Business is booming.

Kirin gets tangled in the divestment debate

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Rarely is there good news on the climate front, but the US Senate on Sunday delivered a doozy.

On Sunday, the Senate advanced landmark climate legislation that includes $369bn dedicated to climate and clean energy programmes. “This is the most significant action the US has ever taken to combat climate change,” said Manish Bapna, chief executive of National Resources Defense Council.

The legislation is poised to move quickly through the House of Representatives and President Joe Biden will sign it. Despite all the pessimism about political deadlock in Washington, it still offers surprises.

For today we delve into a less inspiring story: Myanmar, which has tragically slid backwards into oppressive military rule. In late July, Myanmar’s military junta executed four pro-democracy activists, in the latest sign that the country’s democracy has been snuffed out. The military removed Aung San Suu Kyi in a coup last year and she was sentenced to prison again this year.

Part of Myanmar’s liberalisation involved lifting sanctions. Businesses rushed into the last untapped market in south-east Asia. Now, as Tamami’s piece today demonstrates, businesses are caught in a bind about what to do after the coup.

Simon reported last week on UN secretary-general António Guterres’s call for windfall taxes on the oil and gas sector’s soaring profits — which sparked considerable reaction from our readers. We wanted to give you a taste of these comments so please see Simon’s follow-up piece below.

Have a good week. We’ll be back on Wednesday. (Patrick Temple-West)

Kirin shows the difficulty of divesting from conflict-ridden countries

Cans of Kirin Ichiban beer
Human rights groups said Kirin’s exit would be a ‘windfall’ for Myanmar’s military © Bloomberg

Western companies have continued to stream out of Myanmar since the military’s coup in February last year. While the recent execution of four democracy activists was a stark reminder of the military regime’s brutal repression, it is not an easy task for companies to find an ethical way to exit the country.

Japanese beverage company Kirin faces such a challenge. The beer and drink giant entered Myanmar in 2015, a few months before Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won in a landslide election. Since then, it has run Myanmar Brewery (MBL) — which has an 80 per cent share of the beer market in the country — as a joint venture with military-owned Myanma Economic Holdings (MEHL).

Kirin holds a 51 per cent stake in MBL, and MEHL owns the rest. In order to disentangle the relationship with the military regime, Kirin announced in late June that it will sell all stakes to MBL.

Justice for Myanmar’s Yadanar Maung called Kirin’s exit “irresponsible” and warned that the transaction “is a windfall for the Myanmar military and will ensure a continued stream of revenue to finance atrocity crimes”. Maung argued that Kirin effectively left control of the brewery to MEHL, while choosing to sell shares to MBL to avoid possible criticism.

Alysha Khambay, head of labour rights at the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC), also expressed concern about Kirin’s departure from Myanmar. A responsible exit would have involved seeking to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that may arise from the withdrawal by denying funds to the military, engaging with civil society and labour groups, committing to transparency, and remedying any negative impact on workers, Khambay said.

Kirin has been trying to sell its shares to other buyers including US and European companies, but failed to find one by its June deadline amid growing outcry over Myanmar’s condition.

Kirin is not the only company that handed over its Myanmar business to non-western companies. In March, the Norwegian telecoms company Telenor sold one of the biggest carrier businesses in Myanmar to a Lebanon-based investment group.

The exodus of these companies casts a complicated question. Alison Taylor, executive director of ethical systems at New York University Stern School of Business, argued that even while the companies that leave the country might see a boost to their ESG scores, there could be a net negative effect on human rights in Myanmar if western companies “divest” from the country while their businesses continue under owners with lower standards.

But choosing to remain in conflict-ridden nations is getting harder. Khambay said the BHRRC has been monitoring a significant increase in labour and human rights abuse of garment workers in Myanmar since the military takeover. These conditions raise serious questions for companies that continue to operate in Myanmar about their ability to ensure the protection of workers in their supply chains.

Teppei Kasai, Tokyo-based programme officer at Human Rights Watch, said Kirin should have withdrawn from Myanmar before the coup — especially when the 2019 UN report recommended that foreign companies in the country should refrain from doing business with military-tied entities including MEHL.

“A properly conducted human rights due diligence would have shown that having any sort of business relationship with MEHL poses a serious risk,” Kasai said. He hopes other foreign companies would look at Kirin’s messy exit and realise that doing business with the Myanmar military is not worth it. (Tamami Shimizuishi, Nikkei)

Your thoughts on the energy windfall tax debate

We had some interesting reader responses to our newsletter on Friday, which highlighted UN secretary-general António Guterres’s call for windfall taxes on the swollen profits of the oil and gas sector.

“The only proper long-term response is to force the energy majors to invest more in renewables,” wrote Neil Adams, complaining of their “woeful” capital investment in the energy transition despite their surging cash resources.

Charlotte Moore also voiced concern about weak investment in green energy and questioned why shareholders in the companies — who have been soaking up much of those surging profits through huge share buybacks — were not doing more to address the problem.

BP, she noted, is spending $3.5bn on share buybacks this quarter, while it plans to spend only $2.5bn on low-carbon energy in the whole of this year. “Why isn’t there greater noise from shareholders about this? Why isn’t this an issue Climate Action 100+ is campaigning on?” Moore asked, referring to the prominent grouping of institutional investors.

Other readers voiced concern at what they saw as a simplistic stance from the UN head.

Jonathan Green, oil industry consultant and president of the Geneva Energy Forum, argued that if governments wanted to “disproportionately tax the windfall”, they should also be prepared to support the same companies in the event of a future price crash.

Madrid-based Simon Noble said Guterres was “lowering himself to the worst form of populism without any real solutions”. Windfall taxes in response to price rises would lead to squeezed energy supply and higher prices, he wrote. “Now that really would hurt the poor. It’s easy to strike a pose. It’s much harder — and often less popular — to implement solutions.”

We continue to welcome your insights on this and any other of the issues we’ve been writing on — and especially subjects we haven’t covered, but which you think we should. You know where to find us: (Simon Mundy)

Smart read

  • Economists have access to “a battery of data” on people’s incomes and living standards, notes Tim Harford in his latest Undercover Economist column. But someone’s subjective feelings about their economic situation can be just as telling, he observes, citing some intriguing recent research. By studying the gap between people’s circumstances and how they feel about them, Harford writes, “we can hope to make better, more responsive policies”.

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