Carillion's car crash reminds us that the spectre of bailouts still haunts Whitehall

 
Oliver Gill
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Carillion's stock market valuation was more than £1bn this time last year (Source: Getty)

As the farce surrounding Carillion escalates, it is worth remembering the many people who will suffer as a result of the construction and outsourcing firm's decline.

A collapse of Britain’s second-biggest contractor would have dire consequences for its 43,000 global workforce, around 20,000 of whom are employed in the UK.

Then there are pensioners. A Carillion failure would see its retirement fund, sporting a £587m deficit, fall into the Pension Protection Fund (PPF). Retirees would have annual payouts slashed by up to 20 per cent as a result.

And while banks elicit somewhat less public sympathy, Carillion's lenders are nonetheless braced for big losses. If the company is saved, loans will need to be swapped for equity; if not, administrators will only be able to return a fraction of their loans.

Read more: Revealed: Behind the scenes of Carillion's annus horribilis

Amid the chaos, however, lurk some cunning opportunists – most of whom can be found in Mayfair.

In many ways, Carillion has been the story of the short sellers. The most bet-against stock in Europe will see hedge funds share profits of around £300m between them.

Marshall Wace took the biggest piece of this as shares plunged in the autumn. After it exited stage left, the fund was quickly replaced by rivals, steadfast in the belief worse was to come. Blackrock, the world’s biggest asset manager, has stuck around and still holds a chunky bet against the contractor.

Then there is a raft of advisers picking up hefty fees. The jewel in the crown would be the administrator mandate. EY is reportedly in the box seat, but pension scheme adviser PwC may cry foul, arguing its rival has a conflict given EY’s six-month role helping the company right-size operations.

But never mind the winners, back to the many losers from Carillion's decline – including, of course, the government. A decade on from the financial crisis it is incredible the state yet again finds itself under pressure to consider a taxpayer bailout of a private company, this time during a period of economic growth. Such situations imperil public faith in business and the very principles of a market-led economy, and remind us that regulators – in the financial sector and beyond – have some way to go before we can be confident that the spectre of bailouts has been consigned to the past.

Read more: Carillion timeline – how did things get so bad?

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