Takeover rules must be tougher to protect UK firms, says Lord Myners

March 20 2017, 11.53amUpdated: March 20 2017, 4.19pm
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Lord Myners has said takeover rules must be made tougher to prevent Britain’s biggest companies from falling into foreign hands.

The former City minister said the current takeover regime treated the country “like a garage sale” and was led by financiers who drove through deals in order to pocket large fees.

“It is easier to buy a company in the UK then anywhere else in the world,” he told BBC Radio Four’s Today programme.

“We are the permissive zone of foreign and domestic takeovers, largely because the rules are driven by financiers who earn big fees and great incentives to do deals.

“My forecast is that five or six FTSE 100 companies will receive takeover bids this year,” he added.

“The Prime Minister needs to focus on giving effect to what she said in July about taking back control of who owns our major businesses.”

His comments come after Unilever chief executive Paul Polman called for swift changes to the UK Takeover Code that would give firms more time to defend themselves from potential bidders and consider the interests of stakeholders as well as shareholders.

Mr Polman, who also wants the Government to safeguard “national champions”, is calling for a tougher stance after his Anglo-Dutch firm was forced to fend off a 143 billion US dollar (£115 billion) takeover approach from Kraft Heinz last month.

The Marmite and PG tips owner is now said to be eyeing a £6 billion sale of its under-performing brands to win the confidence of shareholders following the failed swoop, according to reports.

Such a move is expected to target the firm’s spreads business – including brands such as Flora and Stork – which has struggled amid waning customer demand for margarine .

Private equity buyers and rival food firms are said to be waiting in the wings ready to pounce if Unilever puts the brands on the market next month, according to the Sunday Times.

Focusing on Kraft Heinz’s approach, Lord Myners said companies were not “assets to be traded”, but were there to be “built up”.

“Kraft would have taken value out. It is like selling the end of your garden. It doesn’t add to the value of your property. Building something on the garden does,” he added.

“Almost in every other country there is a public purpose test to ensure that the takeover works to the broader benefit of society.

“If takeovers destroy jobs and limit choice, allow a monopoly-type pricing, then society as a whole loses.”

US and Asian businesses have ramped up their interest in buying British firms following the pound’s 17% plunge against the US dollar since the Brexit vote.

Prime Minister Theresa May vowed last year to protect British companies from the predatory bids tabled by foreign buyers.

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