Opening Quote: Phoenix rises; Vodafone merges; JKX losses narrow

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Judging book by its cover and putting all your eggs in one basket are – to most people – proverbial don’ts.

To Phoenix Group, however, they are not so much blunders as a business model: judging which closed books of life insurance policies to buy, based on the capital needed to cover the risk, and putting them together with others to achieve economies of scale.

Doing so has made Phoenix the UK’s largest specialist closed life and pension fund consolidator.

And this morning, it has even been counting its chickens: reporting on how its latest books have been faring inside its basket.

AXA Wealth’s book, which it bought for £373m in November, has added 910,000 policies and £12bn assets, helping to generate £282m of cash so far – ahead of target. Economies of scale – or cost synergies – will now be £13m-£15m, some £5m more than expected. And Abbey Life’s book, bought for £933m in December, has added 735,000 policies and £10bn assets.

Overall, annual cash generation in 2016 reached £486m – on target – and the all important capital coverage ratio improved to 170 per cent from 154 per cent in December 2015.

Annual operating profit rose to £351m, allowing a 5 per cent dividend increase to 23.9p per share.

Chief executive Clive Bannister said:

We believe there will be further consolidation in the UK life industry. We continue to explore opportunities as they arise.

What do you do when a major rival comes out of nowhere and lures away all your customers with freebies? And then just keeps on doing it? Merge, merge, merge – until you are much bigger leaner and meaner.

This would appear to be Vodafone’s strategy in India, after Reliance Jio spent $25bn to corner the market in 4G data by offering free services to customers for six months.

Vodafone is fighting back by merging its Indian operations with Idea Cellular to create one of the largest telecoms companies in the world, with around 380m users.

Vodafone will own 45.1 per cent of the combined group while Idea’s parent company, the Aditya Birla Group, will own 26 per cent after paying Rs 39bn ($579m) cash for a 4.9 per cent stake. Vodafone India calculates that the merger will generate synergies of around Rs 670bn after integration costs and other payments.

Vodafone chief executive Vittorio Colao said:

The combined company will have the scale required to ensure sustainable consumer choice in a competitive market and to expand new technologies – such as mobile money services – that have the potential to transform daily life for every Indian.

Last year, when Proxima Capital, run by Russian businessman Vladimir Tatarchuk, led a successful attempt to remove the board of JKX Oil & Gas, newly installed chairman Paul Ostling called it a “rare example of genuinely successful shareholder activism in the long history of the London Stock Exchange.”

But the new directors also warned of the challenges they faced in turning round the company as its losses deepened. In 2015, pre-tax losses increased from $53.7m in 2014 to $82.7m.

This morning, they said the situation was improving but very slowly: losses for 2016 narrowed to $37.1m, or to $3.9m before exceptionals. But revenues fell to $73.8m, from $88.5m, amid technical and political challenges in Ukraine.

JKX was recently the subject of a surprise raid by Ukrainian police in Kiev, with searches taking place at its Poltava Petroleum Company subsidiary yesterday for the third time in just over a year.

At the time, the company said the investigation appeared to have broadened “without any apparent reason, justification, outcome or conclusion.”

Today it focused on the positive:

In the face of considerable uncertainty at the beginning of the year, our team has increased production, re-engineered our field development plans, improved relationships with our stakeholders, restructured and extended the significant short-term bond liabilities and focused our Company on the technical challenges to come.

We are actively seeking to mitigate our litigation risks and potential liabilities with the Ukrainian Government so that our development drilling in Ukraine can recommence.

And, finally, The Times reports problems for a small oil company closer to home. Well, closer to the Home Counties, in fact.

Angus Energy has been drilling near Dorking in Surrey despite warnings from the county council that it required planning approval. Did no-one think to check? Now the local stockbrokers are up in arms: they are calling on the council and the Environment Agency to hold an inquiry and prosecute. Not in my back yard!

Have a productive day.

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