A.P. Moller-Maersk returned to profit at its main container shipping business in the first quarter, putting the cash rich company in a strong position as the struggling industry consolidates.
The group's shares were up by 5.6 percent at 1127 GMT on Wednesday after Maersk Line confounded expectations of a loss at the container shipping business as the sector grapples with a downturn brought on by overcapacity.
Rates for shipping containers transporting anything from flat-screen TVs to sportswear have been at a loss-making level for more than a year, denting profits and opening the highly fragmented sector to consolidation in an effort to cut costs and build scale.
With more than 600 vessels, Maersk Line is the global market leader with a market share around 15 percent and has previously played down its ambitions, but the Copenhagen-based company acknowledged on Wednesday that recent acquisitions and vessel-sharing alliances bring new opportunities.
"We still have a very strong balance sheet and have plenty of liquidity reserves for unexpected and expected investments," CEO Nils Smedegaard Andersen said.
The group's cash reserves stand at about $12 billion.
Recent high-profile mergers and acquisitions in the industry include the creation of China COSCO Shipping through a state-led merger and French shipping group CMA CGM SA’s deal to acquire Singapore's Neptune Orient Lines (NOL).
Container lines have also been restructuring debt and forming vessel-sharing alliances to counter the downturn.
"Consolidation … is positive when viable, stable alliances are formed, because it enables everyone to concentrate on the customer and not fight exclusively on rates," Andersen said, adding that smaller players would be vulnerable.
"The small and mid-sized companies will need to consider their strategies very radically, in my opinion, if they’re not in an alliance that has a future."
In the first quarter Maersk reduced costs for moving a 40 ft container to $2,060, down 16 percent from a year earlier and about a third lower than four years ago.
Group net profit dropped 86 percent to $224 million in the quarter, beating analysts’ average forecast of $55.6 million, with the company's oil division also faring better than expected in weak energy markets.
Low freight rates and weak oil prices brought revenue down by 19 percent, though this was partly offset by a 7 percent rise in container volumes and a 15 percent increase in oil production, Maersk said.
"Results were better than feared," ship brokerage firm Fearnleys wrote in a note.
Maersk Line made a profit of $37 million in the first three months of 2016, compared with an average forecast for a loss of $121 million in a Reuters poll of analysts.
That was still down from a $714 million profit in the same quarter last year, however.
Maersk reiterated its forecast for the container business to achieve full-year underlying profit significantly below last year’s due to lower rates, but it forecast global demand for seaborne container transportation to rise between 1 percent and 3 percent from growth of less than 1 percent last year.
The oil division made a loss of $29 million, against a consensus analyts' forecast for a $59.5 million loss.
Maersk said its breakeven price for oil production had been lowered to $40-$45 a barrel from a previous range of $45-$55. Benchmark Brent crude was steady at around $45 on Wednesday morning.
Source: Reuters (Additional reporting Nikolaj Skydsgaard; Editing by Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen, Mark Potter and David Goodman)
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