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Global giants merge quietly

LONG BEACH - If two giant global shipping conglomerates merge, will anyone even notice? Industry leader Maersk-Sealand's $3 billion acquisition of P&O Nedlloyd, which could be formalized any day now, would seem to be a major sea change in the realm of ocean carriers.

But in a world overflowing with cargo bound for overseas destinations, everything is not as it seems.

Though Maersk's acquisition would combine the first-and fourth-biggest companies in the market, mergers aren't the shipping industry newsmakers they used to be.

"When Maersk bought Sealand (in 1999), it was big news," said Stephanie Nall, editor of the maritime trade journal Pacific Shipper. "When NOL bought APL (in 1997), it didn't rock the world as much as Maersk-Sealand. And this won't be as big as either."

The move would give the Maersk/P&O Nedlloyd combination significant market share (17 percent, analysts say) and ownership of 550 container vessels. It would also employ 70,000 people worldwide, though the company is expected to lay off 1,500 workers over three years.

The foundation controlled by Maersk Mc-Kinney Moeller, one of Denmark's wealthiest men, owns the A.P. Moller-Maersk. His group operates Maersk-Sealand, a shipyard in Denmark, a Danish airline and holds the rights for oil and gas exploration in the North Sea continental shelf.

"They are buying to defend their position as the top market player," Nordea Securities analyst Finn Bjarke Pedersen told Reuters last week. "The price is high, but I'm sure that Maersk will make the investment profitable."

The merger was somewhat unexpected.

At the Journal of Commerce's Trans-Pacific Maritime conference in Long Beach in February, keynote speaker David Lim, president and CEO of Singapore-bases carrier NOL, was asked if he expected any major mergers in the industry.

His reply: "I don't think so."

Analysts say Maersk's move could encourage a fragmented industry to look for consolidation opportunities.

And though the local and global implications won't be easily identified just yet, it could affect an empty terminal at the Port of Los Angeles.

L.A. is home to Pier 400, otherwise known as the Maersk-Sealand terminal, the biggest in the Western Hemisphere. The port is also in the midst of negotiations with P&O Nedlloyd to take over the former Matson terminal.

Port officials have touted it as the world's greenest terminal because 90 percent of the ships that call at the future terminal will use electricity to power onboard systems while docked, significantly cutting diesel emissions.

One shipping official said he would be surprised to see Maersk maintain two terminals if the merger went through, but port spokesman Arley Baker said L.A. isn't worried, pointing out that plenty of other carriers were vying for the former Matson terminal.

"It's too early to be trying to figure out the implications of a merger that's been rumored," said Arley Baker, L.A. port spokesman. "Maersk is a fantastic customer and we're enthusiastically moving forward with the lease agreement with P&O Nedlloyd.

"I don't think there's a downside for the port because space is scarce. I don't think we're going to encounter any issue with finding a tenant (if P&O leaves)."

Nall said that the move strikes her as a protection for Maersk a few years down the road.

"They're still less than 20 percent of the market," said Nall. "Will they be more powerful in terms of rates? They won't be an 800-pound gorilla, especially when the market's good. But if we get to a point where less stuff is there to be moved, if everybody's fighting for freight, that will be interesting."

The conditional offer of 57 euros ($73) a share was recommended by the board of Royal P&O Nedlloyd, the Danish company said.

P&O Nedlloyd, the world's fourth-largest provider of container shipping services by fleet capacity, operates a 156 container ships and 428,000 containers.

"The container industry is booming at the moment. We see gigantic growth in Asia, specifically in China," P&O Nedlloyd's executive board member Rutger van Slobbe told Dutch television.

Brian Boersting, an analyst with Denmark's Jyske Bank, said other shipping groups could make counter-bids for P&O Nedlloyd, forcing A.P. Moller-Maersk to increase its offer.

However, Maersk Sealand Vice President Eivind Kolding said the Danish offer was "sufficient to make the deal go through."

Nall also said that while it looks like the Maersk-P&O merger is a done deal , don't be surprised to see Asia enter the mix.

"Who's to say the Chinese or the Singapore government doesn't come in with a bigger offer?" she said. "They've made no bones about investing outside their countries."

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