Why credit ratings weren’t important in the Thameslink deal
I’ve not abandoned this blog – just, whilst struggling with painful paid work on the kind of social media and consumer goods marketing work I tend to post here (it’s rewarding and worthwhile paid work, but whilst working on it for pay I’m not so keen to blog on it for no money), most of what I post tends towards the political, so I tend to post it on Liberal Conspiracy. If you’ve missed out, my work for LC is here. I’m also on Twitter a lot, and am slightly disturbed to see from my tweet figures that I’ve written more than a book’s worth of Tweets. Oh, and also I was blogging as part of my MA course – I should really repost those blogs here.
However, this current topic is definitely unsuited to any of those media. Roger Ford, who’s probably the best railway journalist working in the UK at the moment (sorry Nick!) writes a great technical column in Modern Railways magazine, and sends out a monthly email based on his work for the mag. But although he’s a brilliant rail industry writer, he’s not a great finance industry writer. And so he’s fallen for an insiduous and silly myth spread by the Telegraph’s Alistair Osborne in this piece.
The last UK government put out a tender for 1,200 new train carriages to be built for the Thameslink project, which links southeast London and its commuter belt with north London and its commuter belt via upgraded lines running from London Bridge to St Pancras via Farringdon. The tender didn’t specify any British-built content for the trains, and was won by Siemens with trains that will be built in Germany rather than Bombardier with trains that would’ve been built in Derby. Siemens bid cheaper than Bombardier, and the government wasn’t allowed to take British jobs into account because a specification of British jobs wasn’t part of the invitation to tender.
This created anger, especially as Bombardier used the announcement as a catalyst to announce that it’d sack two thirds of its contract staff and 25% of its permanent staff in UK train-building, because it doesn’t have any UK train orders after it’s finished building new London Underground trains. Europhobics used it as an opportunity to attack the EU’s anti-corruption rules; more sensible people used it as an opportunity to attack the previous government for failing to specify British jobs (as would’ve been allowed by EU rules) in its invitation to tender.
Which is fair comment. A related question, though, is why – as the biggest supplier of trains to the UK railway network over the last five years – is why Bombardier couldn’t outbid Siemens to the contract. Osborne’s claim was that this was a reflection on Bombardier’s credit rating relative to Siemens. Siemens’s debt is rated at A+ by Standard & Poor’s, compared with Bombardier’s BB+ rating, and the contract was to provide the trains on a leasing basis rather than to buy them outright. He says that because it costs Bombardier more to borrow (credit ratings are basically like individual credit scores, so A+ means you get a cheaper loan than BB+), it would’ve cost Bombardier 1.5% more than Siemens per year in interest costs to supply the trains than Siemens, so no bloody wonder Siemens won.
However, this is rubbish. Neither Bombardier nor Siemens bid on their own. Bombardier teamed up with Deutsche Bank, services outsourcing company Serco, PFI investment company Amber Infrastructure and SMBC Leasing for its bid. Siemens teamed up with PFI investment company InnisFree and private equity company 3i Infrastructure. In neither case would the train manufacturer have put up the money for the trains – in Bombardier’s case it would have been SMBC (which has an A+ rating, befitting its position as one of Japan’s least bankrupt banks), and Siemens’s case, it would have been its own corporate finance division (A+) plus 3i Infrastructure (BBB+). For the Bombardier consortium, the money would have been borrowed against SMBC’s account; for the Siemens consortium, it would have been borrowed against Siemens’s account – they would both have had an A+ credit rating.
So, in other words, the Bombardier consortium and the 3i consortium would have had the same financing costs. The only difference is that, had the bid been successful, Siemens’s credit rating and ownership of a finance company would have allowed it to take a higher proportion of the profits. The difference between Bombardier and Siemens based on credit rating is that Bombardier wouldn’t have been able to take an additional slice of the profits based on the financing part of the project, and therefore had to bring in an external partner for the financing. But that’s about how the profits from winning the bid are shared, not about the cost of delivering the trains.
The same EU rules that ban the government from choosing Bombardier because it’s designed and built in Derby also ban the bid from being awarded on a cross-subsidy basis from companies’ finance arms compared to their building arms. In other words, Siemens’s assessment of the cost of building the trains had to be on the same basis as Bombardier’s, and it wasn’t allowed to pretend that the trains were cheaper and offset that money on the basis of any financing that its finance company did. So there’s no sane reason why this should have made the Bombardier consortium’s bid more expensive than the Siemens bid.
In short, either Siemens overbid (presumably because it was desperate to keep a foothold in UK rail, having lost most major recent contracts to Bombardier), or Bombardier underbid (either because it thought the government would somehow dodge the EU rules and pick the British-based trains, or because it couldn’t really be bothered and was looking for an excuse to cut Derby anyway). The financing problem is not important.