Centrica shares go cold as energy price cap blamed for profit slump

13 February 2020, 08:29 | Updated: 13 February 2020, 20:45

Centrica, the owner of British Gas, has reported a 35% slump in annual profits and laid part of the blame at the government's door.

The company saw its shares fall as much as 17% in early deals on the FTSE 100 when it revealed that its headline adjusted operating profits had fallen to £901m during 2019. The shares ended 15% lower.

A £1.1bn charge linked to its nuclear and exploration and production assets, predominantly due to lower price forecasts, contributed to its woes but it said it was accelerating cost savings alongside the looming sale of its nuclear interests to help compensate.

Centrica chief executive Iain Conn, who announced last summer that he was to leave the business in 2020 following a dire start to the year, said: "2019 operating profit and earnings were materially impacted by a challenging environment, most significantly the implementation of the UK default tariff cap and falling natural gas prices.

"Against this backdrop Centrica delivered growth in customer accounts, higher net promoter scores, significant cost efficiencies in excess of our target, and full year adjusted operating cash flow and net debt within its target ranges.

"As expected, performance during the second half was much improved compared to the first half, demonstrating momentum as we enter 2020."

Wholesale gas prices are around their lowest since 2009 due to oversupply and high storage levels.

At the same time British Gas - the country's largest household energy supplier - has also been bleeding household supply accounts in a market that has faced increased competition to the dominance of the 'big six' firms though the rate slowed to 286,000.

The biggest companies - also including E.ON, EDF, ScottishPower, npower and, following its takeover of SSE, Ovo - were most affected by the cap on so-called standard variable electricity and gas charges.

They came into effect in January 2019 to limit what the then prime minister Theresa May described as "rip-off" charges against those who fail to switch supplier or tariffs.

The cap was adjusted last week when Ofgem, the energy regulator, told firms to cut average standard bills and pre-pay bills by 1.4% from 1 April because of falling wholesale energy costs.

A bright spot for Centrica was that total customer accounts, which include energy supply, home services and solutions in Britain, Ireland and North America, grew by 3%.

David Barclay, senior investment manager at Brewin Dolphin, said of Centrica's performance: "Today's results cap an undoubtedly difficult year for Centrica with drops across the board and an increase in debt.

"The shares rallied following December's election, but have eased back since with weaker commodity prices undermining the short-lived change in sentiment towards the shares.

"The good news, however, is that management has identified that drastic action is required and is duly taking it to make Centrica a smaller, simpler, and more competitive business."