How British Is BP?

Perhaps less than you think

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Some American anger over the oil spill takes the form of bashing BP as a "foreign" company, a "British" company that fouled up American shores. The Brits, in return, say they're angry because such rhetoric is trashing BP's market value, and because President Obama just forced the company to give up paying dividends this year. (Thereby harming British pensioners who hold stock in the company.)  Beyond these concerns, however, is the objection to Americans labeling BP as "British," when that adjective hasn't been a part of the company's official name for years.

It all begs the question:  just how British is BP?

  • BP Not All That British  "BP is not exactly a foreign corporation running roughshod over American soil," The New York Times' John Collins Rudolf. He points out that "39 percent of the company is owned by American shareholders and six Americans--half the total--sit on its board of directors." In addition, "the company's single largest shareholder is the sprawling asset management firm BlackRock, based in New York City." The third largest is American, too, and "plenty more familiar names crop up further down the list."
  • Could Have Fooled Me  Harry Shearer at The Huffington Post acknowledges that there are points on both sides, and doesn't seem to care much in any case, but points out that there's a certain amount of tension between the British position that it's unfair to call BP British and the British insistence on "the economic importance of BP to ... Britain. The figure floating around suggests that a significant amount of pension-fund income in Britain each year comes from BP." He also points out BP's sponsorship of the London Olympics and the Tate Britain museum.
  • Either Way, British Pensioners Were 'Foolish'  Don Surber of The Charleston Daily Mail responds to the talk about making BP pay being unfair for poor British pensioners:

If you have one-sixth of your money bet on that one company, you were foolish. Every idiot in West Virginia knows you should diversify your portfolio. The British might want to investigate their pension fund managers and find out why so many eggs were placed in that basket. Political pressure? Kickbacks? Sheer stupidity?

I have no idea which it is, but Britain should not have relied so much on a company that seems to be run by a CEO who cannot tie his own shoelaces and a board chairman who charmingly declared the victim's of his corporation's ineptitude "small people."

  • Agreed--But They Won't Be the Only Ones Hit  The Columbia Journalism Review's Ryan Chittum points out that dividends are "not a pension plan," but rather "excess cash paid by corporations to investors, who are owners of the company and are thus responsible for that company's actions--good or bad." He also suggests BP's shareholders are "mostly people much richer than the beleagured 'British pensioner.'" He's not having any nonsense about this or about the company's overall national identity:

[L]et'ss clear up another misimpression: That BP is a British company. Sure, it’s headquartered there, but it’s a very multinational corporation--as much American-owned as it is British-owned. Britshold 40 percent of BP shares, while Americans hold 39 percent. JPMorgan Chase owns 28 percent of BP, while BlackRock owns 8 percent, according to AllGov.

So American pensioners will be hit by this, too, because entities like Calpers hold BP shares. That’s part of the game of capitalism.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.