UK regulator accused of dropping standards to woo $2 trillion listing

Investment institutions are protesting moves by the UK capital markets regulator, the Financial Conduct Authority, to alter listing standards to accommodate a potential $2 trillion listing on the London Stock Exchange. Meanwhile rumours are growing that Saudi Aramco may be dropping its plans for a £1.5bn initial public offer on the New York, London or Tokyo Stock Exchange in addition to the Tadawul (Saudi Stock Exchange).

According to this article in the Financial Times, a trend towards “uber compliance” for listed securities means Aramco is thinking of selling shares to sovereign wealth funds, possibly led by China, as an alternative to a public listing which would have been the world’s largest float.

On 15 October, Aramco said the giant listing is still on: ““All listing venues under review for optimal decision, IPO process is on track for 2018”.

Plans for a giant £1.5bn ($2bn) initial public offering of only 5% of Aramco’s capital are a key part of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, which plans to wean the economy off reliance on oil, where it made up 90% of public revenues until 2014. However, in the short term it may signal Saudi intentions to use price-fixing cartel the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to push up oil prices and boost the valuation.

Outgoing LSE CEO Xavier Rolet accompanied British Prime Minister Theresa May for a visit to Aramco in April, while Andrew Bailey, chief executive of the FCA, agreed the regulator had met the potential listing candidate before a consultation on revising the listing standards. Many observers think there is political pressure on FCA and LSE to win the listing from New York and prove that London is still competitive as Brexit uncertainty and economic damage impacts UK.

Consultation on the FCA’s new listing rules closed on Friday 13 October. It would be the world’s largest float.

According to writer Nils Pratley in The Guardian: “Furious fund managers sense a bad case of a regulator planning to lower standards to suit ministers’ short-term desire to persuade Aramco to float in London rather than New York.

“The investors’ objection is straightforward: why on earth would we want to create a ‘premium’ listing category for state-owned companies while not enforcing normal investor protections?

“Under the FCA’s proposal, the likes of Aramco would be allowed to ignore some basic principles. They would not have to get approval from outside shareholders for transactions with the state. They would not have to give independent shareholders a vote on who should serve as independent directors.

“There clearly could be a place for such companies in London, but you would hardly award ‘premium’ status, a label that is meant to indicate the highest governance protections. The regulatory regime would look like a pushover, which may succeed in drumming up some short-term business but could seriously damage London’s status as a good place to invest.”

On 18 October, the world’s biggest wealth fund warned the FCA that the listing changes would be a “step back”, according to an article in City AM. Norges Bank Investmnet Management, part of the Norwegian Central bank which manages assets on behalf of Norway’s $1trn fund, which has $44bn invested in LSE companies, wrote on 13 October to FCA:

“Ultimately, investors expect today’s high standards of shareholder protection to apply to the premium listing category, whether controlled by a sovereign state or private investors. We fear that relaxing these rules would reduce the voice of minority investors and undermine the independence of the board.”

NBIM said the changes would be a “step back” in terms of investor protection, especially for minority shareholders, and would threaten the London Stock Exchange’s standing as a best in class corporate governance framework: “We believe the FCA should consider a more balanced approach that takes into consideration the interests of all stakeholders in the listing environment.” Other protests about relaxing the listing rules have come from a wide range of institutions, including the Institute of Directors and investor group the International Corporate Governance Network which said the plans were “fundamentally flawed” and increased risk. The Investment Association boss Chris Cummings said the change: “could impact on London’s reputation and future as one of the world’s leading financial centres”.

FCA’s Bailey had told Parliament that people would not need to invest in the new listing if they did not like the governance. According to this article , he wrote: “We do not think protections for investors will be weakened. Plainly, absent the new category, sovereign-controlled companies would be unable to choose a premium listing; they would therefore not be bound by any of the premium listing requirements that might otherwise offer additional protection for investors.”

Bailey said some criticism of the proposal left the “incorrect impression that the premium listing is monolithic in form, and therefore, that any issuer included in that category must also be included in the main FTSE UK index”. Financial services advocacy group The CityUK supported the FCA’s “open-minded approach to regulatory change”.

Ashley Hamilton Claxton, corporate governance manager at Royal London Asset Management, said it will be “bad news” for London if the proposals are put in place: “It looks like the FCA is consulting on amending the existing listing rules to accommodate the peculiarities of one company, which is not a very effective strategy for regulating the market as a whole. If the proposals in this consultation document are implemented, it will be bad news for London and will reverse the progress we have made in recent years to uphold strong governance and protect minority shareholders.”

According to the Financial Times: “A market regulator that makes transparent and fair rules, respecting both property rights and investor choice, will attract business in the long run. If, on the other hand, attracting business becomes a short-term goal, and rules are tailored to land big deals, regulation becomes marketing, and the long-term outlook becomes much less attractive.”

Saudi Aramco says its 2018 listing is on track (photo Reuters/Ali Jarekji)

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