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Insurer threatens to quit a sovereign Scotland, in opening shot by business Add to ...

These are stories Report on Business is following Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014.

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Independence fight escalates
Standard Life PLC fired a shot across the bow of Scotland’s independence movement today, warning it is already taking steps if it needs to move part of its operations elsewhere.

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The threat from chairman Gerry Grimstone and chief executive officer David Nish is significant not only because it has been based in Scotland for 189 years, but also because it is the first big outfit to warn it could move.

Politicians have been vocal in the run-up to Scotland’s Sept. 18 independence vote, but the comments in Standard Life’s annual report today may well signal the beginning of the business forces wading into the fight.

“We have a long-standing policy of strict political neutrality and at no time will we advise people on how they should vote,” Mr. Nish said.

“However, we have a duty and a responsibility to understand the implications of independence for our 4 million U.K. customers, our shareholders, our people and other stakeholders in our business and take whatever action is necessary to protect their interests.”

Standard Life has already started setting up “additional registered companies” outside Scotland to “transfer parts of our operations” if it needs to, said Mr. Nish, who employs some 5,000 people in the country.

“Scotland has been a good place from which to run our business and to compete around the world,” added Mr. Grimstone.

“We very much hope that this can continue. But if anything were to threaten this, we will take whatever action we consider necessary – including transferring parts of our operations from Scotland – in order to ensure continuity and to protect the interests of our stakeholders.”

There’s already a fierce debate over whether an independent Scotland could use the British pound as its currency.

Earlier this month, George Osborne, Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, warned in a speech in Edinburgh that that wouldn’t happen.

“The pound isn’t an asset to be divided up between the two countries after break-up as if it were a CD collection,” he said at the time.

Sébastien Galy of Société Générale wondered if Standard Life shareholders had expressed their fears.

“Companies set up legal entities to secure assets, that typically happens in periods of risk and is linked to operational risk management, one of the key pillars of risk management,” he said.

“The fact that it was announced may indicate that there was concern amongst their investor base.”

Other companies may have already taken such steps, though quietly, which he called “normal risk management at work with little impact.”

Ronnie Ludwig, an Edinburgh tax adviser at Saffery Champness, told Reuters he, too, believes other companies could follow Standard Life’s lead.

“The lack of certainty over the pound, EU membership and the tax regime, be it corporate or personal, is driving a culture of, at worst, fear and some are starting to run for cover,” Mr. Ludwig told the news agency.

“Companies want the familiar so it makes sense for them to head to England ... and if Standard Life are doing this then I am sure other life companies and banks are thinking the same.”

Banks hike dividends
Two more big Canadian banks boosted their dividends today amid solid first-quarter results.

As The Globe and Mail’s Tim Kiladze reports, Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce hiked its payout by 2 cents to 98 cents, while Toronto-Dominion Bank went 4 cents.

CIBC posted a profit of $1.18-billion or $2.88 a share, up 50 per cent from a year earlier. Stripping out one-time items, CIBC earned $951-million or $2.31, topping the $2.14 expected by analysts.

TD, in turn, posted a profit of $2.04 or $1.07 a share. Stripping out the one-offs, profit also beat estimates at $2.02-billion or $1.06.

Investors save plant
HJ Heinz Co. says it will sell its factory in Leamington, Ont., to an Ontario company that will make Heinz products and save about 250 of the jobs that would have vanished had the plant had closed.

Highbury Canco Corp., comprised of four investors including the manager of the factory, said it will make and distribute Heinz tomato juice and other canned goods, and plans to add its own products as it runs a scaled-down version of the plant that has operated for 105 years in Southwestern Ontario, The Globe and Mail's Eric Atkins reports.

Heinz said in November the plant would close this year, putting more than 700 people out of work and devastating a town that has depended on the economic engine of Heinz for generations.

Valeant swings to profit
Valeant Pharamaceuticals lnternational Inc. swung to a profit and more than doubled its revenue in the fourth quarter as it folded in last year’s acquisition of contact lens maker Bausch + Lomb Holdings Inc., The Globe and Mail's Bertrand Marotte reports.

Canada’s largest publicly traded drug company said fourth-quarter net profit came in at $124-million or 36 cents per share, compared with a loss of $89.1-million or 29 cents in the year-earlier period.

Revenue reached $2.1-billion, up 109 per cent over $986.3-million a year earlier.

Big deals
Be sure to read our special report on how deal makers in the M&A sector are regaining their confidence, complete with the biggest transactions of 2013.

Current account deficit widens
Canada’s current account deficit swelled in the fourth quarter of last year to $16-billion as trade faltered.

The deficit widened by $1.2-billion, Statistics Canada said today.

On the trade side of the ledger, the deficit widened by $1.4-billion to $2.7-billion, as exports slumped and imports gained.

The deficit on cross-border investment also widened, though by nowhere near as much, to $6.1-billion, largely on changes connected with foreign direct investment.

“Canada’s current account deficit of over 3 per cent of GDP continues to highlight that the loonie remained overvalued in Q4,” said senior economist Benjamin Reitzes of BMO Nesbitt Burns.

“However, the Canadian dollar recent weakness (and anticipated further depreciation this year) along with a strengthening U.S. economy should serve to modestly narrow the shortfall in 2014.”

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