Win the balance beam in gymnastics and get a gold medal. UK energy bosses, held between shareholders and public opinion, take on similar risks but with few rewards for holding their places. Centrica boss Chris O’Shea has a tricky flip of his own to come. The UK-listed energy producer and retailer wants to reinstate the suspended dividend, in the midst of surging household energy bills. Despite the degree of difficulty, expect some harsh scores.
Tuesday’s positive trading update may not make O’Shea’s routine any easier. After only four months of trading, Centrica — owner of the British Gas brand — said that full-year profits should hit the top of analysts’ expected range. That would be as much as £1.2bn on a pre-tax basis, topping last year’s result by over a half. Ironically the natural gas production and nuclear generation assets that it tried or considered selling in recent years made the difference.
This news pleased his long-suffering shareholders, who pushed up the stock price by over 4 per cent. Winning medals from them would require returning the dividend, suspended two years ago. An announcement could come at the interim results in July. That will cue some complaints about Centrica digging into the pockets of householders just to deposit the same into the purses of greedy shareholders.
Having said this, many of those customers will be Centrica investors as well. Moreover, the dividend mooted by analysts for this year, a little over 3 pence per share, is about a quarter of what Centrica handed out five years back from roughly the same cash flow. A possible twist could come by using share buybacks instead, but O’Shea appears to prefer dividends.
As for concerns about windfall taxes, chancellor Rishi Sunak says nothing is off the table. But the threat is intended to spur more investment by energy companies. For now, at least, it looks unlikely to be realised.
O’Shea’s equipoise will no doubt be tested in the months ahead. But expect the dividend to return.
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