Europe’s container-shipping operators need a pause in the slowdown afflicting the region to bolster the truce they’ve called in their fight for customers.
Economic weakness caused by the debt crisis in Europe, which accounts for more than a third of global trade, is putting pressure on earnings at companies including A.P. Moeller-Maersk A/S, the world’s largest container line. Operators have shored up margins by raising charges after a price war last year, and Maersk plans to implement a further increase next month.
While European Central Bank President Mario Draghi says the euro-area economy is showing signs of stabilization “at a low level,” the ECB itself predicts a contraction in the region this year. Analyst Rikard Vabo at Fearnley Fonds ASA in Oslo suggested shipping lines will struggle to stave off the effects of austerity and two years of debt-fueled turmoil.
“Maersk made a U-turn and started focusing more on the profitability and rates again, which basically saved the industry,” Vabo said in a phone interview. “For these rates to stick and for operators to keep the utilization level required on their ships, you will need to see an uptick on demand in the U.S. and Europe, and the outlook for Europe isn’t very encouraging.” He has a reduce recommendation on Maersk stock.
Europe’s freight traffic growth will slow in 2012, according to maritime research group Hackett Associates LLC. Ben Hackett, founder of the Alexandria, Virginia-based company, forecasts northern European container volumes will rise about 4 percent this year, excluding shipments for other destinations, empty containers and intra-European trade. That compares with 8.3 percent in 2011.
“It’s primarily a result of the austerity programs that the various governments have put into place, which are slowing government expenditure, cutting costs, and increasing unemployment and a lack of consumer confidence,” Hackett said in a phone interview.
The economy of the 17-nation euro area shrank 0.3 percent in the fourth quarter. A composite index based on a survey of purchasing managers in services and manufacturing dropped to 49.1 in March from 49.3 a month earlier, London-based Markit Economics said on April 4. Results below 50 indicate contraction.
The ECB predicts an economic contraction of 0.1 percent for this year as a whole, and officials are counting on low interest rates, emergency crisis measures and export demand from outside the region to aid the recovery.
“The euro crisis is having a dampening effect on the overall European trade picture and in the short term I don’t see a pickup,” said Christian Schulz, an economist at Berenberg Bank in London and a former ECB official. “Domestic demand is certainly weak for the euro zone countries facing tough austerity programs. A massive import boom is very unlikely.”
The weakness of Europe’s economy and its debt turmoil is also affecting the rest of the world, curbing global trade growth to 3.7 percent this year from 5 percent in 2011, World Trade Organization forecasts released April 12 show.
For companies operating the Asia-Europe route, the world’s second-biggest trade lane, anemic economic expansion in a region crucial to global trade threatens to weigh on earnings growth. Last year, European Union merchandise exports totaled $6.6 trillion, or 37 percent of the global aggregate. Imports were $6.9 trillion, or 38 percent, according to the WTO.
Weak economic growth threatens to hurt an industry already licking its wounds from a drop in earnings. Maersk’s container line, and competitors including France’s CMA CGM SA and Hamburg-based Hapag-Lloyd AG all posted losses last year. A price war on the world’s two largest container-shipping trade routes cost the industry $11.4 billion over the previous 14 months, Copenhagen-based SeaIntel Maritime Analysis estimated in a March report.
Maersk Line raised the rate it charges to carry a 20-foot container on its route from Asia to North Europe and the Mediterranean by $750 on March 1 and by $400 on April 1, spokesman Hursh Joshi said in an e-mail response to questions. Of those, about $1,000 has “stuck” and Maersk is seeking to implement a further $400 boost on May 1, Joshi said.
“Only time can tell,” Joshi said when asked if Maersk is confident that the rate increases, especially the future ones, can be maintained. “We are confident that the rationale behind the increases is understood by both the industry and customers” and “we are simply talking about an industry return to reasonable levels of profit,” he said.
Martina Fahnemann, a spokeswoman for Hapag-Lloyd, said no one was available at the company to comment. A spokesperson for CMA CGM declined to comment.
Maersk and its rivals have sought to return to profit by curbing a surplus of ships, sharing vessels, reducing speeds to save on fuel costs and raising rates. Maersk has a record 19.4 percent market share on Asia-to-Europe trade as a proportion of the route’s total volume capacity, Chief Executive Officer Soren Skou said on March 5.
The company has 101 vessels with a total annual capacity of 2.45 million 20-foot containers on the lane and Maersk’s container unit last year generated 39 percent of its volume from the Asia-to-Europe route. There were 490 ships and 52 services operating on the route in the fourth quarter, according to data from London-based Clarkson Plc.
“As a consequence of what’s going on in Europe, then clearly exports from Asia to Europe are a weak spot,” said Mark McVicar, an analyst at Nomura International Plc in London who has a neutral recommendation on Maersk’s stock. “What the lines have done so far this year will be enough to bring them back close to profitability, if not actually to profit. They’re dealing with a difficult supply-demand situation.”
Maersk’s tactics have bolstered the shares, which have climbed 7.4 percent this year, compared to a 7.3 percent gain in the MSCI World Index. The Lloyd’s List Bloomberg Container Index of the 50 biggest such companies has risen 11 percent this year.
Any further rate increases by Maersk will add to measures that have already helped prompt more than a tripling in the average cost of carrying a 20-foot container to Europe from China to $1,744 yesterday from a trough of $490 on Dec. 9, according to Clarkson data. That was the lowest since Clarkson began keeping the data in June 2010.
Container lines need to earn at least $1,100 per box on a vessel with a capacity of 8,000 20-foot containers on the Asia to Europe route and about $100-$200 lower for larger vessels, according to data released in March from Alphaliner, a Paris-based maritime consultant.
Price increases may bolster shipping lines in the short term, though a persistent oversupply of shipping capacity and weak demand in Europe may curb earnings growth and the threat of a renewed price war remains, said Vabo at Fearnley Fonds.
“The sector will see more positive news with new rate increases being implemented,” he said. “But we believe the fundamentals look challenging if you look six to 12 months ahead.”
Weighing on that outlook is a renewed eruption of the debt crisis after a lull created by the ECB’s offering of three-year loans. Spanish bond yields climbed to the highest in more than four months this week as investors speculated the country may need to become the fourth nation of the region after Greece, Ireland and Portugal to require a bailout.
“There is no doubt that Europe is back in a recession,” said Hackett. “Demand remains insipid” and “the pressure remains acute for the carriers.”