Danone to sell $1.9 billion Yakult stake in quest to boost shareholder returns

Danone brands include Activia and Actimel as well as Evian water. (Reuters)
Updated 14 February 2018
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Danone to sell $1.9 billion Yakult stake in quest to boost shareholder returns

PARIS: French foods group Danone is to sell a €1.5 billion stake in Japanese company Yakult in its latest initiative to boost shareholder returns.
Leading consumer groups including Danone, the world’s largest yoghurt maker, as well as Nestle and Unilever, have come under pressure from some shareholders who say they should be producing better returns.
Danone, whose brands include Activia and Actimel as well as Evian water, said it would sell 14 percent of Yakult, equating to two-thirds of its holding, as part of a strategy to have a more disciplined approach to how it invests its capital.
Gregoire Laverne, a fund manager at Roche Brune Asset Management which owns Danone shares, said the move was positive.
“Danone is sending a strong signal,” Laverne said. “It is meeting its commitments for a better capital allocation. Now the question is: what will it do with the cash?“
Danone said it would comment further on the possible use of the proceeds when the deal is completed in March.
It has held the Yakult stake for more than a decade but there has long been speculation it would look to divest. The sale will be carried out via a market transaction initiated by Yakult and is expected to be settled in March.
Danone has lagged the growth of some rivals, largely due to weakness in its European dairy business in the face of sluggish demand and private-label competition.
“Indiscriminate investment has been one of the big turn-offs of the Danone investment case since the acquisition of Numico in 2007. Consequently we regard this as a positive development,” wrote RBC Capital Markets analysts, retaining a “sector perform” rating on Danone and a price target of €65.
Even though consumer goods groups typically offer up reliable sales and dividends, they have also had to grapple with a slowdown in some markets, pressure on prices and shifting trends from consumers over eating and leisure habits.
Danone last year bought US organic food maker WhiteWave for $12.5 billion in a bid to attract affluent health-conscious customers and boost margins. It also sold dairy business Stonyfield to Lactalis for $875 million.
Danone has sometimes been touted as a takeover target. In August 2017, hedge fund Corvex Management bought a 0.8 percent stake, following similar steps at Nestle and Procter & Gamble .
In 2005, the French government stepped in to fend off a rumored bid by Pepsico by publicly describing Danone’s business as a protected “strategic” industry.
Yakult also announced a ¥36 billion share buyback in which Danone will participate. The French group will retain a 7 percent stake in Yakult, remaining its largest shareholder.


Jordanian cabinet approves new IMF-guided tax law to boost finances

Updated 21 May 2018
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Jordanian cabinet approves new IMF-guided tax law to boost finances

AMMAN: Jordan’s cabinet on Monday approved major IMF-guided proposals that aim to double the income tax base, as a key part of reforms to boost the finances of a debt-burdened economy hit by regional conflict.
“When only 4 percent of Jordanians pay (personal) income tax, this may not be the right thing,” Finance Minister Omar Malhas said in remarks after the cabinet meeting, adding the goal was to push that to eight percent. The draft legislation was submitted to parliament.
The IMF’s three-year Extended Fund Facility program aims to generate more state revenue to gradually bring down public debt to 77 percent of GDP in 2021, from a record 95 percent.
A few months ago Jordan raised levies on hundreds of food and consumer items by unifying general sales tax (GST) to 16 percent — removing exemptions on many basic goods.
In January subsidies on bread were ended, doubling some prices in a country with rising unemployment and poverty among its eight million people.
The income tax move and the GST reforms will bring an estimated 840 million dinars ($1.2 billion) in extra annual tax revenue that will help reduce chronic budget shortfalls normally covered by foreign aid, officials say.
Corporate income tax on banks, financial institutions and insurance companies will be pushed to 40 percent from 30 percent. Taxes on Jordan’s phosphate and potash mining industry will be raised to 30 percent from 24.
The government argues the reforms will reduce social disparities by progressively taxing high earners while leaving low-paid public sector employees largely untouched.
“This is a fair tax law not an unfair one,” said Malhas, who shrugged off criticism the law is lenient on many businesses connected to politicians whose transactions are not subject to tax scrutiny.
Husam Abu Ali, the head of the Income and Sales Tax Department, said a proposed IMF-recommended Financial Crime Investigations Unit will stiffen penalties for tax evaders. Critics say it will not tackle pervasive corruption in state institutions.
Abu Ali said the government could be losing hundreds of millions of dollars through tax evasion, which is as high as 80 percent in some companies.
The amendments lower the income tax threshold and raise tax rates. Unions said the government was caving in to IMF demands and squeezing more from the same taxpayers.
“It is penalizing a group that has long paid what it owes the state,” the unions syndicate said in a statement.
“It imposes injustice on employees whose salaries have barely coped with price hikes rising madly in recent years.”