The Danish shipping and oil group AP Møller-Maersk yesterday predicted shipping rates would continue their recovery since March.
But it still expects full-year net profit for this year to come in slightly lower than last year.
Announcing a profit of US$1.2 billion (Dh4.4bn) and a return on invested capital of 10 per cent for the first quarter, the group said earnings in shipping had been weak because of the continued loss-making rates in the container and tanker markets.
Although most of the group's businesses had reported satisfactory figures, and its net result was about the same as last year, Maersk's chief executive, Nils Andersen, said he was not happy with the operational performance over the first three months of this year.
"Although most of our businesses delivered good results and the net result is on a par with last year, we are not satisfied with the operational performance for the first quarter," he said.
"Earnings in shipping were weak due to the continued loss-making rates in the container and tanker markets. However, our efforts to increase container rates are paying off and we will continue our initiatives to improve rates throughout the year."
Dealing with the group's activities over the first quarter, division by division, he said Maersk's container operation, the world's largest, booked a loss of $599 million for the first quarter, compared with a profit for the same period last year of $424m.
While its volumes had risen 18 per cent year-on-year, Maersk's freight rates declined 9 per cent.
"Global demand for seaborne containers is expected to increase by 4 to 6 per cent in 2012, with lower increases on the Asia-Europe trades but higher increases on the north-south trades. Maersk Line expects a negative up to neutral result in 2012, based on the assumption that the rate restoration that has taken place since March will continue," Maersk said.
The group's ports division, APM Terminals, reported a profit for the first quarter of $235m, versus $141m a year ago, thanks to tax divestment gains of $73m from portfolio optimisation. Despite declining volumes in Europe, Maersk said overall throughput rose 10 per cent driven by growth markets and new terminals.
The company's offshore division, Maersk Drilling, delivered profits largely unchanged from a year ago at $125m, but several rig charters were signed during the quarter, promising good earnings through this year and next.
Still in the offshore sector, Maersk Supply Service's profits were $42m versus $43m in the first quarter of last year as spot-market rates remained at the same level as a year ago.
APM Terminals expects a full-year result above last year's figures, while Maersk Drilling and Maersk Supply Service expect results in line with last year's numbers.
Maersk Oil's profit for the period was $1.3bn and return on invested capital reached 76.5 per cent. Mr Andersen assured investors he was "very confident" in the division's long-term strategic target to raise the group's oil production to 400,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day (boepd).
Maersk's oil production in the first quarter fell by 24 per cent from a year earlier to 254,000 boepd, the company said, but it forecast output would rise to 265,000 boepd on average for the year, based on an average oil price of $110 per barrel.
On the group's overall prospects for this year, Maersk said it expected full-year results to come in "slightly lower" than the loss of $3.4bn reported last year.
"The outlook for 2012 is subject to considerable uncertainty, not least due to developments in the global economy," the group said.
Maersk's first-quarter results are the first it has published since the death of the group's patriarch, Maersk Mc-Kinney Møller, a month ago.
The son of the company's founder, Arnold Peter Møller, he was a former chief executive and chairman well known for his tight grip of the family-controlled group.
Investors believe it now could become easier for the company to make decisions such as splitting shares and selling non-core assets, most notably Maersk's retail grocery business and its 20 per cent stake in Denmark's largest lender, Danske Bank.
Maersk shares dropped 7.7 per cent in Copenhagen after the statement, to 35,320 Danish kroner, valuing the company at about $30.2bn, down about 10 per cent in the past three months.
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