Rebounding container rates helped Maersk Line post a third quarter operating profit of $547 million compared with a loss of $255 million and made parent A P Moller-Maersk raise the group's full-year outlook.
Group chief executive Nils Smedegaard Andersen cautioned rates could reverse for Maersk Line, which returned to profit after four successive periods of losses, reported Reuters.
"I think one should be careful expecting that this is now very stable," Andersen told reporters. "It does not mean there is no chance of a relapse for prices on some routes."
The container unit, a barometer of world trade as its fleet carries more than 15 percent of all seaborne containers, has struggled with profitability due to the global economic slowdown and an oversupply of vessels. Maersk Line successfully managed to implement rate hikes in the third quarter along with rivals, but spot rates on the crucial Asia to Europe route were easing again this week, worrying some analysts.
"The profits are not sustainable for Maersk Line," said Alm Brand analyst Jesper Christensen. "I believe the unit will hold up in the fourth quarter but that rates will fall to unprofitable levels at the beginning of next year," Christensen said.
The Maersk group said it still expected a modest positive result in 2012 for Maersk Line, based on higher average rates in the second half, but downgraded growth estimates for seaborne container demand to three percent from four percent.
It did not offer outlook for next year, but raised its 2012 group net profit forecast to US$3.7 billion from "slightly above" last year's $3.4 billion result. Group net profit jumped to $933 million in the third quarter from $371 million in the same period last year, lagging an average forecast of $1.20 billion by analysts in a Reuters poll.
Maersk Oil reported a 33 percent fall in operating profit to $1.16 billion, lagging forecasts.
Shipowners are struggling with an oversupply of vessels that could intensify next year. Raising rates and cutting costs are amongst ways the companies can cushion falling volumes as trade slows worldwide.
The group said last month it would step up investment in its oil, ports and drilling businesses to cut its exposure to the volatile container shipping industry.
The shipping downturn has forced banks to pull back from shipping finance amid a four year-long downturn that is likely to extend well into 2013. Maersk could decide to increase its planned bond issue program, Smedegaard said.
"Our bond programme is still of a limited size and what will decide how large it will be is how the banks' behaviour will change in the future," he said. "If the banks view credit for large companies increasingly in terms of bonds, we will definitely increase our bond programme," Smedegaard said. The group's four core businesses are Maersk Oil, APM Terminals, Maersk Drilling and Maersk Line.