A Maersk cargo ship transports containers. (Photo: Twitter @LLoydsLoading)

World’s biggest container shipper warns of 25% slump in volumes

A Maersk cargo ship transports containers. (Photo: Twitter @LLoydsLoading)

The world’s largest container line is bracing for a historic slump in demand after emergency lockdowns across the globe left international trade in tatters.

AP Moller-Maersk A/S, which controls about one-fifth of the global fleet used to transport goods by sea, says the fallout from the coronavirus (COVID-19) will drive volumes down by as much as 25 per cent this quarter.

The bleak signal from Maersk follows a warning from the World Trade Organization last month that the pandemic could result in the worst collapse in international trade flows since World War II.

(Photo: Business Insider)

Copenhagen-based Maersk said the COVID-19 pandemic has already “had a significant impact on the activity level”. The company now sees the global container market contracting this year, compared with a previous forecast for growth of somewhere between 1.0 per cent and 3.0 per cent.

Shares in Maersk fell as much as 6.2 per cent in the Danish capital. Its market value has dropped more than 30 per cent this year, to about US$18.5 billion.

Nearly all regions will suffer double-digit declines in trade volumes in 2020, according to the WTO. Exports from North America and Asia will be hit hardest, it said in April. The global container industry has had to idle about 13 per cent of its fleet worldwide, according to data compiled by Alphaliner.

“COVID-19 and the subsequent country lockdowns have led to a severe downturn in production and demand in most parts of the world.”

— AP Moller-Maersk A/S

Chief Executive Soren Skou lashed out at what he characterised as an unfair advantage he said some Asian competitors have been given thanks to access to state aid. Skou called the situation “totally unacceptable” and urged the European Union to “do something about” it.

Maersk estimates that global container trade fell 4.7 per cent in the first quarter, with COVID-19 hitting both the supply chain and demand.

“COVID-19 and the subsequent country lockdowns have led to a severe downturn in production and demand in most parts of the world,” Maersk said. “While some countries are slowly beginning to open up, others are still only in the early stages.”

Soren Skou, chief executive officer of A.P. Moeller-Maersk A/S, pauses during a Bloomberg Television interview on day three of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020. World leaders, influential executives, bankers and policy makers attend the 50th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos from Jan. 21 – 24. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

In an interview with Bloomberg Television, Skou said he’s still expecting “some sort of U-shaped recovery.”

“Right now, we believe we are at the bottom and we will probably be here for a while,” he said. “But in the third quarter, the fourth quarter, we should start to see some recovery.”

Though the global outlook is grim, Maersk managed to deliver growth in its operating profit. After earlier reporting preliminary Ebitda of $1.4 billion, Maersk delivered $1.52 billion by that measure, according to Wednesday’s report.

AP Moller Maersk employs almost 80,000 people globally. (Photo: SkyNews)

“It’s not unrealistic that they might at least get somewhere near” the US$5.5 billion EBITDA outlook that was announced before 2020 guidance was suspended, said Per Hansen, an investment economist at Nordnet. Still, the second quarter “will be weighed down by high waves and huge uncertainty.”

Maersk’s revenue increased slightly to US$9.57 billion, which was better than the US$9.36 billion estimated by analysts.

— Bloomberg