BBC BLOGS - Douglas Fraser's Ledger

Archives for September 2010

Savings face a rainy day

Douglas Fraser | 10:25 UK time, Tuesday, 28 September 2010


Ed Miliband now joins David Cameron and Nick Clegg as a new generation of post-baby-boom leaders.

And while he's watched for tacking to left or not so left, it may be the 40-year old Labour leader's position on age that most dominates his time at the top of the Labour Party.

Theirs is the generation that has to pay a lot of the baby boomers' bills - pensions and healthcare most prominent among them - as they head into retirement.

And they're going to have to find a way of working with the financial sector to do that, as it doesn't look like the state will be able to pick up the tab for a demographic bulge which has grown older with great expectations.

That's why the savings and pensions sector is worth watching closely.

In Edinburgh, Standard Life is working through significant organisational changes, trying to align itself better with customer needs and aiming for a bigger share of a gigantic market.

Lost faith

On Tuesday morning, Aegon issued an update on some big changes the UK arm of this Dutch company is working through at its headquarters in the Scottish capital's Gyle business park.

UK chief executive Otto Thoresen has been to the fore in warning government and the public that there's a crunch coming on savings and pensions if we don't start taking them a bit more seriously.

He was talking about that on Radio Scotland's The Business on Sunday (the podcast is still available).

But it's not just that people haven't been saving enough. It's that they have lost faith in the pensions and savings markets, and often with good reason.

So business is growing at a slowing rate, with margins much less buoyant. And what people do save is going less far.

Equity investments aren't delivering what the actuaries used to think they would, and tax benefits have been sharply eroded.

Standard & Poor took a dim view of Aegon only last week, downgrading the credit rating of its Scottish Equitable incarnation.

Instead of the more common analysts' criticism of a company for failing to control costs, it said the cost controls being undertaken risk undermining "the strength of the franchise".

Sluggish old Europe

Add to that reform of the way pensions are sold - the so-called Retail Distribution Review - which seems likely to have a radical impact on the financial adviser sector from 2012.

It risks focusing attention on those with wealth rather than those who ought to build some up.

Plus there's the European Commission ramping up the capital buffers required of the sector, just as the Basle rules are doing for bankers.

And there's yet another significant element weighing on Aegon UK.

As an international company, most of it having been Scottish Equitable, it has to justify investment from Dutch headquarters.

If you want to look for growth potential in the sector, it's hard not to see Asia as the place to put your guilders.

Sluggish old Europe is a hard sell to finance directors thinking globally.

Not coincidentally, a parallel message was being issued on Monday from Alliance Trust in Dundee, issuing an interesting insight into Katherine Garrett-Cox's investment strategy.

It's leading with a significant shift from European to Asian equities.

For Aegon UK, while raising its profile and reaching out to its target market with a pioneering tennis sponsorship, the implications have meant giving up on "the age of the generalist" and aiming at a much clearer business proposition.

Lump sum confusion

One focus is on "at retirement" benefits for the baby boomers.

They're much less likely to retire suddenly at 65 than was once the case, either choosing or being required to go part-time and reduce their earnings as they age.

They need a bit of advice and steering round the confusing world of annuities and lump sums.

Then there's the pressure to provide a more flexible set of options for those younger than Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Miliband.

So expect less advertising, and more partnership with employers in trying to use payroll contributions to achieve a lot more than pension contribution.

The idea is to get the savings habit started for younger people while they might be unwilling to commit to something as big, long-term and locked-in as a pension.

An ISA account, for instance, isn't a bad place to start.

Less staff

More product simplicity or less? More clarity, says Thoresen.

And a lot less staff. Aegon UK has 4,000 employees, more than half of them in Edinburgh.

The other big centre is in Lytham St Annes, where Guardian Financial Services was based and bought over 11 years ago.

The pain of removing a quarter of Aegon UK's cost base, as announced in June, is still being worked through, and even Standard & Poor doesn't like it much.

As that threatens to add to the numbers of unemployed, that's a good point to remind ourselves that a) a focus by financial advisers on those who already have wealth, and b) a focus by savings and pensions providers on those in the workplace runs the risk of even greater financial exclusion for those with no workplace.

Otto Thoresen led an industry review of financial advice, telling government in 2007 it should share the costs of an independent advice service free at the point of need, or at least inquiry.

It may be neither left nor right, and it looks like no government budget for it, but it may be something for the new generation of political leaders to take on.

Another headquarters gone

Douglas Fraser | 20:32 UK time, Friday, 24 September 2010


Dana Petroleum no more. Venture Production no more. HBOS no more. Scottish and Newcastle no more.

Scots used to lament the departure of clans from the Highlands, and then, as the Proclaimers proclaimed, great industries as they exited the towns that had been built around them.

The departure of headquarters has been less a part of the national psyche. But it's no less significant for all that.

Some firms do better once they've been taken over. Added investment and bigger markets as part of a international enterprise can be the making of them.

Search for savings

That's rather less likely in the oil and gas business, where it's assets being sought.

With the board of Dana Petroleum throwing in the towel this afternoon in its battle to fend off a hostile takeover bid from the Korean National Oil Corporation, the London Stock Exchange has said that trading in its shares will cease on 29 September.

A source close to the Koreans says the state-owned corporation wants to keep staff, management, know-how and expertise, as its past acquisitions would suggest.

But there's bound to be an impact when decisions are made elsewhere. The search for synergies and savings start here, to get value out of the takeover.

And the spend on headquarters functions will fall.

That will hit Dana's accountants, advisers, auditors and lawyers, perhaps extending to engineering sub-contractors if bosses in Seoul prefer to place their business locally.

Of course, this is part of business Darwinism.

It's down to Dana's success that it's being bought for nearly £1.7 bn. Where it failed was in trying to convince its shareholders that it was worth more than that.

Proud achievements

But where people have invested their time and passions in growing a company, a takeover comes with a sense of personal loss.

That came through in the statement today from Colin Goodall, Dana's chairman.

He said Dana had "a bright future and would have continued to grow strongly".

He reminded staff that the company began with funding of less than £1m, and it was listed on the London Stock Exchange 14 years ago with market capitalisation of £24m.

There was generous praise for chief executive Tom Cross and the rest of the company's team. "Dana's personnel across the world can be very proud of what they have achieved," said Goodall.

Energy security

The loss of independence for another Scottish company is not happening in isolation.

It fits into another very significant development in the global economy.

There's a determination to secure supplies of natural resources. That's what's taken Chinese into Africa and South America on a colossal scale.

And concerns about security of energy supply is particularly acute, as developed nations try to avoid over-dependence on unreliable trading partners and hedge against volatile global prices.

That's what led Centrica, owner of the Scottish Gas and British Gas brands, to take over Venture Production, also based in Aberdeen until last year's buyout.

Securing upstream oil and gas assets is to ensure Centrica can meet its customers' demand when markets get rocky.

Polar explorer

The Korean National Oil Corporation was set up by the Seoul government in 1979 to do something very similar, after the country found itself badly exposed to that decade's oil price fluctuations.

The company's website (in Korean English) is patriotic in its approach, saying it seeks "nothing less than to provide hope and a better life for the people of Korea and to earn their trust".

It boasts of how its exploration, acquisition and stockpiling are safeguarding the nation's interests: "Furthermore, KNOC is securing the next generation energy sources by doing extensive activities such as exploring the polar regions, remote areas and deep seas, and making research on oil sand, the non-traditional petroleum".

So there's a global aspect to this story.

But the more parochial one takes us back to a series of familiar questions in Scottish business; what can be done to stop successful companies from being taken over, with the loss of headquarters power, and then why are not better at replacing them?

Familiar questions. But are there any convincing answers?

Turbo-charging the turbine revolution

Douglas Fraser | 22:17 UK time, Thursday, 23 September 2010


There's something big happening on a horizon near you. The renewable energy sector is beginning to pick up the pace with the equinox gales.

The announcement from Ofgem that it's opening the door to re-thinking grid connection charges is one factor behind the growing momentum.

It follows on changes to the regulator's statutory powers, requiring it to move beyond concern only for keeping prices down. Ofgem is now obliged to look after security of supply as well as the drive for low-carbon energy.

So it looks like an end to paying as much as £24 per kilowatt to connect to the grid in the north of Scotland, where that low-carbon energy is in abundance, while the south of England gets a £6 subsidy.

That follows on years of hard lobbying by the Scottish government and the energy industry in Scotland. They've successfully made it a national political issue.

But it's before the power sector in the south of England starts lobbying to protect the charging tariff that has encouraged it to put its gas-powered plants where they are, near centres of population.

That, after all, is what was intended when the charging regime was put in place more than 20 years ago. It helped decide where around 30 gigawatts of power generating capacity was located since then.

Targets aiming higher

It's part of a picture of developments in the renewable power sector that are crowding in. The world's biggest offshore wind farm opened today, off the coast of Kent.

Alex Salmond announced today he's upping the target for the share of Scotland's electricity needs from 50 to 80%. This is on the back of consultants' research for Scottish Renewables, the industry body, that suggests that new target is at the lower end of the possibilities.

With a fair wind, and ambitious cuts in demand, Scotland could produce 123% of its electricity needs from renewables.

What's less clear is how that fits with the drive to cut the emissions from transport and heating. The replacement for gas central heating is likely to be cleaner, greener electric. So too with your next car but one or two. The Garrad Hassan report for Scottish Renewables has quite modest assumptions about how much extra load that will put on the grid.

Meanwhile, the Crown Estate yesterday announced it's opening up new bits of seabed off the Scottish coast, extending the only commercial site it has so far licensed, off Orkney.

A jobs fair in Glasgow this week was purely aimed at highlighting the opportunities for skilled jobs in this sector.

Funding the new wave

Next week, the Scottish government convenes a significant gathering of financial fire-power to consider how to unlock the innovative skills of Britain's financial sector in the cause of the renewables revolution.

It's a tall order. The Ofgem estimate is of a £200bn investment programme to update Britain's generating capacity and links, including the renewables investment.

That will require clear pricing signals from government - on renewables (good), carbon (bad) and nuclear (who knows?) - but it may also require the taxpayer to dip a hand in a rather empty pocket as well to provide some of the risk capital. Financiers are unsure of offshore renewables, and they are even less convinced of the commercial viability of wind and wave technologies.

Yet those are the technologies that offer the potential for Britain, and Scotland in particular, to get the advantage of being first mover, as the Danish and Germans can show with wind turbines.

Keeping the lights on

Behind this new momentum lies a growing realisation - not least in Whitehall - that security of supply is an issue that needs urgent attention. The cliché of 'keeping the lights on' may not be such a cliché after around 2015, when dirty old power stations have to be closed down.

And it's not lost on the coalition government that 2015 is an election year. There will be a high price to pay if ministers take the blame for an energy crisis, with shortage of supply, brownouts, and the potential for soaring prices.

That's why Whitehall is moving towards some quite radical reforms in the way the energy market operates, with the plan expected next spring - just as Ofgem provides its initial findings on grid access charges, as it happens.

Among the big issues: how to provide a floor price for carbon that sends the right signals, and transfers sufficient resources to more desirable technologies?

And with so much being spent on wind power, what to do when the lights go out? Is there a case for building gas power stations purely for use when the wind drops, and how do you make that economically attractive to generating companies?

Naval gazing

Douglas Fraser | 10:08 UK time, Monday, 13 September 2010


At Holyrood, only the Greens have any doubts about the building of two new aircraft carriers.

The other parties are today banding together to present a united front against cancellation of the orders, fearing that would cost at least 4,000 jobs at Govan and Scotstoun yards on the Clyde.

There will be jobs also at Rosyth in Fife, where the bits of ship are to be assembled, though much of the workforce on the Forth will be the same people.

The two remaining Clyde yards carry a powerful iconic firepower in Scottish history and its economy, so they also carry real resonance in politics.

It's hard to see cross-party agreement on the importance of saving multiples of the jobs under threat if they are in government, councils, quangoes and police forces over the next few years.

Not having responsibility for defence, it's unlikely any of those at today's cross-party talks will be asking too many questions about the point of having two gigantic new carriers.

But just as the opposition to renewal of the nuclear deterrent features the questions of what it's for, who it could be used against and whether it's value for money when other parts of defence spending are being squeezed and could be seen as requiring a higher priority, the same can be asked of the carriers. That seems to be what's going on in the Treasury.

Too late to cancel?

While the latest fears have arisen from BAe Systems' shipbuilding boss saying the company has been asked to tell the UK government what it would cost to cancel one or both of the ships, happily for the Scottish economic lobby, it may be too late to cancel.

Much is made of the £1.25bn in contracts already signed by the ships' builders. But that's just the sub-contracts. That figure ignores the overall contract between the Ministry of Defence and the contractors themselves, and that contract is for £5.2bn in total. The break clauses could be colossal, going far beyond the carriers contract itself.

The deal was agreed with the shipbuilders in the context of a wider Memorandum of Understanding that BAe Systems will scale down its shipbuilding capacity - possibly including the closure of one of its yards - in exchange for a flow of work long after these so-called super-carriers are in service.

They've already spending substantial sums on designing the next generation of surface ships, for deployment 15 years from now. The hope is that they can have a generic design which could be applied to contracts for other countries' navies.

This is just what British shipbuilding has failed to do so far. It builds very high-tech ships, which are hard to adapt for foreigners' lower-tech requirements.

Long-term game plan

But it's recognised that and is trying to change it. Indeed, BAe Systems is now in the business of selling its designs and expertise to other countries, for them to do the shipbuilding.

In Thailand, patrol boats are now being built to the company's specifications, similar to those recently launched on the Clyde for Trinidad and Tobago.

So there is a long-term game-plan for the remains of British shipbuilding. But without the carrier contract, it's hard to see what shipbuilding capacity there could be by the middle of next decade with which to build anything for the Royal Navy. The skills can't be kept in place while the workforce is dispersed.

While the Ministry of Defence, under pressure from the Treasury, is bound to ask searching questions of its contracts, particularly because they are notorious for going over-budget, it seems much more likely that the cuts can be forced in the kit that goes on the carriers.

It's not yet clear which and how many planes are to be deployed on them and, along with the weapons system, the firepower represents more cost than these floating platforms.

So the Royal Navy could be left with the biggest and most impressive ships it has ever owned, but without the firepower that was intended to go on them.

The Bilbao Billions

Alex Salmond is missing the shipbuilding talks today, as he had a pre-arranged visit to Bilbao in the Basque Country.

There, he's at the headquarters of Iberdrola, the Spanish energy giant that owns Scottish Power, as well as lobbying for finance jobs from Santander and BBVA.

New contracts can be expected from Iberdrola to extend its huge renewables portfolio in Scotland.

The first minister has moved from calls to protect Scottish Power when Iberdrola bought it in 2006 to an enthusiastic embrace for Iberdrola's decentralised form of management, leaving much of its renewables business in expert Scottish hands.

The argument is that companies based in the devolved parts of the larger countries emulate government behaviour with corporate decentralisation.

Would that extend to Korean National Oil Corporation control of Dana Petroleum? I haven't heard any Scottish politician having anything to say about that near-certain takeover.

But a word of warning on the claims that Iberdrola's spending the lion's share of £4bn UK spending in Scotland over the next two years.

Some of that is investment, but a lot is not. Quite a bit is the cost of running its power stations, including coal-burning Cockenzie and Longannet.

So just as Iberdola's spending generously in Scotland, it's also billing us for it.

Number crunching

Douglas Fraser | 19:07 UK time, Thursday, 9 September 2010


Little more than a month to go to the Comprehensive Spending Review, and the tension is being cranked up.

Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, is today trying to calm fears that all the pain is going to come at once. At the same time, Chancellor George Osborne says he's identified another £4bn in cuts to welfare.

That raises questions about whether any savings can be recycled into reform of the system, or if all those cuts are set against the deficit.

It may be time for Iain Duncan Smith, the self-styled Quiet Man at the Department of Work and Pensions, to turn up the volume.

This morning, it was for MSPs to debate the Independent Budget Review led by Crawford Beveridge. This is as the former Scottish Enterprise chief has returned to Scotland to help explain his group's thinking.

From Labour, more sign of the direction of travel its MSPs will take in shaping the budget this winter. "Fairness and protecting jobs" was what Andy Kerr set out.

That raises two questions. What does "fairness" mean? Fair to whom?

Means testing

The Economist recently castigated British politicians for the woolliness of "fairness" thinking, pointing out that, as with equality, fairness of outcomes is a long way from fairness of opportunity.

The other is whether Labour's pitch joins the SNP in taking us towards an election campaign with a "no compulsory redundancies" pitch.

Number crunchers simply don't think that's possible, but try telling that to the manifesto writers.

A contribution to this debate comes today from the expert adviser to Holyrood's finance committee.

Professor David Bell has highlighted some of the significant gaps in the Beveridge Report, most notably: "What may seem lacking is a general set of principles to guide the redesign of a significantly slimmed down Scottish public sector".

Among those principles are those around the application of more means-testing.

And significantly, Professor Bell, whose day job is at Stirling University, is inviting MSPs to consider carefully the implications of a pay and hiring freeze.

That can lead to valued people leaving, or important posts going unfilled, skewing the delivery of services.

Better, suggests the prof, to take a lesson from the private sector and delegate frozen or reduced budgets, so that managers closer to services can decide best how to implement cuts.

Why not cut working hours, for instance, as a means of cutting costs without costing jobs?

Another interesting contribution to this debate comes from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

It has studied the jobs market at the minimum wage margins, and it's challenging the notion that people given sticks and carrots to get off benefits can easily enter the workplace.

The UK government's policy on that will have to be much smarter, argues Tracy Shildrick of Teeside University. It's worth a read:

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