Asset-stripping is hardly new: but the first really big company to be terminally hollowed out by modern financial engineering was Enron (1987-2001). The reason why it happened there, was completely the opposite of what's taken place at Thames Water. Enron was chronically under-capitalised for conducting the business it was (very successfully) engaged in: giga-scale market-making in the energy sector, with attendant innovation and creativity that has been much missed in the sector since 2002 (sic) but never truly replicated. Nostalgic laments aside, what Enron absolutely needed for its business model to be workable was to maintain investment grade credit status, because long-term dealmaking was its forte, and nobody will do long term deals with a shaky counterparty.
Why was maintaining credit status a problem? Because (a) as an inevitable structural problem, cashflow lagged profit (which can be the death of literally any business, however sound); (b) it couldn't borrow any more, which deprived it of the traditional solution to that issue; and (c) - the real killer - it was committed to perpetual expansion, it being traded on Wall Street as a growth stock.
This conundrum became fully apparent (to Enron itself: the rest of the world just gawped and invested) as early as 1993, when the financial engineering started. For a few years there was ample opportunity to do some clever but wholly prudent stuff, resulting in a balance sheet that was a marvel of precise and efficient design. However, by the end of the '90s what could be achieved by such elegant means was pretty much exhausted, and they started resorting to some deeply imprudent expedients, designed by Enron people who really knew what they were doing - and abetted by banks who should have known better - and could therefore build it very big and very bad. (It didn't help that one of the main architects of all this was actually on the take in the literally criminal sense.)
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Enough of history: it suffices that some potentially very dangerous financial technology had been designed and employed, able to be abused in completely different circumstances. Enter highly capitalised Thames Water, with physical assets and guaranteed revenue streams galore; the most fertile ground imaginable for financial engineering - and ideal circumstances for gouging out all the cash and remitting it as dividend. And so, it seems, they have.
How dangerous is this? One might say: who remembers Enron now? Didn't the lights stay on, and the waters close over? Hopefully, optimistically, that's right: HMG has quietly resolved several seemingly vast corporate problems in the past, British Energy 2003 being perhaps the best example ("Nuclear Generator In Financial Meltdown" - never a comfortable headline). With TW there appears to have been a bit of advance warning: and maybe with the recent 'rescue' of Bulb, some sensible generic thinking has already been done in government. Maybe. And Thames Water is squarely based on real assets.
But on the pessimistic side:
- how likely is sensible generic thinking, in advance, within HMG?
- Bulb's business model was trivial compared with Thames Water
- with British Energy, when it went under its product hadn't been forward-sold to any degree, but could be (and was), for an instant and constructive boost to its finances
- the economy was in a much better state in 2003 to be standing behind any loose ends
- some types of financial engineering are pretty toxic
Which brings us to the elephant in the room: TW has suckered in a range of serious international financial players. OK - so, caveat emptor and leave them holding the keys? That may be possible in strictly legal / contractual terms: and HMG probably has reserve powers to direct the continued operation of the assets. But here's the thing: like any financial player, those big Canadian pension funds and Far East investors really, really hate being left holding the keys. In those circumstances, they have literally no idea what to do next: we know this, because it's happened many times around the world.
So what happens now. In coalface terms, there are asset-oriented specialists like Macquarie and Cargill who know all about restructuring and bailout. They'd make fortunes from the gig: but they know what to do. Is that how HMG will play it? It won't look good.
More widely however, what does this do for the future attractiveness of UK plc for inward investment? We've long been the envy of the world for how easily we've attracted cheap foreign dosh, and a large part of the economy is now based on it. Kick away TW, and what do all these people do with their next chunk of money? Equally great and easily-executed opportunities elsewhere don't grow on trees - but there are plenty enough, not least with government-backed Net Zero projects sweeping the globe.
In short, the worst-case scenario is, in sequence: (a) a serious investment strike by otherwise UK-directed money; (b) downgrading of UK plc's credit rating, with all its inflationary and currency implications; (c) drying-up of deal flow for the City.
This could be Very Ugly Indeed. All the more reason why HMG will step in smartly. But what if TW is just the tip of the iceberg? Where's, *ahem* Gordon Brown when we need him to Save The World?
 Nobody with any brains, that is - though amazingly, some companies still do.
 Everyone in Enron was substantially paid in company paper - so the idea of letting the share price slip was anathema.
 Sold to a rapacious Centrica, as recounted here before. They then got carried away and foolishly bought 20% of the nuclear portfolio when EDF bought the rest. Has been doing them quite nicely just recently though, of course.