Oil boss needs buyers to Shell out for assets

Mark Kleinman
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Oil prices continue to hover stubbornly below $50-a-barrel (Source: Getty)

A brave face. That's the best way to describe this week's trading updates from Britain's two oil behemoths.

It’s now a familiar visage for BP's Bob Dudley and Shell's Ben van Beurden. Oil prices continue to hover stubbornly below $50-a-barrel, raising justifiable concerns about the companies’ ability to cover their dividends without substantial further cuts to capital spending.

Investors continue to back them, but both remain under pressure.

Paradoxically, given the pay row which engulfed BP’s boss earlier this year and the fact that Shell’s quarterly profit outstripped those of even the mighty Exxon Mobil, it may be Dudley who is in the slightly more advantageous position.

Read more: BP and Shell offer some reasons for optimism in the oil industry

He sold tens of billions of dollars of assets before the slump in crude prices, and is now beginning to explore a greater range of acquisitions, bidding for downstream assets in South Africa and elsewhere, according to insiders.

Contrast that with Shell, where only a fraction of a $30bn disposal target has been achieved after last year’s takeover of BG Group.

It is early days, of course, and Shell assets in Gabon and New Zealand should generate decent proceeds. Yet I’ve learnt that a North Sea portfolio being marketed for sale comes with at least $4bn of likely abandonment liabilities.

That financial millstone appears to have diminished the fields’ attractiveness to bidders, with at least one reported bidder – Neptune Oil and Gas – said to be on the verge of dropping out of the process.

True, Shell has 15 further asset sale processes underway – but with oil prices expected to remain depressed for some time amid doubts about Opec’s capacity to cut production, attaining top dollar looks a remote prospect.

‎More radical surgery at Shell may yet be necessary, even as Dudley focuses on the future. Who’d have thought it?

A BBB-rated chairman?

Viewed through the prism of Theresa May's utterances, it now seems strange that Sir Vince Cable was often dubbed the anti-business secretary.

Contrary to popular perception, many of Cable’s views on corporate governance and long-term industrial policy turn out to have been at the meeker end of the spectrum compared to the new PM.

The British Business Bank, set up by the Coalition Government, was among Cable's proudest projects. Now, as it seeks a new chairman to replace Ron Emerson, it needs to be much bolder than simply dipping again into the pot of tried-and-tested City grandees.

Read more: Parliament's Brexit watchdog to probe EU negotiation goals

Post-Brexit Britain requires a banking system prepared and equipped to back high-potential growth companies, not just thousands more mom-and-pop SMEs which do little for UK exports or wealth creation across the economy.

That’s why the current metric for measuring the BBB’s success – the volume of funds it dispenses – is misguided. Instead, executives, and the organisation’s overall performance, should be judged upon its ability to deliver support for homegrown scale-up businesses,

Ministers should remember that when they sign up the new chairman. It will send an important message about the future direction of Cable’s pet project – and its role in Britain’s economy.

Green’s warning signal

Is Sir Philip Green playing the long game with pension watchdogs?

That’s one explanation for the continuing absence of a settlement over the BHS retirement scheme deficit. Green, and the parent company of his high street fashion empire, are now embroiled in a potentially protracted legal process with the Pensions Regulator.

With the Bank of England signalling that the next move in interest rates will be up, Green might calculate that he can sit tight and hope the BHS deficit evaporates – sadly, much like its shops.

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