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Centrica's problems underlined by Npower retrenchment

The company's rate of customer loss has been decreasing, but tough competition and political headwinds remain

Centrica PLC - Centrica walks on eggshells with new four-year plan
Centrica owns British Gas

Npower’s decision today to cut 4,500 jobs underlines how tough the UK energy market is at present for all the ‘big six’ players.

Just last week Centrica PLC (LON:CNA) revealed it had lost 107,000 energy supply accounts in the UK in the four months to October.

While this rate of attrition looks alarming, for the battered British Gas owner it actually marked an improvement.

Total account losses in 2018 amounted to 742,000 customers, which decreased to 178,000 in the first six months of 2019.

Shares in the utility have dropped by nearly half since February but rallied last week in the hope this is as bad as it gets for Centrica.

Targets for this year were re-affirmed, which was some relief following two sets of grim results where everything that could have gone wrong seemingly did.

Outages at nuclear power stations, exceptional weather in the UK and North America and a price cap imposed by regulator Ofgem that cost £70mln came on top of growing competition from new entrants luring customers with flexible offers and a digital-driven service.

There were also other plusses in last week’s update.

Account losses in energy were balanced by home solutions – the arm providing services such as plumbing – which added 214,000 new accounts.

Management also has a self-help plan covering the years to 2024.

The first step will be disposing of its non-core oil and gas and nuclear arms.

Centrica holds 69% of Spirit Energy, which is set to release soon results from testing of the keenly anticipated Warwick West well in the UK Continental Shelf potentially moving the needle for an £800mln sale price.

There is also a 20% stake in UK Nuclear (estimated at £1.25bn), although analysts say the limited pool of potential buyers plus the required approval from the authorities make a sale here more problematic.

However, the restart of the Hunterston B power plant in August will help.

“These [disposals] will de-lever the company, take away energy price exposure and make Centrica a pure-play energy services company,” analysts at Credit Suisse said in a note published in August.

In July and after much speculation, the full-year dividend was slashed to 5p, from last year’s 12p but the fact that the yield is still 6% highlights how much uncertainty remains over Centrica’s future.

Earnings are forecast to remain weak until 2022 and paired with four-year restructuring charges of £1.25bn (which are over twice as much as the previous period), will hit earnings hard.

New entrants have grabbed a 30% share of the retail energy market, with predictions this might rise to 50% within four years.

More headaches may also come after the general election next month.

According to Barclays, a Conservative majority is likely to result in a continuation of current trends, while a Labour government would bring up more questions in terms of nationalisation and zero-carbon policies.

“The company still faces regulatory pressure, it still faces customers who find it easier to move supplier than in the past, so it is going to be very difficult for them and we do not know what can happen if a different government comes on 13 December,” Russ Mould, investment director at AJ Bell, told Proactive.

Shares were broadly flat on Friday afternoon, trading at 80.5p.

Quick facts: Centrica PLC

Price: 80.22 GBX

LSE:CNA
Market: LSE
Market Cap: £4.67 billion
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