Shipping giants will plot course for landbound M&A

A ferry and a Maersk container ship travel along the English Channel in Dover, Britain, January 15, 2021. REUTERS/John Sibley

LONDON, Dec 22 (Reuters Breakingviews) - Shipping giants are heading for port, but not in the traditional sense. Companies like Denmark’s A.P. Moller-Maersk (MAERSKb.CO) and Germany’s Hapag-Lloyd (HLAG.DE) are riding a record valuation wave thanks to a year of sky-high container rates. Gobbling up land-based logistics rivals would be one use for the cash burning a hole in their pockets. It would also serve as a handy buffer against future supply-chain crunches.

Pandemic upheaval has benefitted the shipping industry. Government support, such as cheques mailed out to U.S. households, fuelled a consumer spending spree. Freight rates have soared. In September, a container from China to New York cost $22,000, eight times its 2019 price. That has boosted shipping firms’ bottom lines. Market leader Maersk’s EBITDA will nearly treble in 2021 to over $23 billion, according to analyst estimates compiled by Refinitiv. The firm, which the market valued at $59 billion in mid-December, is likely to be carrying over $17 billion of net cash in 2022.

The normal response would be for chief executives like Maersk’s Soren Skou to splash out on ever bigger boats. Yet March’s blockage of the Suez Canal shows the dangers of excessive bulk. And the arrival of lots of new vessels in three or four years may overwhelm demand for container space, cratering freight prices and shipping company margins.

A smarter move may be to invest in getting containers seamlessly from port to customer. Danish shipping and freight specialist DSV (DSV.CO) bought the logistics unit of Kuwait’s Agility Public Warehousing (AGLT.KW) in April for $4.1 billion for just such a reason. France’s CMA CGM and Maersk both pulled similar moves in December read more . At $51 billion, DSV is too big even for Maersk. Switzerland’s Kuehne und Nagel (KNIN.S), at $34 billion, would also be a challenge. However, its shares shed 25% in September and October as freight rates eased. If those trends continue, the company could come into play in 2022. U.S. land-transport specialist CH Robinson Worldwide (CHRW.O), now worth $13 billion, would be another option.

Bringing sea and land services under one roof would allow for cost savings. It would also make it easier for operators to plot a course through future supply-chain bottlenecks and charge a premium for speedier delivery. Danish wind turbine giant Vestas Wind Systems (VWS.CO), which has struggled to get parts throughout 2021, signed just such a deal with Maersk in November. In 2022, there are a lot of incentives for sailors to step ashore.

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(This is a Breakingviews prediction for 2022. To see more of our predictions, click here.)


- Danish shipping company A.P. Moller-Maersk and wind turbine maker Vestas Wind Systems said on Nov. 10 that they had signed a long-term strategic partnership, including door-to-door transport from Vestas’s suppliers to its factories.

- French shipping group CMA CGM said on Dec. 8 that it had agreed to pay $3 billion for the logistics arm of privately owned U.S. services firm Ingram Micro’s Commerce & Lifecycle Services division.

- Maersk said on Dec. 22 that it was buying Hong Kong-based LF Logistics for $3.6 billion in cash from supply-chain manager Li & Fung and Singapore state investor Temasek.

Editing by Swaha Pattanaik and Oliver Taslic

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Ed is Associate Editor of Reuters Breakingviews, based in London. He joined the London Breakingviews team in 2018 as Africa columnist. Before that, he was Reuters sub-Saharan Africa bureau chief, based in Johannesburg. During two decades at Reuters, Ed has reported from three continents, with postings in London, Edinburgh, Phnom Penh, Bangkok and Johannesburg. Along the way, he has covered everything from the dotcom bubble to the death of Nelson Mandela and fall of Robert Mugabe. He holds a degree in Classics from Cambridge University.