October 2, 2019 / 9:02 AM / 12 days ago

French Suez shares slide as new strategy seen lacking clarity on dividend

PARIS (Reuters) - Shares in French waste and water group Suez (SEVI.PA) dropped more than 6% on Wednesday after its new chief executive unveiled a four-year plan to boost earnings but lacked clarity on dividends and planned asset sales.

FILE PHOTO: The logo of Suez is seen on the top of a building in Rueil-Malmaison, France, August 17, 2019. REUTERS/Charles Platiau/File Photo

The plan unveiled on Wednesday by Bertrand Camus, who was appointed in May, follows an appeal in July by activist investor Amber Capital for a review of the utility’s strategy to create more value for its shareholders.

Camus’ 2020-2023 strategy focused on boosting earnings per share, cutting costs and selling assets, but he declined to say which assets the firm may sell and gave no date for a long-awaited dividend increase.

Unlike bigger sector peer Veolia (VIE.PA), which has increased dividends over the past four years, Suez has kept its dividend unchanged at 0.65 euro for a decade.

“We will maintain the dividend at 0.65 euro in the next two years and then we want to be able to make it grow in line with earnings ...as soon as the dividend is well-covered by earnings per share and cash flow,” Camus said on an earnings call.

Despite repeated questions about the dividend during a nearly three-hour analyst conference, he refused to be pinned down on when Suez may boost payout.

Chief Financial Officer Julian Waldron said Suez hopes that towards the end of the 2021-2023 plan, solid earnings will allow it to increase its dividend.

“That is not necessarily after the end of the plan, it could also be before,” he said.

Dividend payments are a key element driving share prices, especially for utilities, which tend to have higher payout ratios and more steady dividends than other industries.

Suez shares fell over 6%, its biggest one-day drop in nearly 1-1/2 years.

COST CUTS

Brokerage Oddo said in a note the new Suez strategy plan lacked detail and downgraded the stock to neutral from buy.

Camus said that by 2021, Suez wants to have recurring earnings per share (EPS) of 0.8 euros, from 0.47 in 2018.

The group plans to cut costs by 1 billion euros ($1.09 billion) by 2023 compared to 2018, cutting costs by an additional 250 million every year, with nearly half of these savings already in place by 2021.

Camus said these cuts would focus on procurement and operations, not on staff costs.

Suez also wants to grow the share of revenue from outside the European Union from 38% in 2018 to 60%, and it wants to push the revenue share from industrial customers from 41% to 50% as it reduces its reliance on cash-strapped municipal customers. He set no target dates.

It plans to sell businesses representing 15-20% of its 20.6 billion euro capital employed, or about 3 to 4 billion euros worth of assets to refocus its portfolio, but Camus declined to say which assets might be sold.

Suez also said it planned to book one-off charges worth 150-200 million euros this year and another 500-700 million mainly in 2020.

Reporting by Geert De Clercq; Editing by Sudip Kar-Gupta, Christian Lowe and Emelia Sithole-Matarise

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