By Shuna Stirling
Despite the political and economic uncertainties of the past year, the Scottish business community has continued to push forward, showing resilience in the face of challenge.
On the positive side, unemployment is at a 25-year low, reflecting increased business confidence and investment for the future, while sectors such as food and drink and tourism have benefited from the low value of Sterling.
However, the economic picture remains mixed. The most recent data published by the Scottish Government show that the economy remains fragile. GDP rose by just 0.1% in the second quarter of 2017 in comparison to the previous three months. Output in the production sector fell 0.7%, and the construction sector dropped by 3.5%, yet the service sector, which accounts for 75 % of Scotland’s economy, grew by 0.7% in Q2.
Uncertainty persists around the potential skills and labour shortage that Brexit could exacerbate in certain sectors, as well as what the regulatory and trade position might be for Scotland and the rest of the UK post-Brexit.
Against this backdrop however, businesses in Scotland have shown an appetite for embracing the opportunities that change will inevitably bring, as well as recognising the need to plan for the challenges.
The business community is showing resilience in the face of challenge, with mid-market and larger deals in the central belt in particular holding up well. There have been several standout transactions, for example the Chinese travel service provider Ctrip’s acquisition of the Scottish unicorn Skyscanner in a deal valued at approximately £1.4bn, and the £370m landmark Aberdeen City Council bond issue, on which Brodies advised.
This pioneering bond issue achieved three separate firsts – it was the first time that a Scottish local authority had issued bonds, the first time that such bonds were listed on the London Stock Exchange, and the first time that a credit rating was awarded to both a Scottish local authority and its bond securities. The bond issue is seen by many in the infrastructure sector as a template for the Scottish Government and other public bodies to raise finance and encourage greater private sector investment in major capital projects.
Inward investment has continued to feature in many transactions, helped by favourable exchange rates, but equally many companies are seeking Brodies’ advice on new workstreams and ways to internationalise their business. Private equity continues to have money to spend, whilst PE buyouts and exits also look set to increase, and there has been an increase in IPO activity across the UK.
With the oil price regaining some stability, there has been an uptick in investment and activity in the north-east, with signs that businesses are hiring again and that some projects which had been on hold are being re-examined. 2017 has seen a number of significant upstream UKCS deals; Brodies has been involved in many of these.
In recent months, Shell sold a significant package of assets to Chrysaor, and INEOS purchased DONG Energy’s oil and gas business, as well as the Forties Pipeline System from BP. The INEOS – DONG transaction has just completed, and the completion of the Shell- Chrysaor and INEOS – BP deals are anticipated before the end of the year, meaning that these assets will shortly be in the hands of their new owners. Often after such events there is a period of transition, a review of activities and ultimately investment in those assets, which is good news for the UKCS.
In addition, Scotland has world-renowned educational establishments, some of the brightest and most talented people in many sectors of importance to the global economy, and products and services exported across the globe. Brexit will present both opportunities and challenges but, come what may, those in the Scottish business community who strive to remain relevant to their client base, whether at home or abroad, have plenty to be optimistic about.
Shuna Stirling is a partner and Head of Corporate & Commercial at Brodies LLP