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Just Peer Into Those Shipping Containers

Guest columnist Lori Ann LaRocco (@loriannlarocco) is a journalist and senior talent producer at CNBC . She is the author of the upcoming book Dynasties of the Sea: Shipowners and Financiers Who Expanded the Era of Free Trade (for further information, see here) and has also written Thriving in the New Economy. Another upcoming book, Opportunity Knocking , is expected in 2014. See expanded bio below.

From oil to what's in your kitchen junk drawer, chances are that at least one of the many items in your home has been on a ship. In fact, shipping experts tend to agree that 92% of all items in a person's home have been transported by a shipping vessel.

I like to call the shipping space the silent industry that many take for granted. Think about it -- if there were no ships, how would commodities like oil get transported? Superstores like Target (TGT) and Wal-Mart (WMT) depend on the cargo containers for their products, and farmers need transport for their grains. On the flip side of the shipping equation, how could American businesses otherwise export their products? Not everything can be transported by truck, plane or rail.

The industry has come a long way since ancient times in Crete. It has evolved from a family business, in which marriage grew shipping companies based purely on the proximity of ports, to companies that now use the capital markets to build their businesses.

As with many industries, the health of the transport industry is closely tied to the world economy. When the economy is rocking, demand for transports and logistics is strong. When it's slow, you get the exact opposite. Investors always look to The Baltic Dry Index as a barometer on the health of shipping, but by looking what is being transported, investors and CEOs can get a peek inside into a particular country's economy.

Be it tech products like those from Apple (AAPL), or high fashion from Louis Vuitton, investors can get a sense of a particular economy by looking at what and how much is being transported. Gerry Wang, CEO of Seaspan Shipping (SSW - Get Report) says, "If you look at containers coming from China to the U.S., they ship a lot of iPhones, iPads, appliances, home décor items, and clothing. Pretty much anything you see at Wal-Mart has been made in China.

"When you look at exports from the United States to China," he says, "it is starkly different. Around 80% of the goods we ship from the U.S. to China are waste paper and scrap metal materials. The Chinese want to buy our high tech equipment and machinery, but we have such high restrictions on these items."

Over the past 20 years, the amount of people participating in the global economy has skyrocketed from 1 billion people to around 4 billion, according to my research at Marine Money. Austan Goolsbee, former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers and an economics professor at the University of Chicago, says this boom is because of free trade. "It is not only access to the U.S., but it is also arguably the single most important thing for the development of emerging economies," he said. "The ability to export on trade has been a central pillar for bringing a billion people out of poverty in the last 15 years. . . . Historically, free trade is fundamental for innovation. Countries that trade are more open outside of their borders. They are open to new ideas, which spark innovation and economic growth."

Shipping is an integral part of this growth triangle. For example, according to EurActiv, a publication on European Union policy, two-way trade accounted for growth of 490 billion euros ($638 billion) in 2011 in the U.S. and the EU, while companies in the U.S. and Europe invested about 2 trillion euros ($2.6 trillion) in each other's economies. Free trade "is enormously important for the flow of cargo and for satisfying fueling demand," Lunde says. "You are seeing all these different free-trade agreements being created, from the Asian economy to the North American Free Trade Association. All of these agreements are extremely important for the development of trade. When new markets open up and you have lower barriers, you see trade flow increasing."

As countries become more prosperous and the private sector strengthens, the standards of living of their people also increase, which then boost demand for raw materials and products. The global economy continues to grow as countries like China and India evolve economically and the population of their middle class grows.

But one of the biggest threats to this growth, according to some shipping CEOs, is bad regulation and protectionism -- which, they warn, can be a barrier for the expansion of trade. That, in turn, could impact job creation. "Government shouldn't squeeze the investors; otherwise, the investors will be scared and run away to the other countries," says Robert Yuksel Yildirim, CEO of Yildirim Asset Management. "America needs to build itself by enticing the global investors who have the money to invest. Instead, those people are investing in China or Southeast Asian countries, or some other emerging countries. That's how the U.S. can assist to solve its unemployment problem."

These innovations have broken down the barriers that had previously divided the world. By expanding the shores of opportunity, these shipping titans are impacting the global economy. Over the last decade, we have seen an amazing expansion of free trade -- one that has exponentially increased the wealth of countries. "At the end of the day, container shipping is facilitating global trade," Wang said. "It explains why volume has been growing at 10%, which means the volume also doubles over six to seven years. It's just mind-boggling that we have seen volume quadruple over the past 20 years."
At the time of publication, LaRocco had no positions in the stocks mentioned.

As Senior Talent Producer at CNBC, Lori Ann has the ear of some of the world's biggest business minds. Lori Ann has been working at the network since 2000. She was first hired as one of Maria Bartiromo's producers on her first primetime show, "Market Week." Lori Ann has produced and booked interviews with some of the biggest names in business. Her track record has garnered her trust and respect, from Wall Street to Washington. Lori Ann's relationships with top business leaders have earned her first access to business deals in the billions of dollars, enabling her show, "Squawk Box," to break the news first. Prior to joining CNBC, Lori Ann was an anchor, reporter and assignment editor in various local news markets around the country.

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