Branson’s collateral, ‘crazy losses’ and paying to give oil away

Planet Business: Anyone for an acre of Necker Island?

Image of the week: Black gold?

Remember when the price of crude oil was more than $100 a barrel? Probably not, as that was six years ago, and who can even remember six months ago? Here, the setting sun provides a visual metaphor for the 2020 global economy, while smoke rises from the LyondellBasell refining plant in Houston, Texas. Demand for oil has collapsed as a result of "the great pause", but that hasn't stopped oil-producing nations from pumping out a glut of the stuff. Then, in the kind of business disaster Cliff Barnes could only have nightmares about, the US oil industry ran out of places to store it, meaning they had to pay to give it away. As traders holding certain contracts panicked in the race to avoid accepting delivery of physical barrels of "black gold", the price of West Texas Intermediate plunged into negative territory for the first time in history.

In numbers: Branson’s pickle


Acres on Necker Island, the Caribbean haven owned by billionaire Richard Branson, the Virgin Group chairman. In a move sure to be tempting to Boris Johnson, Branson has now offered this tax-free residence as collateral for the UK government loan he desperately wants to save Virgin Atlantic.


€5 billion

Branson’s personal wealth is estimated to exceed this much. Alas, as he noted in a public letter on Monday, it isn’t “sitting as cash in a bank account ready to withdraw”. Still, even a loan “repaid on commercial terms” might not look like a brilliant use of taxpayers’ money.

€2.9 billion

Long-term debt carried by Virgin Australia, which skidded into administration this week after the Australian government refused the airline a loan. “This is not the end,” vowed Branson.

Getting to know: Pierre Andurand

French hedge fund manager Pierre Andurand (43) is known for taking successful bets on his specialist subject: oil. Andurand, who has spent much of 2020 betting against crude oil prices, confirmed to the Financial Times this week that his funds made money by shorting US crude on Monday, though he took his profits before the price went negative. As for everybody else, well, "we are going to hear about crazy losses", he tweeted. Andurand once dreamed of being an Olympic swimmer, and was indeed part of the French junior swimming team in the 1990s, but failure to qualify for the 1996 games led him down an academic path that saw him recruited into the heady world of commodity trading. His sport of choice is now kickboxing: he's the chairman and majority shareholder of kickboxing league operator Glory Sports International and owns a London mixed martial arts club called Urban Kings. In kickboxing as in oil, it's all about timing your strikes.

The list: Shutting up shop

Retro clothing and accessories label Cath Kidston is the latest retailer to have suffered a final-straw effect from the Covid-19 shutdown. But which other big names are in retreat?

Neiman Marcus. The US department store operator is in deep trouble, mirroring the woes of British department store chain Debenhams, which has placed its Irish subsidiary into what trade union Mandate is calling an "opportunistic" liquidation.

Laura Ashley. Provisional liquidators have been appointed to the vintage-inspired homeware and clothing chain's five outlets in the Republic.

Oasis and Warehouse. The two fashion chains owned by failed Icelandic bank Kaupthing are in administration in the UK, with its Irish subsidiaries also sadly destined for liquidation.

Arcadia. The Topshop empire, owned by billionaire Philip Green, narrowly avoided administration in 2019, but its finances leave it exposed to an extended period of restrictions and a new round of negotiations with landlords have begun.