March 26, 2023 3:30 pm

The world’s two largest publicly listed container shipping firms have defended plans to dish out multibillion-dollar payouts to shareholders, regardless of the threat of falling income and stress more than low tax prices.

Danish group AP Møller-Maersk and German rival Hapag-Lloyd strategy a combined $22.6bn dividend payout, extra than 33 instances the quantity delivered in 2019.

While the bumper payouts stick to a record period for income, earnings are anticipated to fall sharply this year as international trade declines since of the financial slowdown.

Each groups have forecast a roughly 70 per cent fall in income for 2023, with their combined payout predicted to be at least 30 per cent larger than earnings this year.

Carrier income have risen largely since of surging demand for on the web purchasing in the course of the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, as properly as provide chain bottlenecks that sent the expense of delivering goods by sea soaring.

Maersk mentioned its proposed dividend was equivalent to 37.five per cent of its underlying income for 2022, adding that this was “fully in line” with its policy of paying involving 30 and 50 per cent of earnings.

Column chart of  ($bn) showing Maersk’s dividend payouts have surged as profits rose

Hapag-Lloyd’s chief economic officer Mark Frese, justifying the group’s planned €11.1bn dividend this month, insisted that the group nonetheless anticipated to retain a net money position.

The payouts come amid criticism of the comparatively low tax prices the market enjoys since of the way the levies are calculated.

Final year a group of French lawmakers proposed a 25 per cent tax on the “superprofits” accumulated by domestic carrier CMA CGM, privately owned by the billionaire Saadé household.

The calls by the lawmakers have resonance offered oil majors ExxonMobil and Shell, which have been hit tough by windfall taxes, are forecast to spend out a combined $23.3bn this year, only a fraction above the combined dividends of Maersk and Hapag-Lloyd.

EU nations permitted shipping firms to be taxed on fleet capacity to cease them relocating to low-tax states. But this meant that as their income soared, their efficient tax price plunged.

In 2022, Hapag-Lloyd’s tax payments had been equivalent to just 1 per cent of its pre-tax income compared with ten per cent in 2019. Maersk’s efficient tax price fell from 49 per cent to three per cent more than the very same period.

Column chart of Income taxes as a percentage of profits before tax showing Hapag-Lloyd’s tax rate has plunged as profits soared

“You could think about [this system] a tax subsidy, [but] it is complicated to see the hyperlink involving the tax subsidy and a societal advantage,” mentioned Olaf Merk, a shipping researcher at the OECD’s International Transport Forum.

He pointed out that shipping had been exempted from an agreement on a international minimum 15 per cent corporate tax, decided in the course of talks at the OECD, following lobbying by the market.

“It blows my thoughts there’s such tiny taxation of the sector, so when they have these bumper income they can just send them out to shareholders,” mentioned Aoife O’Leary, chief executive of campaign group Chance Green.

Merk mentioned extra of the industry’s income could have been invested in cutting emissions.

O’Leary mentioned shipping groups “should be paying for their pollution”.

She added that the disappointing level of investment in greening the fleet was “not surprising”, offered the absence of sturdy regulation forcing shipping to decarbonise.

Hapag-Lloyd’s Frese defended the tax program for shipping, saying it “works” and had supported the market by way of complicated years when it struggled to turn a profit.

Maersk mentioned tax guidelines had been generally up for discussion when income had been higher, but added that shipping was a “cyclical industry” and it was the duty of politicians to make adjustments.

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