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Singapore's NOL Profit Quadruples; Outlook Dimmer

Singapore's Neptune Orient Lines reported that quarterly profit quadrupled due to higher container volumes and rates, but expects growth in U.S. trade to moderate due to a slowing U.S. economy.

NOL -- which owns the world's eighth-largest container shipping firm APL -- did not comment on merger talks, despite ongoing speculation it is in discussions to combine with fifth-ranked Hapag-Lloyd, a unit of Germany's TUI.

"Based on recent volatility in world financial markets and a slowing U.S. economy, we expect growth in the U.S. container trades to moderate," NOL said in a statement.

But NOL said it expects continued growth in other markets, particularly in trade lanes linked with the Asian economies.

Starting this year, the firm will also include earnings from APL Terminals, a new unit with facilities in the United States, Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam and Thailand.

NOL, which is 68 percent-owned by Singapore state investment firm Temasek Holdings, said fourth quarter net profit was $196 million, nearly four times the $50 million earned a year earlier.

The results beat expectations of $138 million, according to the average forecast of eight analysts polled by Reuters Estimates.

In the whole of 2007, the Singapore company earned $523 million, 44 percent more than a year earlier.

Speculation about a merger between NOL and Hapag-Lloyd has gone on for months, but TUI has said there were no such talks under way while NOL has consistently declined comment. Such a move would propel the merged group to number three among container shipping firms.

Freight rates at NOL, and rivals such as the world's top two container shippers AP Moller-Maerskand Mediterranean Shipping, are expected to come under pressure due to slowing demand as the U.S. economy heads for a recession.

NOL is part of the Transpacific Stabilization Agreement (TSA) grouping of 14 container carriers, which last year moved to impose fuel surcharges and hike freight rates in a bid to offset surging oil prices.