World’s Biggest Container Line Ready to Lose Money to Win Market

REUTERS/Aly Song
REUTERS/Aly Song

By Christian Wienberg

(Bloomberg) — The chief executive officer of the world’s largest container line says he’s willing to lose money in the short term in exchange for longer-term market dominance.

Maersk Line’s decision to go for market share in an unprofitable third quarter might “seem strange,” but “you need to consider the alternative,” CEO Soren Skou said in a phone interview. “The industry is consolidating and in such a situation you have to make sure you keep growing so you don’t lose your market-leading advantage.”

“In the long term, the winners in this business will be those with the lowest costs, and low costs are achieved through scale,” said Skou, who’s also the CEO of Maersk Line’s parent, Copenhagen-based A.P. Moller-Maersk A/S. “We want our market share to grow organically every year.”

Maersk Line on Wednesday reported a third-quarter net operating loss after tax of $116 million compared with a profit by the same measure of $264 million a year earlier. Plunging freight rates outweighed a decline in unit costs. The shipping line increased volumes by 11 percent in a quarter that only saw market growth of 1-2 percent.

After dropping 7.2 percent on Wednesday, shares in Maersk fell as much as 2.2 percent in the first quarter-hour of trading on Thursday and were down 1.6 percent at 9,245 kroner as of 9:13 a.m. in Copenhagen. Nordea, JPMorgan and ABG Sundal Collier all cut their price targets after the third-quarter results, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

For a story on Maersk’s third-quarter earnings, click here.

The CEO said the 11 percent growth rate “might have been a bit more than we planned,” but the August collapse of Hanjin Shipping Co. “gave us a lot of volume.”

Maersk Line has about 15.5 percent of the global container market, putting it ahead of Mediterranean Shipping Co.’s 13.4 percent and CMA CGM SA’s 10.4 percent, according to Alphaliner. Maersk also expects to sign an agreement to add South Korea’s Hyundai Merchant Marine Co. to its global 2M shipping alliance “fairly soon,” according to Chief Commercial Officer Vincent Clerc.

“We’re currently growing organically as fast as our biggest peers,” Skou said. “Large mergers can change that, but measured organically, we have matched the biggest peers.”

The company is the “Saudi Arabia of the container market,” DNB Markets said in a note to clients Wednesday. “The combination of strong volume growth but still low rates means we still believe Maersk Line will continue to use price to gain market share,” DNB said.

Part of Maersk Line’s new strategy, revealed in September, is to add to its growth through acquisitions. Skou declined to comment on which specific targets management has identified.

“If we see the right opportunity, we will strike,” he said. “We’re well capitalized and have a strong liquidity reserve, so we would be able to finance takeovers.”

Japan’s three largest container lines said this week they plan to merge, marking the latest example of industry efforts to counter a decade of weak freight rates. Nippon Yusen KK, Mitsui O.S.K. Lines Ltd. and Kawasaki Kisen Kaisha Ltd. will have a combined 7 percent of the world’s container-shipping trade if the deal goes through.

“If you look at vessel prices and share prices, it’s a fact that the container industry is priced at historical lows — perhaps an all-time low — which could mean that now is a good time to buy,” Skou said. “But if you buy something that doesn’t generate any earnings, it could turn out to be a very expensive takeover.”

© 2016 Bloomberg L.P