Thames Water cure for Chinese low returns

Chinese sovereign wealth fund CIC has bought an 8.68% stake in UK utility group Thames Water, for an undisclosed sum.

by Andrew Saunders
Last Updated: 20 Jan 2012
The deal follows a heavily stage-managed visit to Beijing by chancellor George Osborne, who has been punting Chinese sovereign wealth investment as a way of getting cash into the UK's aging infrastructure without the government having to stump it up.

So well done wee Georgie - it looks like his meetings with CIC chairman Lou Jiwei went pretty well, although Osborne may have been pushing at an open door. The $410bn sovereign fund has been on the hunt for investments which are safe but also offer better returns than those available on the international bond markets at present. So what better than utility companies, the original cash cow? Things have to get pretty dire before people stop paying their water bills after all. Although there will be a few unhappy customers this morning after the massive water main burst on Oxford Street which has flooded many shops and stopped traffic.

Doubtless the government is hoping that this deal is a sign of greater things to come - the first drops before the taps are really opened as it were. Although of course we shouldn't forget that whilst Osborne may have oiled the wheels, the deal was actually done not with the government but with Australian bank Macquarie, the lead investor of the consortium which actually owns Thames Water.

Macquarie bought the firm, which provides water to 8.8m and sewage services to 14m customers in the South East, from German utility group RWE for £8bn in 2006. In December it sold 9.9% to another sovereign wealth fund, this time from Abu Dhabi. So it's a bit late for those who are saying that we don't own anything in the UK anymore - it may be true but the deed was done years ago and can hardly be reversed now.

In his turn, CIC boss Mr Lou has been saying nice things about the UK, which has he believes 'one of the most open economies in the world' and a 'sound legal system'. So that's alright then. Sensible businessman that he is, Mr Lou also expressed a preference for owning and running infrastructure as much as for helping to build it. He has a point - there's a grain of truth in the old gag which says the only way to make money from a grand projet is to be buy it off the firm which was driven to bankruptcy by building it in the first place - this view may not please the government quite so much.

Thee deal is CIC's first punt on the UK market, and since Osborne also met the head of the world's largest bank, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, don't be surprised to see more such investment coming down the pipeline. The capital's sparkling tap water could become so popular in the far east that investors have it shipped out there to replace the bottled mineral variety at board meetings and dinner parties. HP Water anyone?

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