Chemicals firm BASF biggest beneficiary of UK coronavirus loan scheme

Richard Partington Economics correspondent
Photograph: Annegret Hilse/Reuters

The German chemicals company BASF has emerged as the biggest beneficiary of the Bank of England’s emergency coronavirus loan scheme, borrowing £1bn in cheap government-backed funding.

Threadneedle Street revealed for the first time the names of 53 big companies that have borrowed £16.2bn between them, amid rising pressure on the government to place tougher conditions on firms that receive state-backed support.

The list of businesses benefiting from the cheap funding, which is designed to help businesses weather the economic storm caused by the coronavirus pandemic, included many with a sizeable carbon footprint.

According to campaigners, about a fifth of the emergency loans were made to firms with heavy carbon emissions in aviation, oil and car manufacturing, prompting criticism for the government.

Ministers’ have previously made assurances that the government would prioritise a green economic recovery from the coronavirus crisis.

Alongside BASF the list of major overseas companies receiving support backed by the British state also included the German pharmaceuticals company Bayer, the French luxury brand Chanel and the Japanese carmakers Toyota, Nissan and Mitsubishi.

BASF employs about 850 people in Britain at eight plants across the country, producing farming pesticides and chemicals for the car industry.

Chanel, which has received £600m, said it had its global headquarters are in the UK and it had 1,600 people working in the UK. A spokesperson said:”We have chosen not to access government furlough schemes but as a large employer which has seen all of its boutiques shut by the Covid-19 pandemic, we have accessed the Bank of England facility. The loan will be repaid within the next 12 months.”

First announced in March by the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, among his flagship financial support measures as the coronavirus crisis intensified, the Covid corporate financing facility (CCFF) is run by the Bank of England on behalf of the Treasury. It is open to firms regardless of where they are headquartered.

Bank of England loans

Companies – and their finance subsidiaries – that make a “material contribution” to the UK economy are able to participate. However, the Bank and the Treasury have not published precise details over how it approves firms to be part of the scheme.

As many as 152 businesses have been approved to access the emergency funding, which could expand to nearly £68bn if necessary. The scheme works by Threadneedle Street buying up the bonds of companies with newly created public money, then lending the funds to the firms at interest rates understood to be around 0.5% and possibly less in some cases.

Against a backdrop of mounting pressure on ministers to attach more conditions to the use of public money and state guarantees, the Bank and the Treasury last month blocked firms from paying out large bonuses to executives and dividends to investors until they have repaid their loans.

Faced with the grounding of flights around the world, most of the biggest airlines operating in Britain have accessed the facility EasyJet and Ryanair hav borrowed £600m each, while British Airways has taken £300m and Wizz Air has borrowed £300m.

Although receiving taxpayer support, both Easyjet and BA have announced plans to make thousands of job cuts given the scale of the impact from Covid-19.

Both have stated that the money will be used simply to boost cash reserves and maintain liquidity during lockdown and hoped-for recovery. Although staff have been furloughed and fleets grounded, the airlines estimated they were still burning through cash at between £30m-60m a week.

Virgin Atlantic, majority owned by the billionaire Richard Branson, who has faced questions over whether his companies should receive public funds due to his personal tax status, is reported to have been turned down for a £500m loan.

Campaigners and many MPs have called on the government to ensure its bailout schemes take greater account of the environmental impact of the companies benefiting from them, as well as their tax status and employment practices.

Also among high-carbon businesses benefiting from the scheme were oilfield companies Baker Hughes, with a £600m loan, and Schlumberger, with £150m.

Fiona Nicholls, climate campaigner at Greenpeace UK, said the government was letting down the public and going against its claims that the recovery would be green. “Airlines have been given exactly what the chancellor, the prime minister, economists and the public said they should not be given – billions in cheap and easy loans to keep them polluting, without any commitments to reduce their emissions or even keep their workers on the payroll.”

Several household names from the UK high street are also among firms borrowing from the scheme. The bakery chain Greggs has borrowed £150m, while Marks & Spencers took £260m and fast fashion online retailer Asos has secured £100m. John Lewis and the luxury fashion house Burberry have each borrowed £300m.

It is understood the loan to Burberry was undertaken as a contingency measure in the case of a protracted period of store closures. Asos said it had borrowed money as a precautionary measure to give it flexibility through an uncertain period. “At the same time, we raised capital from our shareholders to further support the business,” it said in a statement.

The construction firm JCB, owned by the billionaire Bamford family, who were prominent Tory donors and Vote Leave backers, has secured a £600m loan. The company described the loan support as insurance and “prudent financial management”.

Others included Premier League football club Tottenham Hotspur and the brewer Youngs. The National Trust charity has also benefited, with £30m in help.