It is, as I know from personal experience, no fun being a shareholder in Royal Dutch Shell. The shares are cheaper today than they were at the start of the millennium. Still, there’s always the dividend. Oh, hang on. The board cut that for the first time in half a century in March last year, betraying all the signs of collective panic by the directors. This year they started repairing some of the damage, raising it at a rate which will take a mere 29 years to reach the previous level.
That self-inflicted wound was bad enough, but last week things got a good deal worse. A judge in charge of a lower court in The Netherlands decided that she knew better than her own government and commanded Shell to cut its emissions of carbon dioxide by 45 per cent by 2030 from the 2019 levels. Shell’s goal of zero by 2050 – an aspiration, really – was considered inadequate. She did not explain why 45 per cent is a magic figure, or how she could make up new law on the hoof. Apparently Shell has a “duty of care” for the environment, whatever that means.
The company is appealing, of course, to overturn the idea that any judge can rule that any company’s plans do not comply with her idea of a better world, regardless of what the law actually says. Given the way the windmills are turning, it seems perfectly possible that the superior courts in The Netherlands will endorse her ruling. After all, just think of the warm, green glow the judges could give themselves by confirming it.
Shell would have no choice but to comply. Or rather, it would have no choice but to comply in The Netherlands. The question of whether to damage the interests of the shareholders more widely is trickier. Shell is an Anglo-Dutch company, and the last time the Dutch tried to dictate terms to a similarly structured company, the whole thing blew up in their faces. The attempt to ambush the Unilever shareholders into going to Rotterdam (sic) ended with it decamping to become a unified UK-based company. The process of moving to London, the obvious HQ for both companies, turned out to be quite straightforward. Shell should study the playbook.
That is not all the board should study. Ben Van Beurden, the (Dutch) CEO has signalled his departure. He is unlikely to be much mourned by the shareholders. BG Group, the key acquisition of his reign, was designed, he told us at the time, to safeguard the dividend. That sounds like a cruel joke today, as the company struggles with the debt beurden (sorry) taken on to pay for the deal. He should have gone last year when the failure of his strategy became apparent with the dividend cut.
Andrew Mackenzie took over as chairman in March, so he has a one-time opportunity to reshape the board and jolt the executives out of their complacency. He promised to “profitably accelerate Shell’s transition into a net-zero emissions energy business”. The key words here are “profitably” and “net-zero”. The long-suffering Shell shareholders might look at the share price and conclude that the two goals are mutually exclusive.
Amigoing down the drain
Amigo Holdings, the company tells us, is “a provider of guarantor lending services.” It is also on the brink of insolvency, for which the rest of us should be profoundly grateful. Guarantor lending is the polite description of a business which lends to you because some creditworthy friend or relation will step in if you fail to keep up the payments, which accrue interest at 50 per cent APR. The scope for moral blackmail is plain.
Yet Amigo was valued by the market at £1bn when it came to market at 296p less than three years ago. The share price is now twitching around 9p, as the company staggers under the weight of claims for compensation from borrowers. Their claims are effectively “You shouldn’t have let me borrow the money” mixed with “I didn’t realise that I had to pay up if my mate didn’t”.
Many are driven by the almost equally odious claims managers who take a cut of the compensation. As consumer protection is progressive, with ever more rights and fewer obligations, these managers are having a wonderful time. The Financial Conduct Authority is leading the charge, most recently opposing Amigo’s plan to cap compensation payments.
The Amigo case has distracted attention from the underlying problem of what is delicately referred to as sub-prime credit. The poor, or those with poor credit records, sometimes need to borrow and need an alternative to advances from unsympathetic men with baseball bats. Some legitimate players in this tricky industry are convinced that the FCA has it in for them, lowering the bar for compensation and encouraging the ambulance-chasers. None of us would mourn the passing of Amigo, but squeezing out the law-abiding players is hardly in the interests of those who the banks won’t touch.
Now there’s an idea…
Do not confuse Scottish Investment Trust with Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust, although the long-suffering shareholders in the former must wish they had. Scottish Investment has been such a miserable underperformer for so long that even the board has noticed. The in-house managers were determined not to follow the crowd, but unfortunately they have picked the wrong stocks for the £700m at their disposal, and the game is now up. So the board is inviting proposals from outsiders which are “designed to deliver, over the longer term, above index returns through a diversified global portfolio of attractively valued companies with good earnings prospects and sustainable dividend growth.” A brilliant idea. Why did nobody think of it before?