Despite what Donald Trump says, a little discretion is no bad thing

When the taxpayer is picking up the tab for tottering shipping companies, it might pay their wealthy executives to keep a lower profile

Truthfully, I never wanted to read any book penned by Donald J Trump. But a link between the US president and the most successful shipbrokers of modern times left me with a dilemma.

If I wanted to know more, I had to read "Trump: How to Get Rich". It was my professional duty.

For that is where Trump spills the beans on his long-standing business relationship with Walter and Christian J Hinneberg. It is a relationship that I find barely credible, and utterly fascinating. For it is about as unlikely a pairing as you will come across.

The Hamburg-based Hinneberg twins are among the most successful shipbrokers of the modern era, but they run as discreet a family business as you will find. Compare that with Trump, who writes that you should “brand yourself and toot your horn”.

Work your way past chapters entitled “The Art of the Hair” or advising you to take up golf, and you learn that the relationship started more than two decades ago when the New York billionaire bought the building at 40 Wall Street.

The deal involving the Trump Building — not to be confused with Trump Tower — was subject to a restructured ground lease with the Hinneberg family in 1995. Things seem to have gone spectacularly well, with Trump describing the Hinnebergs as “among the finest people with whom I’ve ever done business”.

Donald Trump described the Hinnebergs as 'among the finest people with whom I’ve ever done business'. It is a commendation that is hard for any shipbroker to top

It is a commendation that is hard for any shipbroker to top.

One wonders what will happen when the president pays a visit to Hamburg for the G20 summit in July.

Which brings me to the point I want to make about the consequences of getting rich in shipping. 

I am fairly sure that one bunch of people who will not be taking advice from Trump is a political grouping called Eat the Rich. This shadowy group has in recent weeks gone about setting fire to cars of wealthy Germans ahead of the G20 meeting. Only this month, they reportedly targeted the car of Axel Schroeder, chairman of the supervisory board of MPC Capital.

One sympathises for what must have been an unpleasant episode for Schroeder, a 51-year-old father of five children.

It is the latest in a series of incidents that has led to a degree of soul-searching, and some ordinary Germans are daring to ask how much of this treatment their rich countrymen have brought upon themselves.

For increasingly, shipping folk in Hamburg are getting a bad rap. The reasons are easy to see, with German taxpayers shoring up their banks, which are in turn writing off millions of dollars of shipping debt.

For the man on the street, it feels as though he is being left to pick up the tab, while the people who caused the problems seem to have paid a low price.

MPC Capital is a case in point. In 2013, when it was still Germany’s largest listed issuing house for closed-end funds, it was saddled with financial commitments of more than $1bn linked to around 50 shipbuilding and shipowning projects.

Somehow it cut a deal with its creditors and pulled back from the brink.

That seems to have done it no harm, and only last week it returned to the capital markets to raise more than $100m on the Oslo Stock Exchange.

 That deal comes as memories are fresh of HSH Nordbank's decision to write off €550m ($600m) of Norddeutsche Reederei H Schuldt (NRS) debt.

That may have helped save the shipowner from financial disaster, but it was ill timed, coming at a point when NRS group founder and chairman Bernd Kortum was spending millions to buy himself a yacht.

When that hit the headlines, it will have hardened the attitude of the man on the street in Hamburg who was already beginning to look at shipping with waning enthusiasm.

A little discretion might not be a bad thing.

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