Housebuilder Berkeley freezes £455m shareholder return over coronavirus fears

Tom Belger
Finance and policy reporter
Berkeley postponed a £422m return to shareholders. (Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa USA)

Shares in UK developer Berkeley (BKG.L) sank on Wednesday after it shelved plans to hike shareholder returns by £455m because of the coronavirus outbreak.

The planned giveaway, over the course of two years, had been unveiled in January. But the developer said on Wednesday it would be postponed “until there is greater clarity of operational impact of coronavirus on UK economic activity.”

The developer, which builds mainly in London, Birmingham and the south of England, said its board was “keen to stress” its continued commitment to enhanced shareholder returns. The plans will be reassessed in June.

But it highlighted increased uncertainty in the wider UK economic backdrop, “uniquely impacted” by the global spread of the virus. The World Health Organization (WHO) labelled the outbreak a pandemic on Tuesday, with 460 cases in the UK so far.

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The builder said there had been no noticeable impact on its business to date. But it said the ultimate impact was “unknown.”

It added: “There is no recent historic precedent and for this reason it is absolutely right for any responsible business to approach the next six months with a reduced risk appetite and heightened sense of caution.”

But the developer said it remained on track to meet market expectations for its full year ending 30 April. It also expects to still be able to make £3.3bn ($4.2bn) in pre-tax profits for the six years to 30 April 2025.

Berkeley’s shares were trading 6.7% lower at around 8.15am in London, sinking further than other stocks in a fresh market rout on Wednesday. The FTSE 100 (^FTSE) was trading 5.3% lower after US president Donald Trump rattled investors by banning US flights from much of Europe.

Berkeley five-day stock chart on Thursday. (Yahoo Finance chart)