The shipping companies Hapag-Lloyd and Hamburg Süd said on Tuesday they were investigating whether and under what conditions a merger would make sense.
A combination of the two companies would create a group with annual revenue of more than 10 billion ($13 billion) and a fleet of about 250 vessels. The companies gave no details in their brief statement and declined further comment.
"We're going into this with hope," a person familiar with the negotiations told Reuters, adding that the talks were only just beginning and that it wasn't known when the review would be completed.
Both firms are under pressure from high fuel costs and a surplus of new ships coming onto the market. The merged company would be among the world's biggest players. The companies would complement each other well. Hapag-Lloyd is a leading shipper in trade to and from Asia while Hamburg Süd is strong in routes to North and South America.
The city of Hamburg holds close to 37 percent of Hapag-Lloyd, the world's sixth-biggest container shipping company, while logistics entrepreneur Klaus-Michael Kühne, who also controls Swiss group Kühne & Nagel, owns just over 28 percent. German travel and tourism group TUI AG, which controls Europe's largest tour operator TUI Travel, holds a 22-percent stake in Hapag-Lloyd.
Hamburg-Süd currently ranks in 12th place.