Thames plans pounds 240m buy-back

Thames Water yesterday joined the flood of water companies rewarding shareholders with buy-backs or special dividends by confirming that it will seek authority to repurchase up to 10 per cent of its share capital.

Yorkshire Water is widely expected to follow Thames' lead by announcing similar plans today even though it has been roundly criticised by the industry regulator for under-investing in services.

Thames' chairman, Sir Robert Clarke, said powers to buy back up to 10 per cent of its shares "at an appropriate time" would be sought at the company's annual meeting on 30 July. A 10 per cent share buyback would cost Thames pounds 240m at its market capitalisation.

Thames does not look likely, however, to join the rush to become a multi- utility. Sir Robert appeared to rule out a merger with London Electricity. But he said that discussions with the company on a series of bilateral co-operation agreement were progressing well.

He was speaking as Thames announced a 25 per cent drop in pre-tax profits after taking a pounds 95m charge to withdraw from a number of overseas contracting businesses. The disastrous foray cost the chief executive, Michael Hoffman, his job and resulted in the international division making an operating loss of pounds 41m on sales of pounds 92m in 1995.

Thames has closed its US waste contracting business, Waste Solutions, and has put Utag in Germany and its UK contracting subsidiary, PWT, up for sale. The businesses being disposed of lost pounds 31m last year mainly due to a poor performance in Germany and losses on a Hong Kong contract.

Exluding exceptional items, profits were 6 per cent higher at pounds 324m and the dividend for the year was lifted 12 per cent to 28.3p. Despite the planned buy-back the shares fell 11.5p to 579p.

Thames joins a steady stream of water companies increasing dividends strongly as they turn in annual results, led by United Utilities which hiked its payout 28 per cent including a special 3.8p dividend last week.