Maersk prepared for troubles ahead

We’re gonna need a smaller boat.

That’s one way to interpret the message from Maersk, the world’s largest shipping line, as it announced earnings Thursday with a subtle warning about the outlook for trade and possibly weaker demand growth for containers.

Good and bad news

First came the good news: The Copenhagen-based company, which controls a fifth of the globe’s container fleet, said demand worldwide grew by about 2% in the second quarter from a year earlier — in line with its expected full-year growth of 1-3%. Profit beat analysts’ expectations. Chief Executive Officer Soren Skou said the company is managing the trade turmoil quite well so far. The stock jumped.

Then came the bad news, stemming from U.S. President Donald Trump’s import taxes on Chinese goods and Beijing’s retaliation. “The impact of the newly imposed tariff hike is expected to be significant for the U.S.-China bilateral trade and could in isolation remove up to 0.5% of global container demand in 2019 and 2020, and when U.S. tariffs on additional $300 billion is implemented later in the year, it could result in a reduction of up to 1% in 2020,” the company said.

A bite to demand of 0.5%-1% doesn’t sound that painful unless you consider that expectation for 2019 worldwide container growth is just 1%-3%.

Far-reaching consequences

All the unknowns about tariffs are hurting the shipping industry and the global economy more broadly, sending stocks and bond yields tumbling this week. Recession fears are rising in the U.S., Germany and the U.K., and trade hubs like Singapore and Hong Kong are on the edge of downturns. Meanwhile, the U.S. and China remain far apart on the substance of any deal. Beijing just announced plans to retaliate imminently against the 10% tariffs on about $110 billion of Chinese imports that Trump announced earlier this week.

“There is a lot of uncertainty,” particularly about the U.S. and China, Maersk’s Skou told Bloomberg Television. “Right now there’s not much that suggests a deal will be done anytime soon. It seems to be going in the other direction.”

The bottom line from Maersk’s vantage point: We probably haven’t seen the worst of this storm yet.