NZ Refining to review New Zealand's 'laziest balance sheet'   27 Apr 2012

Pattrick Smellie

New Zealand Refining’s board has promised to review its dividend policy, heading off a charge that investors bear the brunt of volatile earnings through gyrating payments and what one shareholder called “the laziest corporate balance sheet in New Zealand.”

The company that runs the nation’s only oil refinery needed small shareholder support in today’s crunch vote in Whangarei on a $365 million Continuous Catalyst Regeneration Platformer Project (CCR). The project required shareholder approval because of its size relative to NZ Refining’s market capitalisation of around $785 million.

Shareholders BP and Mobil, who hold 43 percent of the refinery’s shares, are understood to have opposed the CCR proposal, and the company mounted an unprecedented round of shareholder briefings to try to shore up a majority for the CCR.

If rejected, the refinery will still spend $105 million on a must-do upgrade to keep the refinery running past 2015.

The board’s most trenchant critic was former Contact Energy and Shell NZ director John Milne, who said it was “astonishing” that the company was in its 50th year of operation and “still has no dividend policy.” He criticised its policy of carrying almost no debt on its balance sheet.

Reduced dividends were identified as a major concern by other small shareholders, who depended on share income to meet living expenses.

However, chairman David Jackson appeared to expect the attack, announcing in his general remarks the board would later this year review the optimal gearing for the company, whose policy has been to completely repay debt raised for major projects at the expense of dividends.

While deleveraging had been prudent during the global financial crisis, the board and management would consider “whether this is appropriate for the long-term structure of the company.”

The review would be undertaken this year.

The touch and go vote occurred at 2pm, with a result to be announced to the NZX this afternoon. NZ Refining shares remain in trading halt in the meantime, having last traded at $2.75.

Craigs Investment Partners said in analysis this week the CCR option was the better of the two options, although it would prefer there was an option for delay, and warned there was no guarantee dividends would return to normal levels before 2020.

Milne said even though the company had substantial retained earnings, the board treated the payment of dividends as “purely discretionary.” Jackson, in turn, described NZ Refining as “highly cash-generative” despite the volatile impact of swings in global refining margins and the exchange rate on its profitability.

Milne also accused the board of failing to act transparently by refusing to reveal how many of the directors representing oil companies had opposed the CCR project, and to allow one of as many as four directors to explain to shareholders why they had objected.

Jackson would not allow such disclosures, saying communication should be directed through the chair and chief executive.


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