* Q1 net profit $253 mln vs forecast $199 mln
* Oil division outperforms expectations
* Maersk Line posts loss, but company sees improvement
* Shares climb almost 5 percent to hit four-month high (Adds conference call, updates share price)
By Stine Jacobsen and Nikolaj Skydsgaard
COPENHAGEN, May 11 (Reuters) - A.P. Moller-Maersk beat first-quarter net profit forecasts on Thursday, boosted by the energy business it plans to spin off, but also reported signs of improvement at its long-suffering container shipping business.
Shares in the Danish conglomerate climbed almost 5 percent after it said a gradual recovery in freight rates should boost earnings at Maersk Line, the world’s biggest container shipping business, over the rest of the year.
Maersk has been hit by the double blow of low oil prices at its energy arm and sliding prices in its shipping business due to lacklustre global trade and industry overcapacity. Last year, new CEO Soren Skou announced plans to focus on transport, while seeking alliances or a separate listing for its energy division.
Although higher fuel costs saw Maersk Line report a loss of $66 million in the first quarter, Skou said demand had been better than expected and the group’s forecast for 2-4 percent growth in global demand for seaborne container transportation this year may prove too conservative.
“We have been surprised on the upside with growth in this first quarter,” he told a conference call with investors.
“We have decided not to upgrade our market demand growth forecast yet, because we are not a 100 percent sure about what is the driver and is this just some quarterly inventory movements blurring the picture,” he added.
At 1140 GMT, Maersk shares were up 4.2 percent at 12,220 Danish crowns, after hitting a four month high of 12,380 crowns.
“It is their wording about the rest of 2017 which triggers the stock jump ... They are looking quite positively on the development for the rest of the year and see continued improvements in the container division,” said Martin Munk, a broker at Jyske Bank which has a ‘sell’ rating on the shares.
Maersk reported a first-quarter net profit of $253 million, above analysts’ average forecast of $199 million in a Reuters poll and an improvement on $224 million a year ago.
The energy business swung to a profit of $328 million from a loss of $29 million in the same quarter a year ago, helped by higher oil prices and cost cutting.
“During the quarter we have made really good money in the energy division while we have looked into the possibilities to find the right home for these businesses in the future,” said Chief Financial Officer Jakob Stausholm, without giving further details on the options for the energy division.
Maersk repeated its guidance for a full-year group underlying profit above the $711 million achieved in 2016.
“We are more calm about being able to deliver what we have promised now than a quarter ago,” Stausholm said. (Additional reporting by Astrid Julie Thomsen; Editing by Keith Weir and Mark Potter)