Jeremy Warner's Outlook: By teaming up with Centrica, EDF tries to look more British in bid for nuclear assets

Ronson warns of long workout for property; When stockbroking is in the blood; Low-ball offer for Friends Provident
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The Independent Online

It is no wonder that EDF, RWE and other foreign power companies interested in bidding for British Energy are so keen to partner with Centrica.

British Energy operates virtually all the UK's remaining civil nuclear power stations, and because in practice any new ones will have to be built on the site of, or immediately adjacent to, the old ones, it also in effect controls the future of nuclear power in this country.

Whoever buys British Energy is therefore in a mightily powerful position, both in regard to the existing 20 per cent of generating capacity provided by nuclear and in terms of future nuclear build. For cosmetic reasons alone, foreign bidders might think it wise to have the involvement of a British company.

Centrica makes an ideal partner in many respects, as it is not interested in owning and operating nuclear plants outright, but does want some involvement as a hedge against its supply needs.

The UK electricity market is already substantially owned and operated by foreign companies. Does it make any difference if the nuclear industry goes the same way? In theory, no, despite the obvious national sensitivities around any nuclear programme.

There is no vitally important technological base to defend here, as the quintessentially British "gas-cooled reactor" design is now obsolete. Britain surrendered its place in nuclear technology to foreign rivals many years ago.

EDF also brings proven ability to build and operate nuclear power stations and undoubtedly has the balance sheet to finance them. Yet to allow EDF to buy British Energy would also seem to commit the UK to an exclusively French solution to new nuclear build, and potentially locks out rivals from future participation in the industry.

There would be other competition issues involved too. EDF already has a big chunk of UK electricity generating and distribution capacity. EDF cannot and should not be excluded simply because it is foreign and still state-controlled. Yet adequate safeguards must be put in place to prevent British Energy's future owners from monopolising the future of UK nuclear.

Ronson warns of long workout for property

Gerald Ronson was feeling more than usually pleased with himself at his annual City luncheon yesterday, and justifiably so. At the same lunch a year ago, he warned that the property market had gone too far and that the writing was on the wall. For new kids on the block, he rightly points out, the words must have been written in invisible ink.

The tidal wave of liquidity that flowed into debt and equity, catapulting values to unsustainable levels, has now evaporated. Mr Ronson predicts a long workout, with total credit losses of $1.2 trillion, of which perhaps only a quarter have so far washed through the system. Yet in every meltdown, there is opportunity.

Having lost one fortune in the downturn of the early 1990s, and then subsequently made it all back again, Mr Ronson deserves to be heard. He's learned from his mistakes, and going into the downturn has both cash and long-term backers for whatever he can pick from the wreckage.

Interestingly, he's also still got a quite significant ongoing development programme, which all goes to show that, even in one of the worst banking crises in living memory, business still manages to carry on somehow or other. In Mr Ronson's view there is no contradiction. According to him, successful property development is about having the very best property in the very best location. What's more, his present raft of prime developments is not due for letting or sale until 2011, by which time you would hope the worst would be over.

Mr Ronson reckons that all his best investments have been made during a downturn. At the time of the last one, he said it was about staying alive until 1995 and going to heaven in '97. The property world has had its 10 years of heaven and now it's about staying alive again. On this rule of thumb, the return of heavenly conditions could be a good five years away.

When stockbroking is in the blood

It is always heartening to see the son follow in the father's footsteps, but sometimes it is brave too. So it is with Michael Parnes, who I can disclose has this week received authorisation from the Financial Services Authority to start operating as a stockbroker under the name of Old Park Lane Capital PLC.

Parnes, 28, is the son of Tony Parnes, the infamous stockbroker at the heart of the Guinness shares fraud. The son should never be branded with the father's sins, but the association is impossible to escape.

Mr Parnes senior was instrumental in organising and implementing key parts of the Guinness share support operation, for which he was rewarded with an eye-popping £3m-plus "success" fee, and, ultimately, a long spell at Her Majesty's pleasure.

In his heyday as a stockbroker, he was known as "The Animal", not as widely assumed because of his aggressive modus operandi but because, as a young man, he had fashionably long hair which caused his peers on the stock market floor to nickname him after the then popular rock band.

He was the first person I ever came across to have a mobile phone. In fact he had two – they were called carphones in those days – in his Aston Martin Lagonda, so he could be taking orders while simultaneous transacting them. The judge in the Guinness trial famously couldn't make head or tail of the scribblings in his diary, which he thought symptomatic of a chaotic mind.

Despite his wrong-headedness, Mr Parnes was impossible to dislike. There was a certain boyish enthusiasm and sense of intrigue about him that was hard to resist. Certainly it charmed and seduced his high-powered clients, among whom he counted Robert Maxwell.

Strangely, Mr Maxwell managed to avoid any major involvement in the Guinness affair. One client who didn't was Gerald Ronson. He still blames Mr Parnes for his naivity in getting sucked in.

Still, this is all ancient history now, and it is no doubt the case that Mr Parnes junior has learned from his father's misdemeanours. Old Park Lane Capital is looking to identify and raise money for undervalued AIM stocks utilising a network of high-net-worth individuals. "I've already made a bit of money", says Michael Parnes, "so I think I know what I am doing."

Michael's uncle is Gerald Ratner, Vincent Tchenguiz is a business associate, and there's his father's still-impressive contacts book to dip in to. All the same, I'm not sure I would have chosen a profession that so severely traumatised my family nearly 20 years ago. Stockbroking plainly runs in the blood.

Low-ball offer for Friends Provident

Friends Provident has been all at sea ever since its failure to merge with Resolution, yet it still doesn't justify the low-ball 150p-a-share (144p excluding the proposed dividend) offer from JC Flowers.

The US buyout specialist is bound by City takeover rules to bid at the highest level it has so far paid in the market – 165p – unless it can persuade investors to force the board to agree a lower price. Much has changed since Flowers bought its stake, but the principle none the less has to be defended or it will come to mean nothing.

As recently as last January, Flowers was offering 175p a share, which the board rejected because at the time it claimed to be too busy with its strategic review. Shareholders don't seem to have been well served by their board, but that doesn't excuse the "gazundering" of JC Flowers.

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