British Gas sells Canadian arm for 638m pounds: Investment shift to developing nations

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The Independent Online
BRITISH Gas is selling its 85 per cent stake in Consumers Gas of Canada, four years after it bought the distribution company to expand its non- regulated overseas activities.

Cedric Brown, chief executive, said the proceeds of Cdollars 1.2bn ( pounds 638m) would be invested in a range of developing countries where the potential returns were higher than in the mature Canadian market.

Global Gas, British Gas's overseas division, already owns shareholdings in gas companies in Argentina, Germany and the US, and has plans to set up joint ventures in India, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia.

Mr Brown said that while Consumers Gas had been a good investment for British Gas it no longer fitted with the company's strategy of concentrating its overseas operations in markets with high growth potential.

The offer from Interprovincial Pipe Line System, operator of the world's longest gas pipeline through Canada and the US, values Consumers at 11.6 times last year's earnings. In the year to September, pre-tax profits were Cdollars 192m. Net assets were Cdollars 863m.

British Gas bought Consumers Gas in January 1990 for Cdollars 1.14bn. Since then, at the insistence of the Canadian government, it has floated 15 per cent of the company, raising Cdollars 162m.

Mr Brown said that British Gas's total investment amounted to Cdollars 1bn, implying an annualised rate of return of 11 per cent. Including the impact of sterling's devaluation against the Canadian dollar, he estimated the real return to have been 16 per cent a year.

He added: 'International gas markets have changed significantly since we acquired Consumers Gas. Major opportunities are now opening up worldwide as a result of increasing liberalisation of energy markets and growth in demand for gas.'

Demand for gas is estimated to rise by 40 per cent by 2005, with developing countries growing twice as fast as the average. Investment in the gas industry is forecast to total dollars 1,100bn over the next 10 years.

The disposal of Consumers Gas will reduce British Gas's borrowings by pounds 1.5bn, cutting gearing by about 8 per cent to 39 per cent.

Mr Brown denied that the effective shift of assets from a safe utility in North America to projects in more volatile parts of the world represented a significant increase in the company's risk profile.

Analysts agreed that the company was still dominated by the UK distribution business which, although waiting for government reaction to a series of proposals from the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, is considered to be relatively safe.

The MMC report on British Gas, published in August, recommended the disposal of the company's gas- supply arm and retention of the gas storage and transportation system, which accounts for the bulk of its assets.

British Gas shares closed 4p lower at 322p.

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