Comment: Sids strike back - but will they win the war?

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Sid strikes back. Or, there again, maybe not. British Gas says that the pounds 1bn writ it fired off yesterday in the general direction of the Trade Secretary, Ian Lang, has nothing to do with the way its shareholders have been mugged over the last 12 months by a combination of government ministers and regulators. No, siree.

It is simply protecting our rights under the statute of limitations. Come to that, it will probably never even get to court if we can all be grown up and settle amicably.

Odd, then, that it has taken the company a decade to cotton onto the possibility that it has been massively overpaying the gas levy to the taxman on North Sea contracts, signed back in the 1970s .

Odd also that, if British Gas should win, the Government has to counter- sue the North Sea oil majors to recover the money. Odd, too, that it is those self-same oil majors with whom British Gas is in dispute over pounds 40bn of gas contracts for which it now, inconveniently, does not have customers. Odd, finally, that if the issue does come to court, British Gas may end up in effect suing itself since some of the contracts in question were signed with its own exploration arm.

Perhaps they have been on the laughing gas around at Dick Giordano's office, for only someone with an out-size sense of humour could seriously suggest that British Gas's well-documented travails and yesterday's writ are unconnected.

To the average man in the street this looks like a clear case of revenge. You break up our domestic monopoly, visit upon us a regulator from hell, leave us with a take-or-pay liability that will probably top pounds 2bn, and we will see you in court.

As British Gas so earnestly says, it may not come to that. Instead of sticking out for the pounds 1bn tax rebate, it would probably settle for the abolition of future gas levy which, incidentally, would save about the same amount over the next decade.

But it is a rum way of going about things, and one which was greeted with surprise and not a little irritation inside the Department of Trade and Industry.

It is impossible to tell whether British Gas has a case that merits attention given the highly complex and technical nature of the claim it is bringing. Tax law is a minefield into which only those with the slickest of advocates enter.

But its tactics still look mighty peculiar. In as much as the Government has intervened in the talks between British Gas and the oil producers, it has made it plain that the vast liabilities faced by the company are a burden which should be shouldered as widely as possible. Now, however, British Gas has chosen to pick a fight with the Government. It is already in conflict with its regulator, its customers and its suppliers, and could soon be packed off to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.

As many a general has discovered, opening up the battle on too many fronts is a sure-fire way of losing the war. In this case, the collateral damage would be among the Sids.

The route BAe might choose to fly

The sky was black yesterday with denials from British Aerospace and Daimler Benz about a merger of their respective military aircraft businesses. Tommy taking over supplies to the Luftwaffe? What rot. The Hun would never stand for it. What's more, they didn't win Euro 96 just to capitulate to the first Tornado squadron across the Channel.

While it may be true that BAe is only engaged in specific talks about acquiring a slice of Thomson CSF's weapons business in France, the fact is that consolidation is now the buzzword. For two decades Europe's defence groups have muddled along by collaborating on important projects like Eurofighter in a compromise between the need for economies of scale and the demands of national procurement programmes.

But now the mega-mergers within the US defence industry, notably the Lockheed Martin combination, have forced the Europeans to revisit how best their own manufacturers might be grouped.

BAe has been at the forefront of this process, exploring the idea of joint ventures, mergers of peripheral functions and now perhaps something on a grander scale. It will not be an easy task to cement alliances across Europe that involve one nation's defence capabilities being acquired by another. Chauvinism and continued state ownership of much manufacturing capacity on the Continent are two obvious deterrents.

Even exchange of minority cross-shareholdings, a concept examined at the beginning of the 1990s by BAe and Daimler, proved impossible to bring to fruition. So for all the talk, full-scale merger will probably remain a longer-term project. In the shorter term, a profitable route for BAe to fly might be a merger with GEC - an alliance of airframe and defence electronics that would bring more potent benefits than any European tie- up. The resulting national champion might be a non-starter as far as the present administration is concerned. But in George Simpson, who takes over at GEC in six weeks, there is the man who could broker a merger. On present election timing, he would have just about the right amount of time to put a deal to Tony Blair's first Cabinet.

Frost to make Hays while the sun shines

Being smoked out by the Takeover Panel is never the best start to a takeover bid, but if Ronnie Frost's Hays Group can secure the support of the Christian Salvesen board for an offer at around pounds 3.50 a share then no harm will have been done.

Hauling chilled chicken tikka masala and ladies dresses about the countryside may not be everybody's idea of excitement, but if there is going to be a number one European logistics company then it might as well be Hays.

The customer fit looks good - they only overlap on Marks and Spencer and Tesco and even then they handle different products - as does the geographic match, with Hays strong in Europe and Christian Salvesen in the UK.

Where the marriage is less compelling is in the baggage Christian Salvesen hauls in its wake. It may be a long way from its whaling and timber origins and it may have slimmed down radically under the present management, but it still has a heavy presence in the UK supermarket sector where the buying power of the likes of Sainsbury makes for low margins. Hays, by contrast, has cleverly built a network by acquiring unquoted companies across Europe where the power of the retailers is nowhere near as great.

Still, Mr Frost is a canny operator and, even if there is no agreed offer, he can probably count on the support of the Salvesen family, who own around a third of the business and by all accounts, are restive with the present management. He promises he will not overpay, but how many times have investors heard that?