[SINGAPORE] The shipping company that helped cement Singapore's status as a global trade hub may be shaping up as a takeover candidate.
The appeal of Neptune Orient Lines has increased after it agreed to sell its logistics unit last month for US$1.2 billion to cut debt. Analysts project the company, which moves goods globally, will benefit from the US economic recovery and return to profit in 2015 after four straight years of losses.
"They are a cleaner play on the expected rebound in global trade," Nicholas Teo, a market analyst at CMC Markets in Singapore, said by phone. "It's definitely a good point in the cycle" to buy a shipping company.
A sale may help Temasek Holdings, the Singapore state investment company that controls Neptune Orient, bolster returns. The US$1.8 billion container line's natural partner would be Orient Overseas International, controlled by the family of Hong Kong's first post-colonial leader, according to Credit Suisse Group AG.
Neptune Orient, created in 1968 and now Southeast Asia's largest container line, ran up US$1.2 billion of cumulative losses in the past four years as a worldwide surplus of vessels ate into container rates. Its net debt in the period almost doubled to about US$4 billion.
On Feb 17, just days after reporting its latest quarterly loss, Neptune Orient said it would sell APL Logistics, its supply and freight-management division, to Japan's Kintetsu World Express Inc. The company said at the time it would consider all options for its liner business.
Temasek, which owns 67 per cent of Neptune Orient, has previously explored a merger for the shipping company, people with knowledge of the discussions said. Those talks broke down over issues including price and structure of a combined entity, according to the people.
The APL Logistics transaction simplifies Neptune Orient and means a sale of the company could be resurrected, said one of the people familiar with previous attempts to strike a deal. The person asked not to be identified because the talks were never made public.
A representative for Neptune Orient said in an e-mail that the company doesn't comment on market speculation, and plans to focus on returning its shipping business to "sustained profitability." A representative for Temasek also declined to comment.
Stanley Shen, a spokesman for Orient Overseas, responded to an e-mailed request for comment by replying, "How can you expect us to comment on rumors and speculation."
A combination with Orient Overseas, which has a market value of US$3.8 billion, makes sense partly because it, too, has tightened its focus on shipping after selling assets, said Timothy Ross, Singapore-based head of Asia-Pacific transport research at Credit Suisse.
"Now would be a good time for a deal," said Mr Ross. "Scale is indubitably rewarded by profitability in the liner business." While Temasek has been a Neptune Orient shareholder since 1974, the strategic importance of its stake has faded as the state investment company broadened its holdings, said Carmen Lee, head of research at OCBC Investment Research Pte in Singapore.
"Times have changed and they are also into other growth areas like tech, health care, consumer sectors," Ms Lee said. "Shipping was viewed as a lot more strategic in the past."
Japanese shipping companies such as Mitsui OSK Lines Ltd and Nippon Yusen KK would also be among logical buyers as regional competitors, said Teo at CMC Markets.
Representatives for Mitsui and Nippon declined to comment.
Among 40 peers, Neptune Orient was the world's sixth- biggest transporter of US exports between January and September last year and had a market share of 5.3 per cent, according to JOC Group data. Mediterranean Shipping led with 13 per cent.
Neptune Orient may appeal to a European suitor such as Hapag-Lloyd AG, Germany's biggest container shipping line, because of its trans-Pacific routes to the US, said Suvro Sarkar, an analyst at DBS Group Holdings in Singapore.
"Temasek may want to dispose of it in due course," he said. "I wouldn't discount the idea, but the likelihood is still on the lower side." A representative for Hapag-Lloyd said the company doesn't comment on speculation.
After the sale of its logistics business, Neptune Orient looks more like a buyer of assets than a takeover target, said Rahul Kapoor, a Singapore-based director at Drewry Maritime Services. Neptune Orient has become a symbol of the Singapore shipping industry and an exit by Temasek is very unlikely, he said.
All the same, Neptune Orient's outlook improved last month when US west coast dockworkers resolved a nine-month labor standoff that contributed to losses last year. Neptune Orient is projected to post annual profits through at least 2017, data compiled by Bloomberg show.
Temasek in 2004 paid S$2.80 a share to raise its Neptune Orient stake to about 69 percent from 30 per cent. The shipping company's stock closed Tuesday at 94.5 Singapore cents.
Singapore's government last month posted its first budget deficit since the financial crisis and said it's prepared to dip into Temasek's capital gains for extra funding. The state investment company's total shareholder return was 1.5 per cent for the 12 months ended March 31, down from 8.9 per cent in the previous year and an average of 16 per cent a year since its inception in 1974.
In Temasek's 2014 review, Neptune Orient was one of only three major investments to post negative returns in the previous five-year period. The company's shares have climbed 13 per cent this year.
About 75 per cent of the Bloomberg Intelligence global marine shipping peer group is expected to generate positive earnings per share in 2015, up from 51 percent in 2014. With prospects looking better for Neptune Orient, a merger involving the company is more likely, said Mr Ross at Credit Suisse.
"Now is probably a time you get people coming to the table," he said. "I see Temasek now being prepared to be commercial, to find someone who has a track record better than their own in driving the business."