英国《金融时报》 刘励和 香港报道
Since Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997, the Commonwealth has ceased having relevance to most people in the former British colony. But not for Li Ka-shing, the city’s richest man.
Cheung Kong Infrastructure, his energy and water company, is an avid investor in Australia, Britain Canada and New Zealand as a result of their stable regulatory environments and steady returns on assets.
It was this strategy that led to Mr Li’s decision to buy the UK electricity distribution business of France’sEDF for £5.8bn ($9.2bn) last week.
CKI and Hongkong Electric, the smaller of Hong Kong’s electricity duopoly in which CKI has a 39 per cent stake, will each control two-fifths of the new networks. Mr Li’s charity foundation will own the remainder.
For CKI, the acquisition is in line with its strategy for the past decade. Faced with a slowing, although still very profitable electricity market in Hong Kong, CKI has been banking on overseas acquisitions as it looks for new drivers of growth.
In 1999, CKI embarked on its international foray by buying a small stake in Envestra, the Australian natural gas distributor for A$103.5m ($94.5m). Since then, the company has been buying regulated assets – water, gas and electricity – in other Commonwealth countries.
Australia remains its biggest foreign market, where profit from operations rose 27 per cent in 2010’s first half, compared with 3 per cent growth at home.
CKI is one of the UK’s biggest utilities, owning Cambridge Water, part of Northern Gas Networks and now the EDF networks, which have 28 per cent of the market’s customers.
长江基建是英国最大的公用事业公司之一，拥有Cambridge Water、北方燃气网(Northern Gas Networks)的部分股权和目前的EDF电网。EDF拥有英国电力市场28%的客户。
The reason for CKI’s preference for assets in these countries is simple. They share a similar set of laws and regulations to those used in Hong Kong – which has retained the English common law system. The assets also usually operate under a regulated tariff regime, making returns steady.
“Buying regulated businesses in Commonwealth countries is very much a CKI way of expansion,” says Ivan Lee, analyst at Nomura.
Edmond Ip, deputy chairman of CKI, said earlier that the company liked the EDF networks because of their size and the regulatory environment in the UK.
“We operate in Australia and the UK. We are very happy with the regulations in these countries,” said Mr Ip.
“If we go into another country, like the US, it will be totally different,” he added.
So far, the strategy has been paying off. While HKE is still the biggest contributor to CKI’s profits, overseas investments now account for half of the company’s bottom line.
The new purchases appear to be good for investors. Mr Li says the EDF acquisition has a return on equity of about 11 per cent. This deal, Morgan Stanley says, will lead to a 17 per cent uplift in dividend per share next year.
“Shareholders love to see us buying these assets,” said Mr Ip last week. “With the good cash flow coming in, we are able to pay good dividends. If you look at our records, we have been able to increase our dividend payment every single year.
“The shareholders love it. We love it. We will continue to do more.”
The company says it is looking at other assets that have “good and stable return” in the UK, Australia and Canada.
Mr Li has stressed that he would invest anywhere with a safe environment and sound legal system.
As with most companies in Hong Kong, CKI is not dismissing opportunities north of the border.
“For CKI, the mainland electricity market is much riskier in terms of regulations. There aren’t that many opportunities either because power grids are state-owned,” says Nomura’s Mr Lee.
Currently, mainland China accounts for less than 10 per cent of profits from operations and most of CKI’s assets in China are toll-roads, which do not provide regulated returns.