ALEX BRUMMER: Boris raises the hurdles for private equity vultures

The goal of Global Britain requires the country to preserve openness to foreign investment and its status as a thriving offshore financial centre.

But achieving international ambitions if it continues to be the top destination for overseas and financially driven takeovers, as it has been for two decades, would be impossible.

Too much of what the UK does well, from technology to aerospace, gaming and life sciences, has been snaffled by overseas buyers and private equity vultures before it has a chance to mature.

Safety net: New rules will stop overseas buyers and private equity vultures snaffling up British firms if it seen as detrimental to national security

Safety net: New rules will stop overseas buyers and private equity vultures snaffling up British firms if it seen as detrimental to national security

Safety net: New rules will stop overseas buyers and private equity vultures snaffling up British firms if it seen as detrimental to national security

No one wants to see bids and deals closed down. It has, however, long been this paper’s view that government should put some sand in the wheels. 

We cannot be very certain as to how the new national security gateway to bids and deals operated by the Business Department and a new Investment Security Unit will work.

The proposed legislation has spread the net sufficiently widely for one to believe the hurdles will be substantial. A system such as that in France, which classified Danone yoghurt as a national security asset, clearly is nonsense.

There were other very good reasons for resisting the takeover of valued brands, such as Boots and Cadbury, which have nothing to do with national security.

Governments and boards of directors might want to reject such deals because of serial FTSE under-valuations, loss of corporate tax takings and jobs destruction at and around HQ. 

With pharmacy products and food there are questions about impact on research and development spend.

Which brings us to where new rules will matter. Mayfair-based Melrose, as a UK company, is a trusted custodian of the GKN aerospace assets and for that matter the e-drive technology in its motor division.

Should, over the longer term, these assets be sold to overseas buyers it is absolutely clear it would have to jump through the new hoops and the deals potentially held up. 

As Lady Cobham argues, it was a pity a national security law didn’t exist when Dorset aerospace pioneer Cobham was sold to private equity firm Advent for £4billion.

Under the new law any sales of those assets to third parties, even minor transactions down to £70million, would be scrutinised.

Deals will now be more difficult for private equity vultures and overseas predators looking for bargains. For once, the Government has not been diverted by Covid.

Beer tears

Amid the bland textbook executives who dominate FTSE companies, the rambunctious, combative style of Wetherspoons chairman Tim Martin stands out.

He is among a handful of bosses who support Brexit and is outspoken on the costs of lockdown. 

He is doing the sums which the Treasury has been slow to do on pandemic economic losses, and says fast-changing national, regional and local lockdown rules are a muddle, creating huge uncertainty.

The cost to his firm of implementing rules across 756 pubs in England, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is leading to a cash outflow of £14million a month.

Where pubs are partly open in Wales and Scotland the restrictions are onerous. Martin fears curbs could become more permanent, leading to shorter opening hours and tougher licensing laws, as they did after the First World War.

Wetherspoons was suffering before the broader lockdowns were imposed, with income down by 25 per cent. 

It is more vulnerable than some competitors because it is highly dependent on bums on bar stools, so as to maintain its no-frills, good value offer.

But, having invested heavily in social distancing and hygiene measures, Martin feels badly let down. There can be no conviction that the vaccine bounce for Wetherspoons shares is sustainable amid constant chopping and changing.

Better weather

The long-awaited but never-fulfilled pledge to BAE of an £8billion Typhoon deal with Saudi Arabia is still in abeyance.

But it is not all gloom for UK aerospace, with Germany authorising the purchase of a further 38 Eurofighter Typhoon jets. 

Encouragingly, the groundwork for the next-generation Tempest fighter is well under way with co-operation deals signed with Italy and Sweden.

In spite of budgetary pressures there is support in Whitehall for a project which would also help to secure the future of engine builder Rolls-Royce.

Chocks away!

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