Asked about the possibility of a Greek default, Chief Financial Officer Andy Halford said on a conference call today that “it’s obviously something we’ve been having a close look at.” Vodafone, the world’s biggest mobile-phone company, is also looking at billing in a different currency “if the situation arises.”
The cash sweep by Newbury, England-based Vodafone shows how U.K. companies are trying to protect themselves against potential writedowns and losses in countries using the euro. Drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline started repatriating cash held in most euro-area banks early last year. WPP Finance Director Paul Richardson said yesterday that the biggest advertising company rounds up excess euros from its banks in Europe and moves them to the U.S. where they are exchanged for dollars every day.
“What would happen if the guillotine were to come down?” Richardson said in an interview. “Everyone has had a very close look at in-country arrangements and people have taken legal advice,” he said, adding that WPP “feels reassured that we’re in as good a position as we could be if one of the countries had a massive writedown.”
Greece faces a 14.5 billion-euro ($19.3 billion) bond payment on March 20 and is struggling to secure financing to avert a collapse of the economy that could spark a new round of contagion in the euro. Greek Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos heads to Brussels today after politicians failed to finalize new austerity measures needed to secure a 130 billion euro bailout package.
Talks stumbled over the issue of pension cuts and officials from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund gave Greece 15 more days to identify measures totaling 300 million euros.
Reckitt Benckiser, the Slough, England-based maker of Dettol handwash and Nurofen painkillers, is “sucking out cash” from its euro operations on a daily basis due to fears of a liquidity crisis, Chief Executive Officer Rakesh Kapoor told reporters in a briefing yesterday. “We have always swept up cash from Europe into the group and we have increased the frequency of that,” CFO Liz Doherty said on a conference call.
‘Tens of Millions’
GlaxoSmithKline, the U.K.’s largest drugmaker, moves “tens of millions of pounds” in cash every day out of banks in Europe into accounts in the U.K., CEO Andrew Witty said Feb. 7.
“We don’t leave any cash in most European countries,” excluding Germany, Witty said. “Any cash that we bring in during the day gets swept out of the local banks into banks that we think are robust and secure.”
Every evening, Vodafone “sweeps all the spare cash” out of Greece and other markets into the U.K., Halford said today.
While the daily cash movement hedges Vodafone, the company had been transferring money from its operations abroad to the U.K. on a daily basis even before the European debt crisis started, a Vodafone spokesman said after the conference call.
Vodafone today reported slowing service revenue growth for the three month through December, missing analyst estimates, as consumers in Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal cut spending.
This week, Vodafone abandoned an attempt to merge its Greek unit with rival Wind Hellas after facing European Union regulatory opposition. A successful merger would have allowed Vodafone to reduce costs and better compete in the country with Hellenic Telecommunications Organization SA (OTE), or OTE, which is controlled by Deutsche Telekom AG.
OTE told investors in November that it has moved cash not needed as working capital to international banks within and outside Greece.
Vodafone in November booked an impairment loss of 450 million pounds for its business in Greece, citing lower cash flow and an increase in discount rates. In the year-earlier period, Vodafone had already lowered the value of its Greek operations by 800 million pounds.