New Report 2020 on the Economic Importance of Belgium Maritime and Inland Ports
According to a new economic impact study from the National Bank of Belgium, the supply and demand shocks resulting from the COVID-19 outbreak had a negative impact on direct value added at Belgian ports (-1.2%), as indirect effects fell even more sharply (-2.7%), totalling direct and indirect value added to € 31.7 billion in current prices in 2020. Direct employment remained quite stable, whereas indirect jobs fell slightly. Total employment numbers dropped from 255 443 to 254 611 direct and indirect full-time equivalent jobs in 2020. While high performing  port companies suffered a drop in profitability, weak performers boosted theirs. Support for wage payments and (para)fiscal transfers helped port businesses to strengthen their liquidity and solvency position.
In 2020, Belgium’s median  port company experienced a slightly declining profitability, while its liquidity and solvency position were supported
During the pandemic, it was difficult to scale costs down in line with falling sales at such short notice because of high fixed costs. So, the profitability level of the average port company declined in 2020. However, while strong-performing port companies in terms of operating result experienced a drop in profitability, weaker businesses enhanced theirs thanks to the generous government support measures. Direct and indirect support for wage payments and (para)fiscal transfers helped port companies to maintain or even slightly strengthen their liquidity position, while their solvency was shored up too. Observations indicate that the policy actions taken ‑ to keep businesses afloat – had a particular focus on companies that were viable prior to the pandemic.
Number of port company failures was very low in 2020
In 2020, the departure ratio dropped drastically, implying that although Belgian ports were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, various temporary government support measures and moratoria on insolvencies prevented companies from going bankrupt, leading to no additional increases in departures, nor extra company failures compared to previous years. Also, the start-up ratio declined significantly as the economic uncertainty clouded the environment for new port companies to start up.
Since COVID-19, Belgian ports have shored up their direct employment while value added has fallen…
Despite the pandemic, direct employment at Belgian ports remained quite stable in 2020, with only 184 FTEs being lost. Yet the number of indirect jobs fell rather more sharply. Direct and indirect employment reached 254 611 full-time equivalents, accounting for 5.9% of Belgian domestic employment. The temporary lay-off system – more flexible during the crisis – played a vital role in avoiding too many redundancies. Job losses in the port population were especially visible in the non-maritime cluster because maritime business activities were considered as essential and allowed to operate continuously.
The supply-chain disruptions, contractions in demand and economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic affected direct value added at Belgian ports negatively (-1.2%) in 2020. Indirect effects fell even more strongly (- 2.7%) leading to a total value added figure (including direct and indirect effects) of € 31.7 billion in 2020, representing 7% of Belgian GDP. The decline in direct value added was less severe than the drop in total value added (- 4%) for the entire Belgian economy in 2020 compared to 2019, owing to maritime activities not being negatively impacted as they were not restricted provided they met the required health and safety measures. The drop was all the more visible in the non-maritime cluster, and more precisely in those branches hit most by the temporary imposed closure of businesses or impaired particularly by demand and supply shocks. The main non-maritime branches responsible for the decline were trade, the metalworking industry and other logistic services.
… and investment levels were up
Direct investment by all Belgian ports taken together rose by 5.1% to € 5.1 billion in 2020, due to higher investment levels in the chemicals industry and cargo handling. Those investment decisions had already been taken before the COVID-19 outbreak and were followed up as those branches were not substantially impaired by the crisis. The degree of investment indicates that, among the maritime businesses, shipping companies and port authorities invest relatively more. In the non-maritime cluster, especially the energy sector and the industrial branches, whose operational activity is largely based on high technological knowledge and whose business is largely subject to future developments, notify a relatively high degree of investment.
 All companies obtaining a positive operating result in 2018 and 2019, are here defined as high performing port companies, while the weak performers are those having a negative operating result in 2018 or 2019.
 For the total port population, a median value is calculated for the profitability ratio of these port companies for each year. These medians form the evolution of the profitability of a fictitious median port company, meaning that half of the port companies are more profitable and the other half less. The same exercise is carried out for liquidity and solvency.