Brexit makes many see red (or, in extreme cases, assume the hue). And it seems the pro-Leave chief executive of retailer Next wants more to do so.
Alongside Thursday’s half-year results, Simon Wolfson published an updated Brexit impact analysis, with all the numbers that have changed since it was first published a year ago highlighted in bold red type. But the only people likely to turn puce on reading it are those warning of the damage of a no-deal Brexit. Because Lord Wolfson’s minimally florid prose says there is “no risk” of tariff or duty increases — only a “£25m” saving.
Of all the “Key Risks” that were quantified by the retailer in September 2018, only one has since changed: the UK government’s new temporary tariff regime in the event of a no-deal Brexit means Next stands to save £32m a year — more than offsetting a £6m rise in EU duties and an extra £1m for importing from countries currently covered by EU free trade agreements. Similarly, of the “Additional Administrative Costs”, only one is now in the red: customs charges are revised upwards by just £50,000 to £150,000. All other impacts are unchanged.
Might Lord Wolfson’s sanguine view be a product of rose-tinted spectacles? Not judging by his consistently pragmatic assessments of all other commercial variables.
Next’s half-year results show how he prefers to err on the side of caution: pre-tax profit of £320m was again slightly better than forecast, and although full-year guidance was only maintained, it had been raised to £725m in July after sales growth proved double the group’s conservative initial assumption. Next’s full-year results, in March, also contained a 15-year “stress test” of its entire business, modelling sales growth and cash flows under a range of economic scenarios — one imagining 357 store closures.
However, that impressive — and peerless — exercise does draw attention to one shortcoming in the Brexit document: a reluctance to acknowledge any possible impact on consumer sentiment. Instead, Lord Wolfson says: “Some suggest that the fact of Brexit, of itself, might undermine consumer confidence . . . Our experience is that political storms, of themselves, rarely affect sales.”
That is the exact opposite of John Lewis’s warning last week. Charlie Mayfield, the department store’s chairman, said: “Brexit continues to weigh on consumer sentiment . . . should the UK leave the EU without a deal, we expect the effect to be significant and it will not be possible to mitigate that impact.”
So who is right? Both, in a way: import costs for small-ticket clothes should not rise, but spending on big-ticket homewares could fall. And both should be applauded for giving stakeholders an honest assessment. But Next’s red ink and the John Lewis blues suggest each is being a little colour blind — and missing half the picture. After Brexit, retailers’ profits will depend on both their imports and their customers staying worry-free.
Taking over the Asylum?
It is all go at the Competition and Markets Authority. On Wednesday, the regulator was asked to assess the national security implications of a £4bn takeover of Cobham — supplier to US Air Force tankers. On Thursday, it was preparing to assess the shoe-availability implications of a £90m takeover of Footasylum — supplier of Nike “Air Force” trainers.
JD Sports, which is attempting the latter deal, might have hoped the CMA would clear it after a Phase 1 investigation, as was the case when it bought cagoule vendor Go Outdoors. Footasylum is not exactly providing strong competition, judging by two profit warnings in a year. Nor is new ownership of its 70 stores obviously going to result in “worse choice”, as the CMA fears. JD’s broker Peel Hunt argued: “It is a fierce marketplace . . . JD doesn’t just compete with the likes of Footlocker: it would class retailers such as Next, Asos and Quiz [as] competitors, not to mention . . . Sports Direct. It’s unclear at this stage quite what the CMA is nervous about.”
How about public and political opinion? Under the leadership of Andrew Tyrie — the former MP and Treasury committee chairman — the CMA has become much more noisily interventionist in consumer-facing industries. It deemed J Sainsbury an enemy of the people for trying to buy rival Asda, despite legal opinion, and market share trends, that said otherwise. It may play up to a similar populism if it takes the Footasylum probe to Phase 2. Doubtless, JD would prefer Mr Tyrie to do what our prime minister is often asked to: go away and work on a more important deal.
Ryanair’s €99m freebie
Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary calls a €99m bonus if he doubles the share price “a free bet” for investors. But half of them refused to back it. Do they not realise how generous he is being? It is surely the first time the airline — which charges €20 to print a boarding pass — has offered anything for free.
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