When the bidding war for Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation (P&O) was reaching a climax in February, British media urged Europe's competition authorities to view the port assets of Singapore's PSA International and Hutchison Whampoa as belonging to one firm. The logic held that, with the PSA having shelled out US$925 million for 20 per cent of Hongkong International Terminals in June, references to a 'strong alliance' and 'strategic co-operation' from Hutchison's senior management amounted to more than just putting a good spin on the deal. With the PSA having shelled out another US$4.38 billion last week for 20 per cent of Hutchison's 42-terminal global port network, Below Deck wonders what his British brethren - let alone Europe's competition authorities - are thinking now. Hutchison and its new global partner will tell you the competition for customers will remain fierce at every port. But it's probably fair to say any future port seller with only Hutchison and the PSA on the short list of a tender would risk the winning bid falling a few shekels shy of fair value for the assets. Just as it would be naive for any shipping line to believe it will be able to play Hutchison and the PSA against each other to leverage lower terminal costs at any port where they may both own assets, such as in Hong Kong. It's a good thing we don't concern ourselves with trifling commercial matters such as promoting sufficient competition to assure market forces work their magic here. Last week's deal will furrow the brows of executives of shipping lines that generate core revenues in northern Europe where PSA and Hutchison dominate in Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium and the inland commercial centres their main ports feed. Similar concerns soon may resonate in China, where the new partnership manages and owns at least 17 cargo terminals with assets from Dalian to Zhuhai and more are in the offing. Reaction to the deal from the shipping community has been muted so far, for good reason. It would take a brave carrier indeed to spark an investigation against the world's two biggest port operators, given their scope for reprisal. One senior liner executive told Lloyd's List this week: 'No one is likely to lodge a complaint [about market control] with regulators, we're all too frightened.' However, carrier executives may not have to stare down the steely-eyed glares of Li Ka-shing's army of contract negotiators for long. Mr Li (below) is a man of many reputations, not the least of which is that of a shrewd asset trader. His uncanny ability to unload assets at the peak of their valuation cycle has made him one of the world's richest men. As such, many see the writing on the wall for Mr Li's reign as the king of ports. While still the envy of almost every businessman, his port empire's margins have eroded from the halcyon days of 40 per cent in the early 1990s and the emergence of state-owned rivals with global ambitions, such as PSA and Dubai's DP World, has changed the competitive landscape. Consolidation has narrowed the watchful eyes of the phalanx of competition authorities who are itching to run a comb over future port deals and a new breed of buyer has entered the arena. In December, Hutchison, PSA, DP World all bid for a now disputed twin port project in Turkey - Mersin and Iskenderun - that Singapore won with a bid of US$755 million. DP World dropped out at US$745 million - both parties outpacing Hutchison's bid of about US$500 million by some margin. It was a clear indication that a company with shareholders to answer to will struggle mightily to chase acquisitive growth in the new era of port valuations. With that in mind, it has been suggested that what PSA bought last week was not only 20 per cent of Mr Li's global port assets but also the right of first refusal on Hutchison's future sales. With the recent P&O and PSA deals fetching unprecedented valuations of 33 to 34 times this year's earnings for the companies acquired, it is hard to imagine higher premiums in future than the $122 billion Mr Li would pocket for selling his entire port empire at present levels.