LSE logs solid earnings as merger collapse feared

The London Stock Exchange stunned markets when it revealed that it would not meet a key EU antitrust demand to gain clearance for Deutsche Boerse merger

The London Stock Exchange logged solid results and ramped up its shareholder dividend Friday amid worries over the likely collapse of its merger with Deutsche Boerse.

The results were published just days after it emerged that LSE's blockbuster tie-up with the German giant was on the brink of failure.

Operating profit grew five percent to £427 million ($524 million, 500 million euros) in 2016 from the previous year, the group said in a results statement. Revenues jumped 14.4 percent to £1.515 billion.

Net profit or earnings after taxation more than halved to £152 million due to a sizeable loss on the disposal of its Russell Investment Management division.

However, the LSE hiked its annual shareholder dividend by a fifth to 43.2 pence per share in a move it said reflected the "strong outlook" for the business.

The LSE stunned markets last Sunday when it revealed that it would not meet a key EU antitrust demand to gain clearance for the Deutsche Boerse merger.

In a shock announcement, the LSE had said it was "highly unlikely" it would meet the European Commission's recent request to divest its majority stake in MTS, which is a trading platform for government bonds in Italy.

- 'Very difficult situation' -

"The Commission's very recent request for the group to divest MTS, a systemically important regulated business that sits at the heart of our Italian operations, put us indeed in a very difficult situation,” said Chief Executive Xavier Rolet on Friday.

He added: "In the event that this transaction did not successfully conclude, then we are back to square one."

Nevertheless, the LSE insisted Friday that it "continues to work hard" on its proposed merger with Deutsche Boerse, which manages the Frankfurt stock exchange.

The blockbuster deal was unveiled to much fanfare last year and backed by both sides even in the face of Brexit.

The EC's competition probe meanwhile remains ongoing and a decision is expected by April 3.

The company -- which runs the London and Milan exchanges -- had offered last month to sell clearing house LCH Clearnet SA to European competitor Euronext if the EC approves the merger.

"We will await ... the decision of the competition authorities," added Rolet on Friday.

"It is up to them to consider the remedies that we have offered and make the decision in due course."

Questioned about the group's alternative plans, should the merger collapse, he told reporters:

"There isn’t a sort of plan B, C, D or E; it's just a continuation of our strategy. Whilst we are doing this … we are assembling a portfolio which is increasingly valuable."

- Third time unlucky -

It is the third time that the Frankfurt and London stock exchanges have tried to tie the knot, following two unsuccessful attempts in 2000 and 2005.

In early afternoon deals on Friday, LSE shares slid 1.53 percent to 3,095 pence on London's falling FTSE 100 index, as dealers digested the earnings.

"Sometimes engagements should not end in marriage," noted ETX Capital analyst Neil Wilson.

"In the case of LSE, its continental forays have not ended well and perhaps with Brexit looming the chance for a cross-channel merger has come and gone."