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AP Møller Maersk recorded an underlying profit of $120m in the fourth quarter of 2018, to take its full-year profit to $220m.

But the Danish transport and logistics group is pessimistic in its outlook.

Chief executive Soren Skou said the “disappointing” 1-3% growth projection for 2019 was due to “uncertainties related to global macro outlook”, including trade tensions, the downturn in China and Europe, IMO 2020 and potential fallout from Brexit.

“Two months into the year and there is a lot of uncertainty out there,” said Mr Skou.

Maersk’s revenue for 2018 was 26% higher than the year before, at $39bn, largely due to the acquisition of Hamburg Süd, which it said had integrated “better than planned”, realising synergies of $420m.

Total ocean carryings jumped 21.6% to 26.6m teu, but excluding Hamburg Süd’s figures, the increase was a below-market par 2.5%, which it attributed to a “focus on profitability” in the second half of the year, when it suspended one of its Asia-North Europe loops.

Average freight rates increased by 5.1% to $1,879 per feu, although excluding Hamburg Süd, rates only inched up 1.9%, or $34 per 40ft.

At the same time, bunker costs jumped 32% on 2017, adding $1.2bn to costs, which Maersk said had “not been fully compensated” by BAF surcharges.

Revenue earned from ocean grew 29% to $28.4bn, which included almost $1bn of demurrage and detention receipts, as Maersk Line “toughened up” on its collection policy, and also benefited from a “windfall” of terminal congestion at the Los Angeles and Long Beach terminals.

Chief operating officer Soren Toft confirmed that Maersk’s capacity would remain flat, at around 4m teu, although he said that this might rise by a few percentage points when the impact of the 2M new slow-steaming network changes is taken into account, and allowance is made for short-term charters to cover for ships that are temporarily taken out of commission for scrubber retrofits.

Maersk reiterated that it was not intending to order new ships until “at least 2020”, and had started leasing more containers instead of purchasing, thus reducing its capex liability.

Chief commercial officer Vincent Clerc said rates had ended 2018 “in much better shape” than the previous year, up around 7%, which he said had resulted in “a better climate” for the annual Asia-Europe rate negotiations.

Similarly, he expected that the new transpacific contracts, renewing from May, would also benefit from the more robust spot market.

However, Mr Clerc cautioned that around 50% of Maersk Line business was now short-term and fixed on a monthly basis and, as a consequence, could be subject to rate volatility.

Maersk’s Logistics & Services division, which includes its newly-created supply chain management sector, saw revenue increase 2% to $6.1bn, but was weighed down by $20m of restructuring costs for an ebitda of $98m and an “unsatisfactory” 1.6% margin.

Mr Skou said Damco, which was “carved out from the rest” as a standalone freight forwarder on 1 January, had “one mission – to become profitable”.

Terminals & Towage, which includes APM Terminals, saw containers handled at its facilities jump by 11.8% year on year, to 11.4m teu. As a consequence, divisional revenue grew by 8.4% on the previous year, to $3.77bn, for a 22% increase in ebitda to $778m and a margin of 20.6%.

Maersk attributed this robust performance to a “strong collaboration between gateway terminals and Maersk Line and Hamburg Süd”, which saw terminal liftings jump 17% to 4.1m teu.

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