By Jessica DiNapoli, Ross Kerber and Noel Randewich
(Reuters) – When Randall Stephenson joined 180 of his peers leading many of the richest U.S. companies in signing the Business Roundtable pledge on the “purpose of a corporation” in August 2019, the then-chief of AT&T Inc promised to look out for the interests of all the wireless carrier’s stakeholders, not just shareholders.
Two months later, the Dallas-based company outlined a plan for cost reductions that also prioritized dividends and stock buybacks for shareholders, succumbing to pressure from $41 billion hedge fund Elliott Investment Management LP.
Activist investor Elliott had said its proposals would deliver “substantial benefits” for shareholders, consumers and employees, but not everybody came out ahead.
By the end of September 2020, AT&T had eliminated 23,000 positions, or about 9% of its workforce, many of them during the pandemic. Already one of the corporate world’s top dividend payers with $14.9 billion spent in 2019, AT&T had raised its common dividend by 2% and bought back $7.5 billion of its stock.
“We are the face of AT&T and we go out of our way to help customers communicate with their families,” said Darren Miller, a 35-year-old technician whose job was cut last July. “But we are a dime a dozen to them. If they can get someone cheaper to do the job, they will do it.”
Miller, who worked in Reseda, California, said he accepted a buyout offer after managers told him he might be laid off later on less generous terms, something he said his local union representatives told him happened to dozens of other employees in the state.
AT&T spokesman Jim Kimberly said most of the workforce reductions “were from voluntary departure offers and attrition” and declined to comment on individual cases. He added the company had for years practiced a “meaningful commitment to all stakeholders” through programs that include worker retraining and environmental and social justice efforts. AT&T also ended share buybacks once the pandemic hit, and has not increased its dividend since, Kimberly said.
Elliott declined to comment.
Some advocates of a socially-minded stakeholder capitalism say AT&T’s case is representative of the hurdles they face in challenging the leverage investors have over U.S. companies.
The voluntary governance pledge signed by the CEOs didn’t spell out specific actions, but had the stated aim of moving away from “shareholder primacy”. https://s3.amazonaws.com/brt.org/BRT-StatementonthePurposeofaCorporationOctober2020.pdf
Yet while signatories subsequently reduced payouts to shareholders as companies put away cash to shield themselves from the financial fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, they still give a greater share to investors than those companies that did not sign the pledge, according to a Reuters analysis of data compiled by financial information provider Refinitiv.
The analysis found that the 171 publicly traded companies that signed the pledge returned a median 60% of net income to shareholders during the first three quarters of 2020 through dividends and buybacks, versus a 50% return among the 355 S&P 500 firms that did not sign the statement.
By comparison, in the first three quarters of 2019, the signatories returned a median 73% of net income to shareholders versus a 68% return among the firms that did not sign the pledge, the analysis found.
Tim Gaumer, Refinitiv’s director of fundamental research, said pledge signatories returned more to investors because they had the ability to do so. “It is easier to pay out dividends and buybacks with confidence if your income stream is less volatile,” he added.
Business Roundtable spokeswoman Jessica Boulanger said the analysis didn’t account for how companies spent money they did not return to shareholders, nor for “industry differences, company size and longevity and trends in shareholder returns over time.” She added that signatories had upheld their commitment to work for all stakeholders.
The CEOs signed the pledge without legally binding their companies and largely without approval from their boards. COVID-19 stress-tested their commitments, as large swathes of the economy were forced to shut down.
The pledge’s lack of detail gave signatories wide discretion in deciding how the pandemic pain would be spread among shareholders, employees and other stakeholders.
“It’s a political signaling exercise that doesn’t mean very much,” said Harvard Law School professor Jesse Fried, who is on the research advisory council of Glass, Lewis & Co which advises investors over how to vote on corporate governance.
Defenders of the Business Roundtable pledge say many contributions to society cannot be measured as easily as shareholder spending or layoffs. For example, JP Morgan Chase & Co pledged $30 billion to address racial injustices, and Apple Inc launched a $100 million diversity drive.
Indeed, some signatories have won praise from progressive-leaning organizations for standing by employees during the pandemic.
Among them, Target Corp raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour in July from $13, which was already well above the $7.25 national level.
Some executives and investors argue that unless companies are attractive to shareholders and keep their stock highly valued, they won’t have the money to invest in their businesses for the benefit of all stakeholders.
“If you don’t have access to capital, then you’re not going to be around long enough to face tough societal issues like climate change,” said Todd Ahlsten, chief investment officer for Parnassus Investments, a San Francisco-based firm with $40 billion under management.
Less than two years after the signing of the pledge, key protagonists at AT&T moved on. Stephenson passed the reins to a successor, and Elliott sold what was once a $3.2 billion stake in the company.
AT&T’s layoffs during the pandemic attracted the attention of Democratic senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, who wrote to the company last July objecting to “corporations using the pandemic as justification for continuing to make anti-worker decisions that are aimed at boosting share price.”
“The long-term interests of our communities and employees cannot be met without attracting investor capital,” AT&T executive vice president Timothy McKone responded in a letter.
BlackRock Inc and Vanguard Group Inc, whose CEOs also signed up to the pledge, were among the AT&T investors who voted down a proposal last April to have an employee representative on the company’s board – a step its advocates argued would give stakeholders a voice. Both fund managers declined to comment.
SPENDING ON SHAREHOLDERS
Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania researchers found that among signatories, the bigger share of profits companies subsequently returned to investors, the more likely they were to announce layoffs and furloughs.
A study from the London School of Economics and Columbia University found signatories violated environmental and labor-related rules and paid their CEOs more than similarly-sized peers.
Like AT&T, some companies that signed up continued payouts to shareholders even as they cut jobs during the pandemic.
Cisco Systems Inc bought back $800 million of its shares during the three months ended Oct. 24, 2020. The network equipment maker had announced a restructuring plan in August to cut $1 billion in costs annually, with the loss of about 3,500 jobs.
“Cisco believes in the Business Roundtable pledge balancing the needs of all of our stakeholders and fulfilling our own company’s purpose of powering a more inclusive future for all,” the company said in a statement.
Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc repurchased $522 million of its shares from April through July. That month, the pharmacy operator cut 4,000 jobs, some 7% of its headcount, bumped up its dividend and nixed its stock buyback program.
Walgreens did not respond to a request for comment.
The chairman of the Business Roundtable, Walmart Inc CEO Doug McMillon, downplayed the significance of the pledge in remarks to investors last February. He said “it didn’t feel like news” because companies sought to balance the interests of all stakeholders anyway, and that “of course, our shareholders are our priority.”
Walmart declined to make McMillon available for an interview. A company spokeswoman pointed to McMillon’s previous comments on multi-stakeholder capitalism being “the answer to addressing our challenges holistically.”
(Reporting by Jessica DiNapoli in New York, Ross Kerber in Boston and Noel Randewich in San Francisco; Editing by Greg Roumeliotis and Pravin Char)
Battling Covid collateral damage, Renault says 2021 will be volatile
By Gilles Guillaume
PARIS (Reuters) – Renault said on Friday it is still fighting the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, including a shortage of semiconductor chips, that could make for another rough year for the French carmaker.
Renault reported an 8 billion euro ($9.7 billion) loss for 2020 which, combined with gloomy take on the market, sent its shares down more than 5% in late morning trading.
“We are in the midst of a battle to try to manage a difficult year in terms of supply chains, of components,” Chief Executive Luca de Meo told reporters. “This is all the collateral damage of the Covid pandemic… we will have a fairly volatile year.”
De Meo, who took over last July, is looking at ways to boost profitability and sales at Renault while pushing ahead with cost cuts. There were early signs of improving momentum as margins inched up in the second half of 2020.
The group gave no financial guidance for this year, although it said it might reach a target of achieving 2 billion euros in costs cuts by 2023 ahead of time, possibly by December.
Executives said they were confident the carmaker could be profitable in the second half of 2021, but that they lacked sufficient market visibility to provide a forecast.
Renault struck a cautious note, saying it was focused on its recovery but warned orders had faltered in early 2021 as pandemic restrictions continued in some countries.
The group is facing new challenges as the European Union tightens emissions regulations and after rivals PSA and Fiat Chrysler joined forces to create Stellantis, the world’s fourth-biggest automaker.
The auto industry endured a tough 2020 but a swift rebound in premium car sales in China helped companies such as Volkswagen and Daimler to weather the storm.
Auto companies globally have since been hit by a shortage of semiconductors that has forced production cuts worldwide.
“The beginning of the year has shown some signs of weakness,” De Meo told analysts, but added the chip shortage should be resolved by the second half of 2021. “We have taken the necessary measures to anticipate and overcome challenges.”
Renault estimated the chip shortage could reduce its production by about 100,000 vehicles this year.
The group was already loss-making in 2019, but took a sharp hit in 2020 during lockdowns to fight the pandemic, which also hurt its Japanese partner Nissan.
Analysts polled by Refinitiv had expected a 7.4 billion euro loss for 2020. The group posted negative free cash flow for 2020.
The 2018 arrest of Carlos Ghosn, who formerly lead the alliance between Renault and Nissan, plunged the automakers into turmoil.
In a further sign that the companies have been working to repair the alliance, De Meo told journalists that Renault and Nissan will announce new joint products together in the coming weeks or months.
Renault has begun to raise prices on some car models, and group operating profit, which was negative for 2020 as a whole, improved in the last six months of the year, reaching 866 million euros or 3.5% of revenue.
Analysts at Jefferies said the operating performance was better than expected. Sales were still falling in the second half, but less sharply.
Renault is slashing jobs and trimming its range of cars, allowing it to slice spending in areas like research and development as it focuses on redressing its finances. It is also pivoting more towards electric cars as part of its revamp.
It was already struggling more than some rivals with sliding sales before the pandemic, after years of a vast expansion drive it is now trying to rein in, focusing on profitable markets.
De Meo told journalists on Friday that the French carmaker will make three new higher-margin models at its Palencia plant in Spain, where manufacturing costs are lower, between 2022 and 2024.
($1 = 0.8269 euros)
(Reporting by Gilles Guillaume and Sarah White in Paris, Nick Carey in London; Editing by Christopher Cushing, David Evans and Jan Harvey)
UK delays review of business rates tax until autumn
LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s finance ministry said it would delay publication of its review of business rates – a tax paid by companies based on the value of the property they occupy – until the autumn when the economic outlook should be clearer.
Many companies are demanding reductions in their business rates to help them compete with online retailers.
“Due to the ongoing and wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic and economic uncertainty, the government said the review’s final report would be released later in the year when there is more clarity on the long-term state of the economy and the public finances,” the ministry said.
Finance minister Rishi Sunak has granted a temporary business rates exemption to companies in the retail, hospitality, and leisure sectors, costing over 10 billion pounds ($14 billion). Sunak is due to announce his next round of support measures for the economy on March 3.
($1 = 0.7152 pounds)
(Writing by William Schomberg, editing by David Milliken)
Discounter Pepco has all of Europe in its sights
By James Davey
LONDON (Reuters) – Pepco Group, which owns British discount retailer Poundland, has targeted 400 store openings across Europe in its 2020-21 financial year as it expands its PEPCO brand beyond central and eastern Europe, its boss said on Friday.
The group opened a net 327 new stores in its 2019-20 year, taking the total to 3,021 in 15 countries. The PEPCO brand entered western Europe for the first time with openings in Italy and it plans its first foray into Spain in April or May.
Chief Executive Andy Bond said its five stores in Italy have traded “super well” so far.
“That’s given us a lot of confidence that we can now start building PEPCO into western Europe and that expands our market opportunity from roughly 100 million people (in central and eastern Europe) to roughly 500 million people,” he told Reuters.
To further illustrate the brand’s potential he noted that the group has more than 1,000 PEPCO shops in Poland, which has a significantly smaller population and gross domestic product than Italy or Spain.
The company, which also owns the Dealz brand in Europe but does not trade online, has already opened more than 100 of the targeted 400 new stores this financial year.
Pepco Group is part of South African conglomerate Steinhoff, which is still battling the fallout of a 2017 accounting scandal.
Since 2019 Steinhoff and its creditors have been evaluating a range of strategic options for Pepco Group, including a potential public listing, private equity sale or trade sale.
That process was delayed by the pandemic, but Steinhoff said last month that it had resumed.
“The business will be up for sale at the right time. It’s a case of when, rather than if,” said Bond, a former boss of British supermarket chain Asda.
Pepco Group on Friday reported a 31% drop in full-year core earnings, citing temporary coronavirus-related store closures.
Underlying earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA) were 229 million euros ($277 million) for the year to Sept. 30, against 331 million euros the previous year.
Sales rose 3% to 3.5 billion euros, reflecting new store openings.
($1 = 0.8279 euros)
(Reporting by James Davey; Editing by David Goodman)
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