A.P. Moller-Maersk swung to first quarter profit of $639 million from a $373 million loss a year ago driven mainly by increased container traffic, rising ocean freight rates and higher oil prices.
The Danish shipping and energy group's revenue rose by 20 percent to $13.2 billion from $11 billion in the first three months of 2009.
Maersk Line, the container shipping unit, booked a first quarter profit of $168 million against a year-earlier loss of $581 million as revenue surged 23 percent to $5.8 billion from $4.7 billion.
"We expect an improved operating result [in 2010] compared to earlier expectations of a modest profit mainly because of the recovery in our container business, which is now expected to post a profit in 2010," A.P. Moller-Maersk CEO Nils S. Andersen said.
The container shipping division, the world's largest, slumped to a $2.1 billion loss in 2009 from a $583 million profit in 2008.
The return to the black, after five consecutive quarters in the red, was also driven by an increase in oil and gas profit to $450 million from $256 million in the first three months of 2009.
Maersk said it expects global container volume to increase by a minimum of 5 percent in 2010, driven mainly by the strong development in demand in the first quarter as the United States and Europe restocked inventories.
Maersk Line and Safmarine, the carrier which focuses on the South African trades, boosted traffic to 3.6 million 20-foot equivalent units in the first quarter from 3 million TEUs in the first three months of 2009.
Growth was driven by increased traffic on head haul routes, which increased 18 percent, and intra-Asian trades, which soared 70 percent.
Freight rates averaged $2,863 per 40-foot container in the first quarter, an 18 percent increase on $2,424 in the same period a year ago.
Rates had stabilized on most routes at the start of the second quarter, Maersk said.
Despite the improved outlook for container shipping, Andersen warned of uncertainty going forward.
"Due to the development in the global economy, especially in the second half of the year, there is still uncertainty in how the volumes and the rates will develop in the rest of the year," Andersen said.
"But we will continue to improve our competitiveness, and we are ready to seize opportunities that arise in the wake of the crisis," he said.
APM Terminals, the global container terminal unit, boosted first quarter profit to $115 million from $60 million a year ago on revenue broadly unchanged at $1.1 billion against $1.08 billion.
The number of containers handled rose to 7.6 million TEUs from 7.1 million TEUs in the first three months of 2009.
Tankers, offshore and other shipping activities lifted profits to $115 million from $64 million as revenue grew slightly to $1.4 billion from $1.29 billion.
-- Contact Bruce Barnard at email@example.com.