National Enterprises Ltd investors sound the alarm – State companies shaky

I HAVE CONCERNS: NEL shareholder Gokool Seemungal speaks during the annual general meeting on Thursday at the Trinidad Hilton, St Ann's. PHOTOS BY ROGER JACOB - ROGER JACOB
I HAVE CONCERNS: NEL shareholder Gokool Seemungal speaks during the annual general meeting on Thursday at the Trinidad Hilton, St Ann's. PHOTOS BY ROGER JACOB - ROGER JACOB

The shaky performance of state companies under the umbrella of the National Enterprises Ltd (NEL) was a major topic of concern for shareholders who vented their concerns at the group’s annual general meeting on Thursday at the Trinidad Hilton, Port of Spain.

NEL is a holding company which has shares in seven companies, four of which are in the energy sector.

These companies include Trinidad Nitrogen Company Ltd (Tringen), NGC NGL Ltd, Pan West Engineers and Constructors LLC, NEL Power Holdings Ltd (NPHL), the Telecommunications Services of TT (TSTT), and National Flour Mills (NFM).

Ordinary shareholder Gokool Seemungal pointed out to the board the bad financial position of companies under NEL in the energy industry, and noted that another company outside the energy industry may be in dire need of a leadership audit. He feared that as a result, dividends, which were voted on to be at 24 cents per share, may be irregular.

“I noticed that NGC LNG is in a bad financial position. From my estimation, dividends from that company may be a long while coming – maybe ten years,” Seemungal said.

He also raised concerns with the lack of performance from Train 1, which chairman Ingrid Lashley assured had not been written off.

He spoke of his concerns over leadership in light of TSTT’s recent issues with cyber attacks and the resulting sacking of then TSTT CEO Lisa Agard and the controversies surrounding the company at the time.

He also raised concern over the involvement of Government in TSTT.

“When politics is involved in business, they don’t thrive,” he said. “In most of these companies that we have here there is a significant inflow of politics.”

NEL said in its annual report for 2023 that the Minister of Finance held 66.05 per cent of the shares of the holding company.

Lashley pointed out that over 60 per cent of NEL’s investments are in the energy sector, which is seeing significant volatility at the moment. She said the company has a goal of paying out dividends on a quarterly basis, but it also has a mandate to make a payout of 90 per cent of dividends less expenses.

NEL chairman Ingrid Lashley during the AGM. - ROGER JACOB

“We adhere to the philosophy that cash in the shareholders’ hands has greater value than in ours. Sometimes in our committee, we have to weigh our mandate vis-à-vis holding back some of the cash to ensure that we have cash flow for the next quarter,” she explained.

“We manage the investments, primarily, of the Government. We are exposed to the vagaries of that sector. When it is high, it is very high; but when it is low, it is very low. That is why the investments are long-term investments, because (it helps) manage flows over an extended period.”

NEL general manager Charles Maynard, in sharing details of the statements for the FY (financial year) 2023, said while NEL recorded an operating profit of $391 million, up 32 per cent from the prior 18-month period, its net losses amounted to $455.1 million.

“(This) includes the unrealised fair value loss of $822 million from NEL’s portfolio companies,” he said.

Companies such as Tringen fell significantly in 2023, dropping from a value of $2.43 billion in 2022 to $1.46 billion in 2023.

The holding company’s performance for the year ending in March 31also fell prey to volatility of energy sector prices. It recorded a net loss of $133 million as compared to a profit of $447.5 million for the same period the year before.

But both Lashley and Maynard assured that while the company is experiencing bottom-line losses, its retained earnings continue to be robust and short-term investments remain healthy.

Queries on appointments

Shareholders also expressed concern after the announcement of five new board members on Thursday.

The shareholders said they were worried because they had no idea who the new board members were up until the AGM.

Shareholder Riad Khan said,  “We now have five directors that we know little to nothing about. This is an important organisation whose main function is in energy and we have a pilot and someone else. They are ramming this down the shareholders’ throats and we don’t know anything about any one of them.

"And it is insufficient to say that you will give us a brief after the deed is done.”

Another shareholder, Patrick Edwards, endorsed Khan's objection.

“When we look at all that we are doing here in the energy sector, I want to know what extent those people who are directors have any experience over time in the energy sector which is meant for our national development.”

Chairman Ingrid Lashley, who fielded questions from the shareholders, said the board had three directors who had retired at the end of their term, plus there were two vacancies that were filled by the new directors.

She added that the board had representatives of commercial banks, NGC, accountants, investment managers and other technocrats.

“Part of our portfolio is to ensure that the administrative workings and efficiencies of the company are adhered to (and) the Public procurement Act is also adhered to. These professionals have all had exposure, in one way or another, in various fields related to the skill set necessary to fulfil their roles.”

Lashley promised  stakeholders would be given briefs on each of the new board members by the end of the week.

Dokeran weighs in

Economist and former Central Bank governor Winston Dookeran said companies such as NEL are closely connected to the cyclic nature of the energy sector.

He said, “When the energy sector shows a dip in growth rate, as it has done, according to the IMF report, you would expect the companies that operate in that sector would show a cyclical decline and that decline might sometimes be interpreted as lack of performance. But it is lack of performance largely due to the macro-economic situation.”

The IMF’s report on the economy, which went live on its website on Wednesday, noted that the energy sector is at a crossroads, with mature oil and gas fields and consistently declining production. It  said, however, a boost in the sector is expected in the medium term, as projects such as the Dragon gas deal are expected to come on stream.


"National Enterprises Ltd investors sound the alarm – State companies shaky"

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