If you were to choose a core business based on performance over the last decade container shipping would be unlikely to top the list.
But that is where AP Moller – Maersk is headed as it its strategy to make Transport and Logistics its core business with its energy related businesses being sold or spun off becomes a reality.
The plan went from theory to execution on Monday with the announcement that French oil company Total would be acquiring Maersk Oil for $7.45bn in a combined equity and debt deal.
With “solutions” being sought for Maersk’s tanker, OSV and drilling rig businesses by end 2018 the Danish giant is set to become solely focused on containers and logistics.
The focus on a single business area is something that appeals to investors and analysts, at least when that business is doing well, and it does enable the company to invest in scale in an individual sector, as Maersk is doing with its $4bn purchase of Hamburg Sud.
However, when container shipping is down, as it all too frequently is, there will be no other business to even potentially prop up the overall result. There is little sign the cycle of short booms in profitability followed by much longer brutal freight rate wars is about to end. The market is no way near enough consolidated for that. Even with the acquisition of Hamburg Sud Maersk Line, as the largest player, will only have an 18.6% global market share by capacity.
Maersk is placing its bets on digisation of the container shipping process to differentiate itself in the marketplace and drive out yet more cost. Unfortunately it may not provide that much in the way of differentiation with its competitors such as CMA CGM doing the same thing, and the ability of container lines to give away any cost savings straight to customers really should be the stuff of legend.
There is also the spectre of disruption and non-shipping player simply coming in and reinventing the process – Amazon being the obvious suspect – although at the moment the worried glances over the shoulder are coming more from the freight forwarding and third party logistics sectors.
The cynic might also note that Maersk’s exit from various energy shipping related sectors have not been exactly well timed. The Danish giant exited the dry bulk shipping industry in 2002 a year before the biggest boom on record for the sector, and more recently sold its VLCC fleet at the start of 2015 just as that market was about to enjoy its best two year period since the global financial crisis. It has also exited the LNG shipping sector, one which many see a bright future for given the push for clean energy.
Granted all things oil and offshore business related are not performing well at the moment, and peak oil may not be far off, but the growth in global energy demand is also unrelenting. There is a lot to point to this being close to the bottom of the cycle and some brighter times on the horizon as the market and costs rebalance.
It should be noted that Maersk does remain an investor in the energy sector with the Maersk Oil deal taking a 3.75% stake in Total through the $4.95bn share element of the transaction. Should the oil market the value of this investment should also rise. But that is all Maersk will now be the oil industry an investor, not an active participant that can take wider advantages of that upside.
Now of course there is the fear that the oil industry – and related sectors – are set to face a major disruption given the rapid rise of clean and green energy.
The electric car, little more than a novelty a few years ago, is rapidly gaining traction and automobile manufacturers are investing heavily in battery-powered vehicles. The recent Economist cover Death of the Internal Combustion Engine illustrated the rapid change that is taking place with the obvious parallels of how the motor car replaced the horse at the beginning of the 20th century.
If you take the more extreme “transport as a service” model, that we covered back in late May, where people switch from owning cars to hailing driverless electric vehicles enmasse, and that could be extremely bad news for both the oil industry and tanker shipping.
Should disruption take place on this scale Maersk’s decision to exit the oil related energy sectors of its business would, in hindsight, look very wise indeed.
However, that still leaves the question of making long term, sustainable returns from a business with container shipping at its core, something that has proved elusive to even the brightest minds in the industry over the last two decades.