Blue Chip: Fears for Reuters despite payback

It must be cool to hand over pounds 1.5bn cash to shareholders and barely register a blink, but that is what media giant Reuters accomplished last week.

The problem of its surplus cash pile had been gnawing at directors for a while. Last year, the company tried to hand back money through a special dividend but was stymied by the Inland Revenue.

This time, however, the scheme they have adopted looks to have covered all conceivable regulatory angles.

So what does it mean for the shares? It must be something of an irony that the shares today are barely changed from where they opened the year.

Turmoil in Asian markets has taken its toll on the price, but Reuters says that the declines will, if anything, prop up its revenues. In times of uncertainty, there is a greater need for accurate information, the company argues.

Tommyrot. This is corporate doublespeak of the highest order. It would be fair to say that the closure of Yamaichi and other banks in the region, and cutbacks at Hong Kong brokers Peregrine, have already seen plenty of traders reach for the off switch on their Reuters screens.

However, Asia is the least of Reuters' problems. One of the great unknowns for the company is the Internet, which could well end up putting Reuters out of business by supplying for free the information Reuters currently provides. Last year, Reuters spent pounds 1.2bn on capital expenditure and acquisitions and another pounds 500m on development. Much of this was Internet-related.

For now, Reuters argues that the Internet is an opportunity, not a threat. That may be true, although profits for Internet players are pitifully slow in coming through. That is also true for Reuters. So if it is an opportunity, it will be a while yet before it is a significant money spinner.

Peter Job, chief executive, says less cash will tighten company discipline and investment strategies. Executives would not be able to simply buy into whatever takes their fancy, but would have to think more carefully about long-term investment.

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