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Veolia Environnement (NYSE:VE) is a global leader in the provision of water infrastructure. It is a massive company, with revenues in 2007 of 32.6 billion euros (about $48 billion) and an after-tax profit of 927.9 million euros ($1.37 billion). It achieved good growth in its June 2008 half-year results, and expects its profits to grow for the full year.

However, the shares have been dismal performers this year, with the company's business hit especially hard by currency movements and the higher oil price. Could one incentive for them be the company's involvement in China? This short article is an attempt to discern - from the meager amount of information that Veolia will release - just what impact its Chinese operations are having on the company's overall business.

It is no secret that China is struggling to modernize its backward water supply systems, and is spending heavily on new infrastructure. In a previous report, I detailed some of Veolia's Chinese operations.

Since 1997 - when Veolia signed a contract with Tianjin Municipal Government to renovate and operate a drinking water plant - it has been building a major presence in China.

It achieved particular success in 2002 and 2003 when it signed a 50-year full-service water contract for Shanghai’s Pudong business district and a 50-year municipal out-sourcing contract for water and wastewater in Shenzhen.

Since then, other successes include:

  • Contracts in 2005 to build two wastewater plants, worth 340 million euros (100 euros roughly equals $150) in the cities of Handan and Urumqi.
  • A 30-year, 800-million euro contract in 2005 to manage water services for the city of ChangZhou.
  • A 30-year, 1.6-billion euro contract in 2005 to manage water services for Kumming City.
  • A 25-year, 580-million euro contract in 2006 to recycle industrial wastewater for Sinopec, China’s leading oil refiner.
  • A 30-year, 1.6-billion euro contract in 2007 to manage water treatment facilities for the Lanzhou Water Supply Company in Gansu Province.

Altogether, Veolia is working on 25 projects for municipal and industrial partners in 19 cities covering drinking water production and distribution, customer services as well as consumer and industrial wastewater treatment. You can obtain more details at the Veolia Water China website.

But what sort of impact is all this having on the company's bottom line? Unfortunately, Veolia will only provide hints.

In its 2007 annual report it noted that it achieved 34.8 percent revenue growth in Asia-Pacific that year, compared to 22.6 percent in Europe and 7.6 percent in North America. However, Asia Pacific contributed just seven percent of total revenues, compared to 44 percent for France and 36 percent for the remainder of Europe.

In the June 2008 half-year press release we learn that:

[In the Water division] in Asia-Pacific, robust growth of 36 percent at constant consolidation scope and exchange rates, was mainly driven by the start-up of new industrial and municipal contracts in China (Lanzhou, Haikou, etc.), by the increase in volumes and the expansion of the Shenzhen concession as well as significant volume of engineering works in Australia (the Gold Coast contract and the desalination contract in Sydney).

However, the company also noted that the division's operating margin fell, due to a big increase in lower-margin work in the Middle East, Asia and Australia.

Good growth, but declining margins and only a modest part of total turnover - it is not the best recipe for stock price appreciation. Veolia is wonderfully placed to reap rewards from an eventual big surge in Chinese water spending. But for the time being, its China exposure looks unlikely to provide much of a boost to the shares.

Disclosure: No positions

Source: Will Veolia Environnement Crack the Chinese Water Market?