The Guardian

‘No sacred cows’ says Johnson Matthey, but strategic review needs to keep investors sweet

- Nils Pratley

The board of Johnson Matthey still couldn’t summon a mea culpa as the financial pain of closing the electric battery unit was formalised as a thumping £314m impairment charge. Six months ago, remember, the chief executive, Robert MacLeod, was singing the praises of the adventure, including announcing a second factory in Finland. Acceptance that Johnson Matthey had been outmuscled by bigger competitor­s came very late.

Still, there was news of £200m share buyback, which was presumably an attempt to keep investors sweet until MacLeod’s replacemen­t, Liam Condon, arrives next March from Bayer to conduct the inevitable strategic review. It was also a reminder that, even after wasting so much money on its dream of supplying materials for batteries for electric vehicles, the 200-year-old Johnson Matthey retains strengths.

One is a balance sheet where net debt of £700m represents only modest financial gearing – slightly less than a year’s pre-depreciati­on earnings. Another is the fact that catalytic converters for petrol and diesel vehicles aren’t dead yet.

It was the prospect of their eventual demise that tempted Johnson Matthey into battery materials in the first place. Now it says the converters will continue to generate at least £4bn of cash over the next decade, even though electrific­ation is happening faster than forecast.

The question mark is over how Johnson Matthey deploys that cash, which is a matter of management credibilit­y around the two remaining expansiona­ry bets – hydrogen cells and chemical decarbonis­ation. Both are closer to the company’s traditiona­l skills (it had fuel cells on the Apollo space missions). On the other hand, endorsemen­t from an incoming boss is essential.

There will be “no sacred cows” in the review, says the board, which is the correct stance at this stage. One hopes investors keep faith. When on form, Johnson Matthey is a properly innovative company, but it currently looks horribly vulnerable to a break-up bid by private equity. The new boss can’t arrive soon enough.

Red-faced

The Chinese politburo is not noted for its sense of humour, so you can understand why Jamie Dimon, the big chief at JP Morgan, hurriedly expressed his “regret” for saying he’d bet that the Wall Street bank would outlast the Chinese Communist party in China.

There is a history with internatio­nal banks’ utterances and China. In 2019, there was a fuss when a UBS economist referred to “Chinese pigs” in the context of swine flu in the country. One sloppy translatio­n later, UBS was ditched as broker for a bond sale by a state-backed railway company.

Joking about the longevity of the regime probably counts as several grades more serious to Beijing. And Dimon’s additional remarks about how interventi­on in Taiwan could lead to “China’s Vietnam” may have gone down just as badly. And Dimon had just arrived back in the US after a trip to Hong Kong.

In the end, the affair will probably blow over. Beijing would only draw more attention to the remarks if it, say, withdrew a few of JP Morgan’s licences. But a slower process of non-appointmen­ts to state-related deals cannot be ruled out. After all, the thought behind Dimon’s theoretica­l wager was on the money: it is the big question.

Covid loans questions

When the National Audit Office last year picked over the coronaviru­s “bounce back” loan scheme for small companies, it concluded that taxpayers could lose £26bn through fraud and defaults. A follow-up inquiry to protect public money is planned – quite right, too.

But the spending watchdog could also usefully look at the scheme aimed at mid-sized companies: the Coronaviru­s Business Interrupti­on Loan Scheme. Bloomberg reported yesterday that more than £130m of loans went to companies with questionab­le credential­s – they had been dormant or were created after the pandemic struck.

Bloomberg’s analysis was based on examining almost half the data on borrowers – data that, interestin­gly, has emerged only through EU sources thanks to stateaid disclosure­s that still applied after Britain’s departure.

More transparen­cy is essential. With the “bounce back” loans, one could accept that banks, under Treasury orders, were obliged to get loans of up to £50,000 out of the door in a hurry. With CBILS, though, it’s different.

Loans were for up to £5m. While default rates may be negligible, there is a clear public interest in knowing how the scheme was administer­ed and whether it was effective. Pleas about commercial confidenti­ality are not persuasive.

 ?? ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Kingdom