Maersk CEO: Data shows `ironic’ twist in U.S. trade war with China

A.P. Moller-Maersk, Soren Skou
Soren Skou

The man running the world’s largest container-shipping company says he has access to data that shows Donald Trump has so far failed to wean the U.S. off Chinese imports.

The chief executive of A.P. Moller-Maersk A/S, Soren Skou, says Chinese exports to the U.S. actually grew 5-10 percent last quarter. Meanwhile, U.S. exports to China fell by 25-30 percent.

“It’s an ironic development,” Skou told reporters in Copenhagen on Wednesday. “But after Trump has turned up the volume, the U.S. has only increased their imports from China even more.”

There are two reasons behind the development, Skou said.

Firstly, the U.S. economy is doing well so consumers there have more money to spend on imports, he said. Secondly, a lot of the really big U.S. companies are hoarding Chinese imports to buy as much as possible before tariffs kick in, he said.

“When we talk to our customers, we hear from many of them that they want to bring in a lot of goods before the end of the year,” Skou said.

Maersk transports about a fifth of the world’s seaborne manufactured goods, so the company is in a unique position to gauge changes in global trade flows. Given Maersk’s reliance on free trade, Skou hasn’t shied away from criticizing Trump’s tariffs in the past.

Part of the problem is that Trump is fighting an “asymmetric” battle, because China has a lot more clout than the U.S. when it comes to telling corporations how to act, Skou said.

“Donald Trump can’t tell Nike, Walmart and The Home Depot that they can’t import from China,” he said. “So they will continue to import and will work on solutions and they may be hit a bit on their margins.”

“Meanwhile, the Chinese state-controlled companies don’t need many signals from Beijing to lower their imports from the U.S.,” Skou said.

The Maersk CEO also warned that China is having an easier time finding substitutes for U.S. products than the U.S. is in replacing Chinese imports.

“The large U.S. importers aren’t considering building new factories in the U.S.,” he said. “What they are considering is whether they can buy in Vietnam, Bangladesh or India.”

According to Skou, that should leave Trump with little choice but to strike a deal with China, which he says may come “within the next quarters.”

But even if there’s a trade deal between China and the U.S., Skou says Maersk will prepare for lower trans-pacific trade next year.

“There will be a price to pay for container lines in 2019,” he said. “What we plan for now, is that we have to take out a lot of capacity on trans-Pacific trade next year. There will be a high level of inventory build-up which needs to be brought down again and that will affect volumes.”

Source: Bloomberg