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Hapag-Lloyd and shipping stocks: Profits now, choppy waters ahead

13:24, 26 April 2022

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Hapag-Lloyd container ship in the Solent off Portsmouth, England
Hapag-Lloyd and other shipping firms have made bumper profits amid supply constraints and high demand – Photo: John Peter Photography / Alamy Stock Photo

Shipping firms have seen two years of massive – often record – growth and profit as soaring demand has met constrained supply. 

Firms from Germany’s Hapag-Lloyd (HLAG) to China’s COSCO Shipping Holdings (1919) to US-based Eagle Bulk Shipping (EGLE) saw their share prices rocket, and remain well above their pre-pandemic levels. 

On Tuesday morning, a trading update from Danish shipping giant Maersk (MAERSK-B) reporting that it brought in $19.3bn in revenue in Q1, with underlying earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT) of $7.9bn – higher than expectations. Maersk shares rose by 3.86% and Hapag-Lloyd also rose on optimism about the sector. 

Hapag-Lloyd (HLAG) share price

Maersk said an “exceptional market situation” had led to an average 71% increase in freight rates year-on-year. It added it expected these conditions to continue through Q2 and normalise after that, which combined with higher contracted rates it forecasts will deliver stronger full-year results of $24bn EBIT (up from $19bn). 

However, the company also noted that it was revising its outlook for the growth of global container demand from 2 to 4% to -1 to 1%.

Meanwhile, analysts have noted significant challenges are facing the shipping industry that are fuelling uncertainty. Are there signs it is running out of steam? 

Maersk share price

Maersk share price 2017-2022Maersk share price 2017-2022 – Credit: Trading View

Earnings peak?

Responding to Maersk’s raised guidance, Daniel Harlid, vice president, senior analyst at Moody’s, told Capital.com: “This is something that has already been built into our expectations – that 2022 will be another strong year for carriers.” 

“As is mentioned in the company announcement, the year-over-year increase in contracted rates – in 2021, around 70% of Maersk’s long-haul volume was shipped on long term contracts – will more than offset the decline in volumes caused by the current uncertain macro environment,” Harlid added.

In an April report, Moody’s analysts noted high volatility in the shipping market generally and said earnings were likely to have peaked while still remaining strong. 

Choppy waters

Simon Heaney, senior manager for container research at consultancy Drewry, said the short- and long-term unpredictability around the shipping industry was the most extreme he had seen in his 20 years’ work. 

“Congestion and supply chain issues are currently the number one market driver, and have been for the two years of the pandemic,” he told Capital.com on a call. 

“Logistics capacity was stripped at a time of high demand, and as long as that inefficiency is still there, carriers will continue to profit. The question is how long that will last. Eventually things will normalise, and if you kick away that pillar, the market fundamentals are not quite as strong.” 

Eagle Bulk Shipping (EGLE) share price

Heaney said carriers were facing a laundry list of challenges: higher oil prices and bunker costs; Covid lockdowns in China hampering factory production, reducing the flow of goods; rising operating expenses, including soaring ship prices; pressures to invest in decarbonising and modernising fleets; for some firms, the Russia-Ukraine war; and the consequent negative pressure on demand, which was already teetering with inflation rising. 

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“Covid has been a rising tide for all shipping lines. Now they are all subject to the same risks, with slight variations depending on their customer mix, where they trade most, the proportion of their fleet that is chartered,” Heaney said. 

Overall, the China-Covid situation will be of most concern to carriers, he explained. 

“The concern is going back to that phase 1 of the pandemic will choke off demand by artificially disrupting flow of goods out of the factory gates. Then the ability to get cargo on ships will slow because the goods don’t exist – and that will expedite the recovery of supply chains because it will give breathing space, ports will be able to catch up, warehousing, trucking and supply chains will move towards their pre-pandemic efficiency levels.” 

But ultimately, he said, it was too early to say for sure that was happening. Chinese factory activity declined in March, but Heaney stressed that was only one reading and that what happens across the global economy is going to be key to how fast supply chain recovers. 

Last year the industry reported collective EBIT of $214bn, which dwarfed anything before, which Drewry has calculated could rise to $300bn this year – but various factors could affect that, Heaney noted.

“So much volatility really is a headache for forecasters like us,” he said. 

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