The container shipping industry is riding a wave that has not yet peaked. Denmark’s AP Moller-Maersk has just announced a more than doubling of first-quarter ebitda. Record results come at a cost. High freight rates have infuriated customers. The White House says they are likely to push up US consumer prices by 1 per cent this year.
Maersk, whose strong market position raises the hackles of critics, says the current situation is exceptional. It is certainly the beneficiary of supply chain chaos, which has been exacerbated by the Shanghai lockdown. That helped lift freight rates by a whopping 71 per cent in the first quarter.
The group predicts a return to normality in the second half on the back of a slowdown in demand. That is debatable. Nearly 40 per cent of shipping customers in a recent survey expected the container crisis to last at least another 15 months. Maersk has been wrong before. High freight rates boosted its earnings throughout 2021. Tuesday’s 25 per cent upgrade of this year’s ebitda forecast followed four upgrades last year.
Investors, too, anticipate calmer conditions. Even after rising 5 per cent on Tuesday, the shares are down a fifth this year. The enterprise value-to-ebitda ratio rests under two, less than a fifth of its January 2018 value.
The industry should escape the exaggerated downturn that traditionally follows an upswing. Berenberg’s William Fitzalan Howard expects 2024 rates to be flat in real terms, compared with 2019.
Rates will provoke regulators’ ire if they remain stubbornly high. The domination of container shipping by three big alliances that control 80 per cent of the market is a problem as far as the Biden administration is concerned. Rightly, the US wants to address the immunity of these networks from antitrust scrutiny.
The industry is not unduly worried. The Department of Justice ended a multi-year investigation without bringing any charges in 2019. The global nature of the industry makes it hard to control. Even so, the regulatory risks will mount the longer that profits appear unmoored from costs.