A cyclists rides his bicycle past a Danske Bank A/S branch in Copenhagen, Denmark, on Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2013. Banks in Denmark looking for smaller lenders to purchase say too few are willing to be sold, driving prices higher and stalling the industry consolidation the government says is needed to emerge from the crisis. Photographer: Freya Ingrid Morales/Bloomberg

AP Møller-Maersk has bowed to investor pressure as the Danish shipping-to-oil conglomerate said it would sell its 20 per cent stake in the country’s biggest bank.

Shareholders can expect a special dividend of up to $5.5bn, the value of Maersk’s holding in Danske Bank. But most of the 20 per cent stake in Danske will remain in familiar hands as the family foundation behind Maersk will buy the majority of the shares.

Nils Andersen, Maersk’s chief executive, told the Financial Times: “It has been a wish expressed by the shareholders over the last years. It’s essentially another step in our efforts to focus the business on our core industries.”

The stake sale is the latest in a series of disposals and portfolio adjustments at Maersk, Denmark’s biggest company by revenues, since Nils Andersen took over as chief executive seven years ago.

Mr Andersen sold Maersk’s supermarket business a year ago for $3bn and initiated its first share buyback programme. The former Carlsberg chief executive has tried to focus the once sprawling conglomerate on four main areas: container shipping, oil production and exploration, port terminals, and drilling rigs.

That strategy led to mixed results on Wednesday when Maersk also reported its full-year earnings.

Maersk Line, the world’s biggest container shipping line, continued its strong performance by boosting net profit to $2.3bn last year from $1.5bn in 2013.

Seen as a bellwether for global trade as it transports 15 per cent of all seaborne freight, Maersk Line said it expected container demand to grow 3-5 per cent this year, well below the pre-crisis levels of more than 10 per cent but in line with 4 per cent growth last year.

“We basically don’t expect a lot of change. The low oil price should give some changes in patterns,” said Mr Andersen, pointing to growth in Asia-US and Asia-Europe trade but declines in north-south routes to Africa and Latin America.

Maersk Line expects to post a higher underlying profit this year than in 2014. The conglomerate as a whole said it expected an underlying profit this year of slightly below $4bn, compared with $4.1bn in 2014.

But Maersk Oil, once the main profit contributor of the group, suffered from the falling oil price, resulting in big writedowns and swinging from a $1bn profit to a $861m net loss.

Mr Andersen said that as Maersk was a conglomerate it would take a long-term view and continue investing “in projects where the production costs are competitive”. But asked about Arctic oil exploration off the coast of countries such as Greenland, he added: “The oil price forecasting we have does not indicated we should invest a lot of money in Arctic exploration.”

Maersk has been a big Danske shareholder since 1928 but AP Møller Holding, a family company that is Maersk’s biggest owner, has offered to buy 15 per cent of Danske from the conglomerate and indicated its intention to buy an additional 2.02 per cent. Maersk shareholders will also be offered some Danske shares.

Ane Uggla, chairman of AP Møller Holding, said: “By acquiring shares in Danske Bank we reinforce the historic relations which have existed since the late 1920s . . . In doing so we wish to preserve Danske Bank’s close and longstanding ties to Denmark and provide our support to the positive development in both AP Møller-Maersk and Danske Bank.”

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