A year in review: Fortunes that soared or sank
A defining feature of Luxembourg's businesses life in 2021 was the disruptions to normal life and expectations caused by Covid-19. The disease shaped what people spent money for, how much they saved and how companies saw their markets change in response. Here's a look back at some of the good, the bad and the ugly.
The winners have ranged from Luxembourg’s own steel giant ArcelorMittal to 100-employee medical supplies firm Praxisdienst in the village of Wecker.
ArcelorMittal posted record profits as a world that shut down in large measure during 2020 snapped back into construction and manufacturing once vaccines became available in 2021.
Besides big prices on steel, the company’s division that sells iron ore mined from ArcelorMittal pits enjoyed a huge run-up in prices. The strong earnings led the company to reward shareholders with repeated stock-buyback programmes, meaning the Mittal family's 36% ownership led to a €600 million cash flood by August that kept increasing through the year despite the group losing its rank as the world’s largest steel company for the first time in two decades.
Could a daily rapid test for Covid-19 be a requirement before starting the work day? That was a trend the head of Praxisdient, whose revenues have soared 500% since the pandemic started, told the Luxembourg Times.
Separate from the pandemic's effects, family-owned SMS bought the Luxembourg state's 41% ownership of Paul Wurth, the 150-year-old factory-design and engineering company, to prepare for a coming push for less-polluting steel. The sale was driven by SMS's desire to better integrate Paul Wurth as it gears up for a future market in which the steel companies which are its customers are expected to demand the design and construction of plants powered by hydrogen to sharply cut carbon emissions. The government's sale included a promise that the German company will keep about 330 jobs and the company's headquarters in the Grand Duchy for at least 15 years.
State-backed Cargolux posted its largest-ever annual profit in 2020 and high air freight prices which stayed stratospheric in 2021 suggested the cargo airline would repeat with another year in the black.
The massive profits Cargolux assembled provided a much-needed cash infusions to its neighbour at Findel airport, struggling national passenger airline Luxair. The national airline lost €155 million in 2020 and was forced into a couple of rounds of job cuts as customers were prevented from flying or just declined. But because Luxair owns 35% of Cargolux, it collected €30 million from the dividends the cargo airline paid its shareholders. The big cash infusion was nearly four times Luxair's pre-pandemic annual profit of €8.1 million in 2019.
Luxair was told it was expected to fight its way out of its financial troubles, with Transport Minister François Bausch telling the Luxembourg Times in September that a government bailout was not on the cards.
Bausch did try to use his influence on the European level in a failed attempt to get the European Commission to set only the lowest possible airport usage requirement for the winter travel season. Bausch proposed Luxair and other legacy airlines only be required to use 30% of their reserved slots without losing their long-term claims to upstart rivals. The rules affect which airlines can fly in and out of Europe’s busiest airports and at what times. The result is that Luxair either increases its passenger load so that at least the flights don't lose money or cancel flights and risk losing business-friendly time slots at airports like Geneva, Milan or Paris that play a key role to its business strategy.
Like other European airlines, Luxair also coped with how to keep its planes flying and passengers safe when its labour unions and some staffers refused vaccinations. The airline said in November that it was not tracking which of its pilots or cabin staff had been vaccinated despite a law that allows all Luxembourg companies to require employees to show they are protected against the virus through the CovidCheck system. Airlines in Germany, Belgium, Finland and the Netherlands said they are similarly barred from staff vaccination information, though some had found ways to avoid organisational snags. Employees at airlines in Hungary, Switzerland and Latvia were required to prove immunity from Covid-19 because those countries have laws allowing workplace vaccine mandates.
Other losers were the 220 workers at Liberty Steel in Dudelange, who spent most of the year in doubt about their future paychecks even though demand and prices for steel had soared. The factory sent home about 75% of its staff to be supported with state unemployment aid because owners GFG Alliance lacked money to operate fully. GFG's main lender collapsed in March, leaving the company struggling to stay solvent and out of reach of its creditors. Britain's Serious Fraud Office announced it launched an investigation into GFG Alliance over suspected fraud and money laundering.
The Luxembourg steel jobs were tied to a Belgian court's creditor protection for two Liberty Steel plants in the country that are operationally tied to Dudelange. The court eventually approved a restructuring plan in November that would include a money infusion from a Belgian government entity, leaving labour unions to discuss what happens next.
While Luxembourg-based satellite communication firm Intelsat spent the year negotiating out of bankruptcy, home-grown satellite pioneer SES sent its biggest and most advanced unit in the company's history into outer space. The SES-17 will enable passengers and crews to use WiFi aboard planes and in distant places and cost more than €500 million to build, launch and operate. The spacecraft marked a milestone and a huge bet for Société Européenne des Satellites that its future lies with providing almost-instant data from anywhere to anywhere in the world.
The cluster of smaller space businesses Luxembourg has worked to foster in recent years may be showing signs of take-off as they develop and patent more innovations. One problem executives at space companies like OQ Technology and Kleos Space cite is the general lack of risk-taking by lenders or investors, leading them to seek venture capital primarily in the United States.
That was another theme in 2021 – American takeovers.
One of Luxembourg's most successful tech startups was put in the hands of a US-based CEO less than three years after it was taken over by an American private equity firm. Talkwalker in July replaced Luxembourg native Robert Glaesener, its CEO for the past 11 years, with technology industry veteran Tod Nielsen. Glaesener will chair Talkwalker's board of directors, the company said.
US-based Blink Charging spent €20 million to buy a network of electric-car charging stations in Luxembourg and surrounding countries, one of the world’s strongest markets for plug-in vehicles. Blink bought Antwerp’s Blue Corner, which has more than 7,000 charging ports installed across Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and France.
From bad to worse
A lingering question in Luxembourg's economic future is whether a proposed Google data centre that could soak up vast amounts of the country's water and electricity will be built as more potential legal obstacles are swept away. Environmentalists lost two court challenges last summer that sought to slow or stop the vast warehouse of computer servers that they argue could require 8% to 10% of the country's limited supplies. Google has refused to disclose its water needs, arguing in earlier court proceedings that would enable its rivals to figure out important details of its business plans.
One of Luxembourg's handful of medical testing laboratories, and the only one still locally owned, told Luxembourg Times and then a court that the government steered a big contract to a rival.
Laboratories bidding for Luxembourg’s large-scale testing programme needed technology used only by the firm that won the contract, a requirement rivals say shut them out from gaining a job possibly worth more than €150 million.
The heads of the BioneXt medical analysis laboratory and Ketterthill Laboratories said they were shut out of bidding for a piece of more than €150 million in work because government officials added a very specific condition to contracts for its ambitious plan to find unknown carriers of the Covid-causing coronavirus. Companies were required to have a type of test produced by Fast Track Diagnostics, a spin-off from medical testing lab Laboratoires Réunis, the group that ultimately won the work. Neither Ketterthill nor BioneXt had the equipment needed to analyse the test results, CEOs of both companies said.
Parliament quickly set auditors to work to find out why the government did what it did and where the money to pay for the testing came from since it had not been budgeted previously. BioneXt sued the government in September, claiming the winning lab was handed an unfair advantage by official dictate and was awarded contracts without public tender.
Also in court, this time in London, was Luxembourg-based mining company Eurasian Resources Group. The outcome of the weeks-long trial involving ERG's Eurasian Natural Resources Corp. could determine whether Britain's Serious Fraud Office can ever bring charges against the corporate subsidiary it has been investigating for eight years.
The issues involve what happened after an insider whistleblower claimed ENRC acquired African mines producing an essential ingredient in every smartphone worldwide due to bribery and corruption. The company claims the corruption was on the part of the London lawyer hired to help negotiate with the SFO. The lawyer betrayed the company and told the fraud office and journalists things that kept the case going and increased what he charged ENRC. The company denies it committed any offense to warrant an SFO investigation.
In August, ENRC sued one of the journalists writing about the company's African assets, and in the court filing the company's lawyers dropped a juicy detail. Three major accounting companies declined to work with ERG in early 2021 because they were wary of ENRC's reputation as described in the news reports, the company's lawyers said.
Luxembourg's reputation for efficient management certainly suffered reputational damage as lawmakers, interest groups and family members started asking whether so many people in elderly and care homes should have died from Covid-19.
Luxembourg health authorities lost track of important details about who was dying – for example how many of the victims were in care homes - because they were overwhelmed trying to manage the crisis that had raged non-stop for a year, Health Minister Paulette Lenert told Luxembourg Times in March.
Her admission came after her ministry initially blamed the World Health Organization for the country's inability to share data from the standardised form Luxembourg doctors completed after each Covid-19 fatality. Their reports were not generated electronically, meaning that someone had to enter the information into computer systems manually for analysis by just a handful of state health officials, Lenert said. “It's a very old fashioned way to do it", she said.
Almost half of all Covid-19 deaths in Luxembourg during 2020 were residents of 40 group homes for the elderly, the Health Ministry said in January. Government data showed most of the care home deaths occurred late in 2020 - well after home operators and officials said they took more precautions. Opposition politicians demanded the resignation of Family Minister Corinne Cahen, whose duties include operations of retirement homes.
They didn't get it. Instead, the parliament ordered a study by an outside group selected for the purpose. Their findings in July largely avoided assigning responsibility for why Covid-19 cut a deadly path through predictably vulnerable nursing and care homes. The report determined that although Luxembourg leaders knew that retirement home residents ran a high risk of dying from Covid-19 they mostly left decisions about proper safeguards in the hands of staff running the homes.