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[COPENHAGEN] AP Moller-Maersk A/S, the owner of the world's biggest container shipping line, is paying particular attention to noises coming from the US that suggest the new administration is moving closer to a trade war with China.
US President Donald Trump's rejection of trade agreements with the rest of North America and Europe have done little to unsettle Maersk's management. "But when the talks come to a potential trade war with China, we sit up and listen," Soren Skou, the chief executive officer of the Copenhagen-based company, said in an interview on Wednesday. "That would have a very negative effect on our business."
Maersk, which is trying to split off its energy operations in order to focus entirely on a transport division led by its container shipping line, saw its shares sink on Wednesday after reporting a full-year loss when analysts had predicted a profit. Though much of the result was due to one-time impairments, the projection for 2017 also disappointed some investors.
The company expects the global shipping market to grow about 2-4 per cent this year, helping it increase its profit from freighting goods by at least US$1 billion.
But a full-fledged trade war between the US and China could ultimately make a mockery of such forecasts. Mr Trump's rhetoric so far suggests he's ready for battle, with accusations of currency manipulation being hurled at China.
Goldman Sachs analysts estimate that if Mr Trump were to impose tariffs against China of up to 10 per cent, the country's exports to the US would fall by as much as 25 per cent. That could erode China's economic growth by as much as 1 percentage point.
The problem with such strategies is that they often provoke retaliation. The Goldman analysts predict a Chinese response could shave as much as a quarter of a percentage point off US gross domestic product. In other words, the world's two largest economies would suffer significant trade-related losses that would undoubtedly have a knock-on effect across the globe.
Maersk, whose most important route is container traffic coming from Asia and bound for Europe, has taken advantage of a consolidation wave in the industry to spread its geographic reach. But even that strategy might prove futile if the whole world sinks into a trade war.
"Nationalism has become a globalised phenomenon and that's a very ugly development for shipping," said Peter Sand, chief shipping analyst at Bimco, the world's biggest shipping organisation. Though a global trade war isn't the main scenario, "it's already clear that we're seeing an increase in protectionism."
Sand notes that there are already plenty of signs that trade barriers are an issue. Of the roughly 3,000 trade restrictions put in place since 2008, the 164 members of the World Trade Organization have only removed 740, according to a report published by Geneva-based WTO in December.
While the fallout of Mr Trump's trade policies looks alarming to Maersk, the company is more positive on what it's hearing on tax proposals coming from the White House.
"The new administration in the US wants lower taxes and it's also planning huge investments in infrastructure," Mr Skou said. "And that will, without a doubt, mean more imports for the US. which is good for our business."