate income tax. This distorts the market for cargo handling, as independent terminal operators do not have these fiscal advantages.

How can these challenges be solved? Governments should be more transparent about the money they spend on maritime subsidies, as well as the impacts generated. And subsidies could be better justified if more conditions were set regarding those impacts, tying support closely to specific outcomes governments want to see. Distorted markets should not be among those, and subsidy schemes ought to be carefully crafted to this. Finally, governments should understand that it is in their own best interest to avoid a maritime subsidies race.

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