Billionaire-Owned Firms Tap State Aid In U.K. Loan Program (2)

June 5, 2020, 11:50 AM

Government money aimed at helping companies weather the coronavirus is going to enterprises controlled by some of the world’s richest tycoons, according to data released Thursday by the Bank of England.

A number of firms owned by billionaires are tapping an emergency funding program backed by taxpayers, even as businesses great and small struggle to reopen. The initiative, called the Covid Corporate Financing Facility, is one of many the government and its central bank have unveiled to support companies that employ millions of workers and play a key role in the economy.

The companies include Chanel, the legendary fragrance and fashion house controlled by brothers Gerard and Alain Wertheimer. Their clan has a combined net worth of $56 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Chanel received 600 million pounds ($760 million) in loans from the initiative, which started in March and is financed from the BOE’s reserves.

Another recipient is the enterprise that oversees the stadium for premier league soccer team Tottenham Hotspur, in London. It received 175 million pounds in funding and is controlled by Joe Lewis, a billionaire businessman and onetime currency trader who lives in the Bahamas.

Truck maker CNH Industrial NV, linked to the business empire of Italy’s billionaire Agnelli family, sought 600 million pounds. Carnival Plc, the Miami-based cruise ship operator whose vessels became hotbeds of coronavirus infections, signed on for 25 million pounds. Its chairman is Micky Arison, who also owns the Miami Heat professional basketball team and is worth $9 billion.

And JCB, a construction group owned by the billionaire Bamford family, received 600 million pounds. Chief Executive Officer Graeme MacDonald told the Telegraph newspaper the company hoped not to draw on any of the facility and viewed it as an “insurance policy” against further disruption.

The roster may increase scrutiny of companies that are availing themselves of state aid -- even though they appear to have owners with ample resources of their own.

“It is absolutely right that the Bank of England supports companies in order to save jobs and protect livelihoods, but I’m appalled that so many billionaire-owned businesses are being financed by the taxpayer,” said Margaret Hodge, a member of Parliament for the opposition Labour Party. “It’s high time that the mega-wealthy reach into their own pockets rather than the public purse.”

Hodge, a former chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said her concerns run deeper than billionaire-controlled companies. She said the government must ensure firms that cut corners or use financial engineering to avoid big tax bills don’t take advantage of public support. In a June 3 letter, Hodge urged Rishi Sunak, Britain’s finance minister, to prevent companies with poor tax compliance records from receiving bailout funds.

Tottenham Hotspur said in a statement on its website that it will lose 200 million pounds from the lockdown, and will use the funding to meet working capital needs. As for Carnival, a spokeswoman said the company contributes more than 2 million pounds to the U.K. economy every time its ships dock in the country, which happens 250 times a year.

A spokeswoman for CNH Industrial pointed to a press release from April 29, in which the company said using the facility demonstrates its efforts to preserve a sound level of liquidity during the crisis. A spokesman for Chanel, which has 1,600 employees in the U.K., said the company closed all its boutiques in the country during the lockdown and will repay the loan within 12 months.

Under the CCFF, the BOE purchases commercial paper, with maturity of up to a year, issued by large firms making a “material contribution” to the U.K. economy. So far it’s provided companies with 16.2 billion pounds of funding. The CCFF is “directly protecting hundreds of thousands of jobs and supporting some of our biggest companies’ cashflows,” a Treasury spokesman said on June 5.

The effort operates in tandem with a suite of government-backed lending programs for smaller companies. While lawmakers and business groups have criticized the initiatives as slow and cumbersome, commercial banks have approved 31.3 billion pounds of partially and fully state-guaranteed loans to more than 745,000 companies since late March, according to the Treasury. The government has also provided 10 billion pounds in grants to 800,000 firms, deferred tax bills, and scrapped business tax rates.

Burberry Group Plc, Marks & Spencer Group Plc and Rolls-Royce Holdings Plc were among the British businesses to draw on the CCFF facility, the central bank said. But the biggest recipient is Germany’s BASF SE, the chemicals giant. It withdrew 1 billion pounds, the maximum allowed under the program.

(An earlier version of this story corrected Carnival’s contribution to the U.K. economy.)

(Adds Treasury statement and government data on business support in 12th and 13th paragraphs)

--With assistance from David Hellier and David Goodman.

To contact the reporter on this story:
Edward Robinson in London at edrobinson@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Pierre Paulden at ppaulden@bloomberg.net

Keith Campbell, Steven Crabill

© 2020 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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