Has there ever been a better time to buy oil and gas resources? Under the cosh from pressure groups, often with trivial or no shareholdings, Big Oil boards are running before the green wind, and dumping their reserves as fast as they can. In a busy week for BHP, the deal to sell its oil and gas extraction businesses to Woodside was rather overshadowed by the decision to abandon its double-headed listing and become a purely Aussie company. The thought of losing the second-largest component of the FTSE 100 index produced much moaning and rending of garments, but the Woodside deal is surely more significant.

Since nobody could be found to pay real money, the much smaller Woodside is issuing vast numbers of shares to BHP instead. In turn, BHP plans to pass the buck by giving them to its shareholders. It’s such a good deal that both stocks fell on the news. Despite the following day’s bumper results and surprise capital reorganisation, BHP shares had a torrid week.

The usual suspects are welcoming the dash to exit the oil business, but it is hard to see why. Beyond the sugar rush of seeing Australia’s largest company struggle to get with the zeitgeist, the sale will make little difference to the world’s output of oil and gas. Indeed, it may even add to CO2 emissions, because the new owner may be tempted to cut corners in a way that an oil major would not dare. There is much fashionable talk of “stranded assets”, and some projects which were started on the basis of an ever-rising oil price will indeed never pay for themselves. This is nothing new, and is the story of the oil business. Right now, we have the unedifying spectacle of the US President urging Saudi Arabia to raise production to prevent the price of gasoline rising.

The BHP deal is only the latest in the series of sales by listed oil companies. Many of the buyers are unlisted private equity, or feel less vulnerable to the green pressure groups. With little or no retail exposure, they present a much more difficult target for the activists to hit. There are signs that their smarter members are waking up to this. Market Forces, a self-styled green investor, is arguing that it would rather BHP managed its oil business down rather than selling it. If Big Oil undertook to do that, in exchange for a stop to the constant sniping from those with no commercial interest in the businesses, and an acknowledgment that we are going to need a lot of oil and gas for many decades yet, there may even be scope for an outbreak of peace.

Don’t inhale this stuff

For a fine display of manufactured indignation, this week’s open letter from 35 (count ’em) health charities, public health bodies and doctors is a gem. The authors are appealing to the shareholders in Vectura, a maker of asthma inhalers, to turn down the £980m takeover bid from Philip Morris International, arguing that for a tobacco company to own a business which is trying to combat some of the side-effects of smoking is a bad idea.

Well, they have no skin in this game, so they can be as rude as they like to the Marlboro Man. The signatories, most of whom view tobacco companies as inventions of the devil, argue that government research grants might disappear, expertise might be lost, and the takeover might “legitimise tobacco industry participation in health debates within the UK”. Any suggestion that Philip Morris might choose to pay for research that is beyond the means of Vectura today, or to try and grow a business after paying a billion pounds for it is merely a smokescreen to cover their dastardly plans.

The shareholders in Vectura might think that there can hardly be an adult on the planet who does not understand the risks from smoking, and wonder what the fuss is about. They might argue that they own the business, and can thus decide (collectively) whether to follow their board’s advice and take the money, or to get a warm, but expensive, glow from turning the offer down.

For the institutional holders, the conflict is more nuanced. They can worry about reputational risk to their brand from accepting, and so opt for the warm glow. Of course, it is not their money at stake, but that of the owners of the capital they manage, their policyholders and pensioners, who (with luck) would stay blissfully unaware of the sacrifice they are making. So far, it looks as though the funds are simply dumping Vectura shares, allowing Philip Morris to pick them up in the market.

There are going to be more instances like this, where financial interest conflicts with the latest iteration of “stakeholder capitalism”, as listed companies are forced to take on ever more obligations to outsiders. This trend is helping to drive businesses away from the public markets towards private equity, where pressure groups can’t reach and the rewards are much greater. It is no surprise to find that the underbidder for Vectura is Carlyle, a private equity group. The surprise is to find them cast as the good guys in this soap opera.

Bank job

He’s fiddling with his bike; he’s doing a piece to camera in his shirtsleeves holding a mug of tea. Yep, it’s the new, informal face of Lloyds Bank. We are spared only the sight of CEO Charlie Nunn on a black horse galloping, Poldark-style, across the landscape. Lloyds shares cost almost £4 before the last financial crisis, but despite being handed a market share that would never have been allowed in normal times, there followed a miserable decade, ending with the price at 27p a year ago (when they were tipped here).

Since then, they have clawed back up to 44p and a market value of £32bn. Yet compared with the ratings (actual and expected) on internet-based financial services businesses, this is absurdly low for the market leader. The problem is that the big banks are frequently viewed as agents of social security, with howls of anguish accompanying proposals to close branches. Only this week the Financial Conduct Authority warned them to be more caring and sharing.

The latest proposal is for “community banking hubs” which allow all bank customers to do basic banking in one place in a town which would otherwise be bankless. The obvious flaw is that it would accelerate the pace of closures, but the savings might go towards responding to financial technology companies like Wise (£10bn market cap, P/E ratio 322) or Revolut (valued at £24bn at its last fund-raising).

At least the banking authorities have decided that banks can pay dividends after all (very decent of them) out of the surplus capital they all have swilling around their balance sheets. Given how cautious the payments have been so far, it appears that the boards are not yet really free to make the decisions, but if Nunn can’t raise the return to shareholders while improving the lot for customers, he may be on that bike faster than he thinks.