1. Market Environment
Developments in Container Throughput, Transport Volume and Logistics Services
The pace of growth in those economies whose flows of goods HHLA serves is a key prerequisite for the future development of container throughput, transport volumes and logistics services. If demand for these services fails to materialise as expected, the high level of fixed costs associated with this business model means that it might not be possible to fully compensate for divergences in earnings caused by underutilised capacity in the short term. An economic trend that falls short of expectations may also require adjustments to the valuation of assets (mainly property, plant and equipment and financial assets). HHLA regularly examines the intrinsic value of its assets and makes adjustments where necessary. As volumes in the Container segment are forecast to remain stable in the following year, the allowance for risks was reduced compared to the previous year.
Research institutes forecast moderate global economic growth for 2017 and the subsequent years. Although the advanced economies are expected to continue their stable growth, there are still uncertainties surrounding the consequences of Brexit in Europe and the further development of the US economy in the light of protectionist tendencies. Economic growth in China is expected to remain largely stable. On the other hand, there are opportunities for a stronger volume trend in connection with the growth potential of Central and Eastern European economies such as Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, which use the Port of Hamburg for a large proportion of their transcontinental trade. Should the economic trend exceed expectations, prompting stronger volume growth, this could present an opportunity to profit from higher earnings by achieving economies of scale in handling and boosting volumes in downstream transport systems. A gradual lifting of the economic sanctions imposed on the Russian Federation could also have a positive impact on the volume trend.
In view of the unexpectedly strong and consistent growth trend in 2017, the market research institute Drewry has also upgraded its forecasts for container traffic in 2018. Drewry now expects a further – albeit slightly smaller – increase in global container throughput and the Northern Europe-Asia trade route, which is particularly important for HHLA. Although the associated volume and capacity risks remain relevant for HHLA, they are less significant than they were in the previous year.
Throughput and transport volumes in the markets of relevance for HHLA are monitored closely to ensure trends are recognised at an early stage. Where scalable, controllable costs and investments – e.g. for the further expansion of the container terminals – are adjusted in line with the foreseeable level of demand.
In the area of container handling, HHLA competes directly with other terminal operators in Northern Europe. Primary competitive factors – apart from pricing – are reliability and quayside productivity as well as the scope and quality of container handling services. Other factors affecting the terminal operators’ competitive position are the ports’ geographical location, the scope and quality of their hinterland links and their accessibility from the sea.
Due to fierce competition for container transport by rail, HHLA’s Intermodal subsidiaries also face the risk of volumes being re-routed with a resulting risk for revenue. However, these risks are countered by taking appropriate measures.
HHLA constantly improves its competitiveness by further enhancing its service quality and technological capabilities. Its ship handling activities focus primarily on increasing the efficiency of its handling services and addressing the increasing number of peak loads prompted by the handling of container mega-ships. HHLA is working on innovating its systems and optimising processes to further strengthen its position in handling technology. HHLA’s rail companies also connect the European seaports with the Central and Eastern European hinterland via a growing number of highly frequent shuttle services and direct links. Investments in its own hub terminals, such as the fourth METRANS hub terminal officially opened in Budapest in June 2017, further strengthen the performance of HHLA’s hinterland network.
The integration of POLZUG’s activities into the METRANS organisation in 2018 is aimed at simplifying structures and processes, thereby enabling synergies to be realised.
Moreover, regulatory measures may increase the competitiveness of rail transportation in the intermodal marketplace.
HHLA’s shipping company customers have operated in a tough competitive environment for container liner shipping for several years now. This is mainly due to structurally related idle capacities and low freight rates. The cost pressure on shipping companies will remain high in future. However, the earnings position for shipping customers improved in 2017 with the upturn in global container traffic. The risk of a shipping customer filing for insolvency is therefore lower than it was in the previous year.
2017 saw the emergence of a new customer and service structure in the Asia–Europe trade route. Clients acknowledged the seaport terminals’ capabilities, prompting a rise in capacity utilisation. In view of these developments, the temporary or structural re-routing of services between the North Range ports continues to present both risks and opportunities for HHLA. As volumes per service and ship call increase with the use of ever-larger vessels, the impact on capacity utilisation at the seaport terminals grows. However, no major changes in the service structure are anticipated at present. Furthermore, shipping customers could become even more price-sensitive, especially for transshipment loads.
In the field of ship handling, HHLA cooperates with many shipping companies on a neutral basis (“multi-user principle”). This enables HHLA to respond flexibly to changes in the container liner shipping sector. In addition, HHLA aims to further enhance added value for its customers by expanding its mega-ship handling activities, continuing to develop the quality of its services and its technological capabilities, and optimising client-specific processes.
Depending on the customer structure, smaller affiliates may become reliant on individual clients. Various steps are taken to counteract this reliance, such as optimising service quality. At the same time, efforts are made to attract new clients.
Market Concentration in Procurement
Some of the handling equipment used by HHLA is highly specialised and this may result in a reliance on suppliers for maintenance or the procurement of replacement parts. Under certain circumstances, this may lead to operational restrictions. The corresponding risks are reduced to some extent by involving suppliers at a strategic and collaborative level and optimising the supplier base. This was aided by the introduction of an IT-based supplier management system in 2017.
2. Strategic Environment
HHLA’s competitiveness largely depends on Hamburg’s infrastructure as a port and logistics hub. Hamburg’s offshore, onshore and regional transport networks must be able to cope with the flows of goods and their carriers. Infrastructural deficits could make it impossible to handle peak workloads in ship handling – arising from the ongoing trend towards a growing number of ever-larger vessels – with the same level of reliability for all carriers.
The Federal Administrative Court reached a decision on the dredging of the river Elbe on 9 February 2017. It does not revoke planning approval for the dredging of the river Elbe. According to the court’s ruling, however, the latter is unlawful in part due to violations of habitat conservation law and is therefore not initially enforceable. Two points (a review of potential harm to the Elbe water dropwort due to a project-related increase in salt levels and provisions on coherence measures) that the Federal Administrative Court explicitly classifies as remediable must be revised. An approximate timeline for the practical and procedural implementation of the required remedial measures is not yet available. The Federal Administrative Court dismissed further appeals against the planning approval in November and December 2017. As a result, there are currently no appeals pending against the dredging proposals. However, as it is still impossible to reliably estimate when the potential construction work may begin, shipping companies may reschedule their mega-ship liner services and traffic could bypass the Port of Hamburg – possibly permanently. This would result in a corresponding loss in earnings.
As well as swiftly dredging the navigation channel, the regional road and rail infrastructure must be modernised and expanded if the Port of Hamburg wants to retain and enhance its competitiveness and optimise its processes for the in- and outbound flows of goods in its hinterland. Projects of special significance for HHLA include constructing the port crossing and upgrading the Kiel canal, including its locks.
As an infrastructure-related operator, HHLA and its subsidiaries depend on prompt provision of the scheduled volume of public investments and services that are frequently necessary to support their own investments. Otherwise, HHLA’s investment plans themselves or the expected economic results could also be delayed. This in turn could cause throughput and transport volumes to bypass HHLA’s sites. Moreover, the risk to HHLA of having to fund the costs of individual infrastructure projects cannot be excluded. The reassessment in 2017 concluded that this was no longer a material risk for the Group, unlike in the previous year.
HHLA closely cooperates with the relevant public institutions for these projects. It also safeguards its interests by participating in relevant committees and through lobbying and active public relations activities.
3. Financial Risks
As the bulk of HHLA’s services are rendered within the eurozone, the majority of its invoices are issued in euros. The Intermodal and Logistics segments operate internationally, and a container terminal is operated in the Ukraine. Invoicing here is based primarily on euros or dollars. Currency or transfer risks therefore result primarily from exchange rate fluctuations affecting Central and Eastern European currencies. As a result, it is impossible to rule out risks such as a further significant devaluation of the Ukrainian currency, the hryvnia, which may exceed the budget estimate. It still remains to be seen whether the political situation in Ukraine will stabilise in the short term.
All HHLA companies that operate with foreign currencies reduce the risk of exchange rate fluctuations by monitoring rates regularly and, where possible, transferring free liquidity in local currency to hard-currency accounts.
Bad Debt Losses
The upturn in global container traffic helped improve the liquidity and earnings position of shipping companies in 2017. As a consequence, HHLA will not take out loan loss insurance from 2018 onwards, which leads to a one-off increase in the level of risk after mitigation measures. Due to the ongoing disequilibrium between trading volumes and ship space, the risk of customers filing for insolvency – with the corresponding loss of throughput and receivables – remains relevant, especially in the Container segment. However, it is currently regarded as unlikely (previous year: possible).
HHLA uses credit checks to reduce del credere collection risks. Active receivables management is used to enable the precise monitoring of receivables and payment patterns.
The reference interest rate for measuring the necessary provisions for company pensions is expected to return to normal levels, but only in the medium to long term. Any further reduction in historically low interest rates would prompt another increase in pension provisions and a resulting decline in the equity ratio. In view of the anticipated interest rate trend, the risk assessment was reduced compared to the previous year. HHLA monitors interest trends so that it can adjust its provisions as necessary.
Further rises in pension provisions may prove necessary if additional vested rights in excess of the current regulations are recognised by the courts. This risk is currently regarded as low.
Please see the reporting on financial instruments in the Notes to the Consolidated Financial Statements for further details of downstream default risks, liquidity risks, interest and exchange rate risks, including risk mitigation measures and the management of these risks.
4. Other Risk and Opportunity Factors
As a result of the existing structural situation and the fact that HHLA’s port facilities and buildings necessarily operate close to water, there is a fundamental risk of storm surges. However, flood protection work undertaken by HHLA and the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg in recent years has reduced this risk considerably.
Should this risk ever materialise, comprehensive emergency programmes have been put in place by public authorities and companies operating in the port to minimise the potential damage. In addition, the risk of damage to property is sufficiently covered by insurance policies.
In addition to organic growth, HHLA systematically examines and evaluates acquisition opportunities. Potential equity investments focus on port projects in attractive growth markets. Besides strategic aspects and synergies with HHLA’s existing activities, key decision-making criteria include growth prospects, the anticipated return on capital employed, and the assessment of commercial opportunities and risks. HHLA is in a sound financial position. It therefore has the financial means to make acquisitions.
HHLA has digital expertise, as exemplified by the introduction of the slot-booking process for trucks in 2017. Based on HHLA’s ambition to drive the port’s digital transformation process, further innovations in the field of digitisation are to be initiated and implemented with the aim of enhancing the company’s value. This may result in opportunities to generate additional value added.
5. Legal Risks
Well-trained, motivated employees are the foundation for responsible business activities. The Group’s relationship with its employees is dominated by its sense of social responsibility. Staff representatives are closely and actively involved in Group decision-making and take their responsibilities seriously. This paves the way for a successful working relationship. However, it is impossible to completely rule out the risk of employees committing fraudulent acts or legal and competitive violations in the course of their work.
To reduce these risks, HHLA has introduced guidelines, manuals and double-checking, embedded controls in its processes and established spot checks as part of its compliance management system. Furthermore, the Group has issued a code of conduct that applies to all Group managers and staff. Training sessions are held regularly on the contents of the code of conduct, as well as on other issues such as preventing corruption and conduct in the competitive environment. All of these activities are supported by additional communication measures, for example via the HHLA intranet and the HHLA team app. There are also opportunities for both employees and third parties to report violations (whistle-blower hotline). Should compliance violations occur, specific process adjustments may be undertaken to prevent them in future. For instance, in cases of theft, corresponding security measures are reviewed and possibly introduced to prevent as far as possible any further disappearance of such items.
New Regulatory Requirements
Changes to legislation, regulatory reforms or amended requirements may necessitate changes to HHLA’s internal processes or existing equipment. By ensuring a steady flow of information and cooperating closely with the relevant authorities, HHLA is able to make timely internal preparations and forward-looking investments aimed at reducing the associated costs.
6. Provision of Services
Failure of Technical Equipment
In the case of equipment-based companies, there is a risk that a failure of central technical equipment may restrict the ability of these companies to render their services. Depending on the length of the downtime, unavailable equipment leads to additional costs for providing services. Preventive maintenance and repair, contingency plans and breakdown services, regular inspections and tests are performed to help identify possible faults before they happen and thus reduce risks.
Intermodal Services and Services Procurement
The HHLA companies operating in the Intermodal segment pay track fees to the national railway companies or network operators for their rail network usage and also purchase traction services in some cases.
As the rail infrastructure in Germany is largely publicly owned, various authorities monitor non-discriminatory access and carrier-neutral track fees. These authorities include the Federal Network Agency and the Federal Railway Authority in Germany and corresponding bodies abroad at EU level. Nevertheless, as the national rail network owners and operators have a monopoly, the profitability of rail firms may be impaired by a track pricing policy that does not take a neutral approach to carriers and distorts competition. During the 2017 general election campaign, a cross-party promise was made that Germany’s future government would reduce track fees. It remains to be seen whether this will be introduced.
To reduce the level of dependency on national railway companies for traction services and to enhance production quality, HHLA is expanding its own facilities, rolling stock and locomotives in line with demand. As part of this strategy, it also purchases services from private suppliers. Providing end-to-end transport services using the company’s own operating assets guarantees high quality throughout the process chain. HHLA’s objective is to offer its customers a logistics chain of unparalleled quality and reliability. This will further strengthen Hamburg’s appeal: high-performance seaport terminals promote higher volumes in the hinterland, while intelligent transport systems with low-cost structures boost container flows at the port.
7. IT Risks
Due to the heightened threat posed by cybercrime, the associated IT risks have been reassessed and are now classed among the HHLA Group’s key risks. It is impossible to rule out the possibility of IT applications being temporarily restricted or unavailable in the case of an attack. However, extensive measures are in place to protect against attacks and/or significantly reduce any negative consequences. These include prevention measures using tools such as specific filter mechanisms, maintaining backup systems (above all for data and information sharing) and communicating closely with business partners.