Fate of contracts still to be fleshed out


When Dubai Ports World said yesterday it would abandon its effort to operate parts of six U.S. ports, it lowered the volume on a weeks-long political battle.

But who will gain control of its contracts at the port of Baltimore and others around the country where it does at least some cargo handling remains a major question.

The company said it would "transfer fully the U.S. operation of P&O; Ports North America to a United States entity." But the company did not make clear if it planned to find investors, spin off a new company or sell to an existing one - which analysts said would most likely be another one that is foreign-owned, even foreign-government-owned.

P&O; Ports North America is the wholly owned subsidiary - incorporated in Delaware - of the British Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Co. that DP World sought to buy to gain a larger global presence.

The U.S. contracts to operate terminals in six major U.S. ports and handle some cargo in 15 others represent about 10 percent of the $6.8 billion deal that British courts cleared to close this week.

"The question from the critic's standpoint is: Where is the control and the ultimate ownership?" said Peter S. Shaerf, managing director of AMA Capital Partners LLC, a merchant banking firm in New York and Baltimore that focuses on the maritime and transportation industries.

Shaerf said there would be investors interested. And the world's largest existing firms would surely be interested. He said it did not appear as though the company had a buyer, but, based on its statement, it expected to recoup its investment of about $700 million.

The company said in its statement, provided by lawmakers, that its decision to divest was "based on an understanding that DP World will have time to effect the transfer in an orderly fashion, and that DP World will not suffer economic loss."

Shaerf and other analysts said some of the largest global operators besides DP World with the means to make such a purchase - and invest in enhanced security measures - are controlled at least partially by governments in China and Singapore.

DP World's suitors could include PSA International; Hong Kong-based Hutchison Whampoa Ltd.; Chinese-owned China Ocean Shipping Co.; Hapag-Lloyd AG of Hamburg, Germany; Denmark-based A.P. Moller-Maersk; and Seattle-based SSA Marine.

But some U.S. lawmakers who opposed control by the Dubai government have vowed to block all foreign government-owned firms.

Some lawmakers also have said they would like to require that all port operators be U.S. companies. But the largest U.S. firm, SSA Marine, is ranked ninth among global operators and has been mentioned as a takeover target itself.

Foreign-owned companies that have consolidated shipping and cargo handling interests in recent years already operate about 80 percent of U.S. port terminals, according to a new report from Moody's Investors Service, which found Dubai Ports World posed no negative credit implications at four ports where P&O; operates terminals: New York, New Jersey, Miami and New Orleans. It did not rate Baltimore or Philadelphia, where P&O; also operates terminals, or the other ports where it only loads and unloads ships.

Donald F. Kettl, director of the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania and author of books including System Under Stress: Homeland Security and American Politics, feared that critics might declare victory after Dubai's withdrawal, but little would be done to address security concerns at the port. Those stem not from who unloads cargo in the United States, he said, but from lapses in security when the cargo containers are loaded overseas.

At the port of Baltimore, where P&O;'s six-year contract expires next year, officials had already been preparing for possible changes.

F. Brooks Royster III, director of the state-owned port, said he would gauge interest from other operators in taking over the contract at its end or before. The port's contract allows it to back off before it expires, although it's not clear under what terms.


The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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