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Foreign Investment Stirs Concern in Britain

May 11, 1988|Associated Press

LONDON — Britain is in a lather over foreign stake-building in some of its largest companies and is hinting at moves to block incursions into British Petroleum Co. and two big confectioners.

While the rumblings echo familiar patriotic strains, the government says its concerns are strategic, not protectionist.

The BP case, for example, involves the purchase of a major stake in the company by an OPEC member, which could put the interests of British shareholders at risk, the critics say.

They argue that the foreign raids on candy makers Rowntree and Cadbury Schweppes are even more of a mismatch because the raiders themselves are protected against takeover reprisals.

In the BP case, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's government said the Kuwaiti government's acquisition of a 22% stake in the oil giant warranted investigation because the Arab nation belongs to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

Britain, the world's fifth-largest oil producer, is not a member of the cartel.

The Conservative government has referred the matter to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission to determine whether the acquisition is in the public interest, according to Trade Secretary Lord Young.

The Kuwaiti government's investment office in London maintains that its BP stake is a long-term investment, and "considers it has always acted as a model investor in BP."

It bought the stake piecemeal after the British government sold off its remaining 31.5% share of BP last fall.

Meanwhile, the Office of Fair Trading, which advises the trade secretary on whether to call in the monopolies commission, is reviewing two Swiss companies' runs on Kit Kat-maker Rowntree PLC.

Noting that Swiss law protects Nestle SA and Jacobs Suchard SA from takeovers, critics object to the lack of reciprocity.

Kenneth Clarke, secretary of state for trade and industry, said in response to a question in the House of Commons on Tuesday that reciprocity would be a key issue in the review.

Swiss food giant Nestle has launched a 2.1-billion pound ($3.95 billion U.S.) takeover offer for Rowntree and has bought an 11% stake in the company. Jacobs Suchard has purchased 29.9% of Rowntree, the maximum allowed under British takeover regulations short of a full takeover bid.

Also at issue is General Cinema Corp.'s purchase of a 17.7% stake in Cadbury Schweppes PLC. The government said Tuesday that it would not go to the monopolies commission, but warned that Chestnut Hill, Mass.-based General Cinema could face further scrutiny if it goes ahead with plans to increase its stake.

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