Sector News - December 2013

Banking and Financial Services

RBS finance director quits after 10 weeks in the job

Royal Bank of Scotland’s newly-appointed finance director, Nathan Bostock, has resigned after just 10 weeks in the job, throwing the bank into fresh turmoil following recent criticism over its IT systems failure. Mr Bostock is understood to have quit to become deputy chief executive of the UK arm of Spanish bank Santander, fuelling expectations that a flotation is back on the agenda. Mr Bostock is also expected to take up the position of chief risk officer at Santander.

Lloyds fined over “sell or be demoted” incentive schemes

The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) has fined Lloyds Banking Group a record £28m after it was revealed it had created a culture of mis-selling by rewarding staff for selling thousands of products, including ISAs and income protection products, to customers whether they needed them or not. The incentive schemes put so much pressure on staff across Lloyds, Bank of Scotland and Halifax that many even bought products themselves in order to avoid demotion. The FCA said the record fine was levied because Lloyds had previously been warned by the former regulator, the Financial Services Authority, about the use of poorly managed incentive schemes.

Tesco on recruitment drive ahead of current account launch

Tesco Bank is to hire 300 staff ahead of the forthcoming launch of its first range of current accounts in a move that will see Britain’s largest retailer go head-to-head with high street banks. The jobs will be located in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and represent an increase in the bank’s total headcount of around 8pc, taking staff numbers to about 4,000.

Construction and Property

Foxtons promoted to FTSE 250

London’s notoriously aggressive estate agents, Foxtons, is set to join the ranks of Britain’s leading companies following its promotion to the FTSE 250 index. The firm floated in September at 230p, giving it a value of £649m. The market value has since risen to £830m. Foxton’s trading statement for last month indicated turnover in the third quarter was up by 18pc from a year earlier, with property sale revenue up 29pc.

Berkeley building more homes than before the crash

Housebuilder Berkeley Group is building more homes now than before the financial crisis, but has warned that the UK’s housing shortfall remains a long-term challenge for the country. Chairman Tony Pidgley said the increased uncertainty created by the ongoing debates surrounding the future of property taxation and international buyers could damage the market, particularly in areas such as London, which continue to attract inward investment from overseas. The group’s half-year pre-tax profits showed a rise of 19.2pc on the previous year, increasing to £169.5m, while its net asset value per share rose by 22pc to £1.

Over-charging complaints prompt watchdog to investigate property maintenance firms

The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) is to launch an investigation into the unregulated residential property services market following a sharp rise in complaints of over-charging. The watchdog plans to scrutinise companies which carry out maintenance, cleaning or building work of blocks of flats or housing estates to establish whether leaseholders are getting value for money, and whether or not there is sufficient competition.

Energy and Utilities

Shell to act as intermediary for First Utility

Independent energy supplier First Utility has signed an energy-buying deal with Shell which it hopes will deliver cheaper bills and help it challenge the big six. Trading under the deal begins imminently, with Shell using its scale to obtain better prices for First in the wholesale gas market. First currently supplies gas and electricity to 300,000 households and businesses in the UK.

Labour’s energy freeze unsound, says OECD chief

The head of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has branded Labour’s plans to freeze energy bills for 20 months after the next general election as unwise. Ángel Gurría said preventing firms from raising their prices is economically unsound and would be a major deterrent for investors. Labour says the freeze would allow time for legislation to be passed to restructure the energy market, protecting consumers with more efficient competition by the time it was lifted at the start of 2017.

Archbishop summons energy chiefs

The bosses of the Big Six energy companies have been summoned by the Archbishop of Canterbury to a private meeting to discuss fuel poverty and rising energy prices. Four of the suppliers are believed to be sending their most senior UK executives, while the heads of SSE and ScottishPower have declined the invitation. The Archbishop, a former oil executive himself, said energy firms must “behave with generosity and not merely to maximise opportunity” and that they had a “huge responsibility to serve society.”

IT and Telecommunications

‘Big data’ start-up raises £2.1m ahead of flotation

Technology start-up Rosslyn Analytics has raised £2.1m for a final expansion ahead of its planned AIM flotation in the New Year. The company, which provides an online service that interprets ‘big data’, will use the new cash to expand the company’s sales and marketing operations and on product development. The flotation is expected in early 2014, and will aim to value Rosslyn at £100m.

Nokia shareholders approve sale of handset business to Microsoft

Nokia shareholders have approved overwhelmingly the sale of its mobile phone division to Microsoft. The £4.6bn transfer was ratified by a 99pc majority. When the sale concludes early in the New Year, Nokia will be left with a telecoms network equipment business, its online mapping division and a trove of valuable patents, only 10pc of which have been licensed. The company will continue to employ around 6,000 people in Finland.

Twitter hires first female board member

Twitter has hired the former Pearson chief executive Dame Marjorie Scardino following criticism over the all-male line-up of its board. Scardino, who in 1997 became the first female chief executive of a FTSE 100 company in Britain, is to join the company immediately and will be a member of its audit committee.

Life Sciences, Pharmaceuticals and Healthcare

Johnson & Johnson to establish UK research hubs

US pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson is to set up bases in five cities across the UK. The hubs - at Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Manchester - are expected to be fully operational by early 2014. Johnson & Johnson plans to scour the research coming out of the centres’ universities to spot potential new drugs and establish spin-off companies to develop them for commercial use.

Merck to pay £1.6bn for AZ Electronic Materials

Merck, the world’s largest manufacturer of liquid crystals used in TV, tablet and smartphone screens, has agreed to buy Britain’s AZ Electronic Materials for £1.6bn to expand its range of specialist chemicals for hi-tech gadgets. The German, family-controlled company, which also makes cancer drugs and laboratory equipment, will pay 403.5p a share in cash for AZ – a 41pc premium to its average share price over the last three months. Merck will fund the deal, plus around €240m of debt, from existing cash reserves. The backing of 95pc of AZ’s shareholders is required to push the deal through.

PM speaks up for scandal-hit pharma giant in China

Prime Minister David Cameron has spoken in defence of the British pharmaceutical giant embroiled in a bribery scandal in China while on a trip to the country. Dozens of employees at GlaxoSmithKline – all Chinese – are in detention over allegations that the company funnelled up to £300m in bribes to doctors and hospitals to persuade them to prescribe its drugs. Sales at the Chinese arm of the business have plummeted 61pc in the wake of the allegations.

Media

Spotify takes on iTunes Radio with free tier for music apps

Streaming music service Spotify looks set to go head-to-head with Apple’s ITunes Radio amid speculation it is planning to add free music to its mobile apps. Until now, users of its smartphone and tablet apps have been required to pay a subscription, with the free service restricted to desktop use only, but the Wall Street journal claims the Sweden-based music company has reached licensing deals with all three global music companies to use their recordings on the new service.

Broadcasters in talks for rights to electric racing series

Formula E, the world’s first electric single-seater motor racing series, is in talks with BT Sport and BSkyB about a UK television rights deal. To date, Formula E has signed two TV deals – with Japanese network TV Asahi and Fox Sports - which cover more than 90 countries. The racing series is due to launch in September 2014, and has already attracted 10 teams including outfits run by Audi, former F1 champion Alain Prost and Richard Branson’s Virgin Group.

Dr Dre to launch Spotify rival

The rapper Dr Dre is to launch a new music streaming service to rival Spotify. Beats Music, which uses “intelligent curation” to build artist-curated playlists and suggestions rather than algorithmically-derived recommendations, will launch in January 2014. Chief executive Trent Reznor, who is also the Nine Inch Nails’ bandleader, said: “It's like having your own guy when you go into the record store, who knows what you like but can also point you down some paths you wouldn't necessarily have encountered”.

Retail

Cash for trash food recycler benefits from waste reduction strategy

SugaRich, a specialist surplus food recycler, has hit upon a plan to turn trash into cash by helping supermarkets and food companies to dispose of their unwanted food efficiently by processing it into high-protein meals for pigs, poultry and cattle. The company, which processes half a million tonnes of food waste a year, has delivered 40pc growth in the past three years, with a recorded turnover of £101m in 2013. Bucking the trend of the recession, SugaRich has also enjoyed a 35pc increase in the number of staff, from 117 employees in 2010 to 158 today, working across 17 sites in the UK. The company plans to expand into Europe next year.

Former Asda executive given top Walmart job

Former Asda executive David Cheesewright has been handed one of the biggest jobs in the retail industry after he was named as the new chief executive of Walmart International. Mr Cheesewright will take over the running of Walmart’s 6,200 stores outside the US from February 1 next year. Walmart’s international arm accounts for 30pc of its revenue and owns supermarkets in 26 countries around the world, including Asda in the UK.

Tesco “poor on value and quality”

Britain’s largest supermarket chain, Tesco, has been slammed by a former executive for its high prices and poor quality. Bruno Monteyne, now a senior retail analyst at Bernstein, said the retailer’s prices are now closer to Sainsbury’s than Asda, while its non-food ranges are more expensive than John Lewis: “Tesco is now in an impossible position: it is neither value nor quality, it is simply everywhere, and can't compete with either the quality or value retailers.” Tesco has rejected the claims. A recent trading statement revealed underlying sales fell by 1.5pc at the end of November.

Transport

FirstGroup rejects break-up call

The transport operator FirstGroup has rebuffed a call from an activist for a break-up that would see the British bus and rail company sell off its US division. New York-based Sandell Asset Management proposed a spin-off and flotation of FirstGroup’s US school buses and transit businesses, and the sale of Greyhound, the intercity bus provider. But the board of FirstGroup has rejected the call, claiming that the proposal is not compelling and contains a number of structural flaws and inaccuracies.

70,000 jobs at risk if Heathrow closes

Up to 70,000 jobs could be at risk in west London if Heathrow were to lose its hub status, according to a report commissioned by a trio of councils surrounding the airport. The study, published by Ealing, Hounslow and Slough, said the creation of a new hub in the Thames Estuary and the closure of Heathrow by 2030 would have a “cataclysmic” impact on local employment. Recommendations for the expansion of air travel capacity are expected imminently with the publication of Sir Howard Davies’ Airports Commission.

US sells remaining General Motor shares at a loss

The US government has lost $10.5bn on its bailout of General Motors, but Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew says the rescue was necessary to save 1m jobs and stop the American auto industry from collapsing. The government received 912m shares – a 60.8pc stake – in exchange for a $49.5bn bailout during the financial crisis in 2008 and 2009. It went on to recover $39bn of the money, leaving taxpayers more than $10bn short.

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