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Multinationals repay UK emergency Covid loans


US oilfield services group Baker Hughes has settled a £600m emergency Covid loan, the latest multinational to repay a UK financing facility that has drawn MPs’ scrutiny over its use by companies still paying billions to shareholders.

More than £2.6bn has been handed to investors by overseas-headquartered companies that as of last week continued to use the Bank of England’s Covid debt scheme more than a year after it was launched. 

The Covid Corporate Financing Facility was designed to “provide temporary direct support to investment-grade firms with short-term cash flow problems” — offering access to very cheap finance through the Bank. 

However, FT analysis shows that more than half a dozen large multinationals have been using the facility for a year while also finding cash for large and often increased dividend payouts. 

The companies include Baker Hughes, Boots, Spanish energy company Iberdrola and infrastructure group ACS, Mexican industrial conglomerate Orbia, Israeli chemicals maker ICL Group and Australian engineer Worley. Much of the money matures this month.

BoE data last week confirmed that Baker Hughes had repaid the £600m it borrowed, using a UK subsidiary set up last April.

MP Margaret Hodge, former chair of the public accounts committee, said it was “an utter disgrace that massive global companies are borrowing taxpayer-backed cash while hiking up their dividends at the same time. Lining the pockets of shareholders is a total abuse of taxpayer money and executives at these corporations should hang their heads in shame.”

Other companies — including BASF and Bayer — repaid their debts earlier after the economic shock of Covid proved to have less of an impact on their finances than initially feared.

In mid-May last year the BoE closed the loophole allowing companies to pay dividends and raise wages while using the scheme. But those that used the facility before then have been able to pay out cash from their balance sheets for pay and dividends. 

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All companies rated as investment grade and making a material contribution to the UK economy, including through subsidiaries, are eligible for the scheme.

Baker Hughes paid out $131m in dividends in the first three months of the year. In 2020 it paid $488m, up from $395m in 2019.

Orbia, which has several UK subsidiaries and borrowed £300m through the CCFF, paid dividends of $230m and bought back $42m in shares in the 2020 calendar year.

Iberdrola, which owns Scottish Power and borrowed £100m through the scheme, said the facility would be repaid this month. “In 2020, the impact of Covid on our UK business was in the region of €130m,” the company said. “The fund supported our UK business activities at a time of volatility.”

Retailer Walgreens Boots Alliance, which borrowed £300m from the BoE through its UK Boots operation, this month declared a quarterly dividend of 46.75 cents a share, unchanged from the previous quarter but up 2.2 per cent from a year earlier. It paid $808m in the six months to the end of February.

WBA said Covid had cost its pharmacy division about $690m in the last financial year, “of which Boots is the significant part”. It added that dividend payments reflected “the company’s long-term prospects”, and the December dividend “was funded using US debt facilities”. The loan would be repaid next week as scheduled, it said.

Worley UK took £155m through the CCFF, which it said would be repaid by May 18. Its parent company paid A$260m (£187m) in 2020 dividends, almost double the previous year. Worley said it was “an investment-grade rated company that makes a material contribution to the UK economy”.

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