Economies expand. Goods move. Shippers make money. It’s a simple equation – and the modest 3 per cent rise in first half 2013 sales and gross profits at Kuehne & Nagel, the world’s largest sea freight forwarder and number two player in air freight, says a lot. Growth has not disappeared. But, as US delivery group UPS warned last week, it is very patchy. Customers are seeking cheaper shipping options – avoiding premium air freight, for example. That is putting pressure on prices in markets where there is too much capacity. It is also making good cost management essential.

Against this ho-hum backdrop, Kuehne’s performance could fairly be described as creditable, causing shares in the Swiss group – which have yo-yoed around the SwF110 level for two years – to gain more than 3 per cent on Monday. On the sea freight side (about half of group revenues) Kuehne managed a 3 per cent volume increase in the first six months, outstripping more sluggish 1-2 per cent growth in the market overall. Rates are still volatile, but margins were held. Air freight did slightly better – volume growth near 4 per cent, suggesting market share gains – but the road business remained poor. A small first half operating loss was notched up, although Kuehne says the second quarter was profitable.

After more than a century in the freight business, Kuehne is no stranger to the ebbs and flows of international trade. Like other freight forwarders, it benefits from not having money tied up in capital assets (unlike delivery companies,). The balance sheet is conservative, with net cash increasing slightly, year on year, to SwF815m. But these strengths are already reflected in the share rating: using 2013 consensus estimates the price-earnings multiple is 22 times, compared with a historic average of 19. Given the state of the global economy, that seems high.

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