Friday, 21 December 2007

Merrill Lynch to write-off £8 billion this year

Merrill Lynch, the troubled US investment bank, which is expected to be hit by a total credit crunch write-off of $16 billion (£8 billion) this year, is understood to be in advanced talks with the Singapore Government’s Temasek Holdings over a $5 billion (£2.5 billion) injection of capital. Merrill has been one of the world's biggest sub-prime casualties and is expected to write down a further $8 billion (£4 billion) in the fourth quarter, which could take its total mortgage losses this year to $15.9 billion (£8 billion).

It is understood that this morning, the board of Temasek has been given preliminary approval for the investment in Merrill, although price, timing and regulatory issues have yet to be negotiated. Analysts have suggested that if Merrill’s write downs get much worse, it could sell its 20% stake in Bloomberg, the financial information company, or its 49% stake in BlackRock, the US fund manger. Temasek Holdings is one of two Singapore Government investment vehicles and one of the oldest sovereign funds, with an estimated $108 billion (£54 billion) of assets and owns 15.3% of Standard Chartered, the Asian-focused UK bank.

On Wednesday, rival bank Morgan Stanley said it would sell a 9.9% stake to state run China Investment Corp for $5 billion (£2.5 billion) and last month Citigroup, received a $7.5 billion (£3.75 billion) of fresh cash from the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority. (source: Timesonline)

Thursday, 20 December 2007

Oracle proves everyone wrong

Concerns that slowing economic growth would cause key customers to throttle technology spending, were shucked yesterday by software industry mainstay Oracle. An expansion into specialty software markets and a tight rein on expenses helped Oracle turn in a strong second quarter and issue an upbeat outlook for the third, as net income rose 35%, to $1.3 billion (£650 million) in the quarter that ended November 30Th. Revenue increased 28%, to $5.3 billion (£2.65 billion), surpassing the $5.04 billion (£2.52 billion) expected by analysts. Sales of new software licenses, a closely watched indicator of future revenue, climbed 38%, exceeding Oracle's forecast that the bookings would increase between 15% and 25%.

CEO of Oracle, Larry Ellison, said “Oracle plans to expand into additional industry areas. That's our strategy for growth." Oracle also said revenue would increase between 21% and 24% in the current quarter, which ends in February. Analysts expected Oracle to increase revenues by 18% in the third quarter.

Oracle is the top supplier of database software and an emerging power in business applications, which companies use to forecast sales, plan production schedules, and manage budgets. Oracle has spent more than $24 billion (£12 billion) to buy more than 40 companies since the beginning of 2005 to gain ground in the applications market from leader SAP.

Analyst expected Oracle to fail in buying so many companies as they would fail to integrate all application. But they're just obliterating revenue and earnings expectations by acquiring companies. It proved that Mr Larry Ellison was right yet again as Oracle stock gained 6.6%, to $22.12 (£11.06), in extended trading. As of the close, Oracle shares had risen 21% in 2007, while shares of SAP have slumped more than 4%. (source: Businessweek)

Viacom Inc. said yesterday that it has selected Microsoft Corporation as its internet advertising partner in a five-year agreement initially valued at an estimated $500 million £250 million) that involves online games, shows and movies. Microsoft will help Viacom place advertising on Viacom's U.S. Web sites and be the exclusive seller of its remnant display advertising, or ad space Viacom has been unable to sell.

As part of the deal, Microsoft will also license on a non-exclusive basis long and short-form television and movies from Viacom for the MSN portal and the Xbox 360 game system's online network. Microsoft has also agreed to buy ads on Viacom's broadcast and online networks over five years and help Viacom establish itself as a publishing partner on Microsoft's casual Internet gaming sites.

The Redmond, Washington-based software maker has attempted to make inroads against Google Inc. online advertising business over the past year as each company has raced to purchase new advertising businesses. Yahoo signed a deal in April with Viacom to provide search advertising for 33 of its Web sites, which remains in place. (source: Reuters)

The Competition Commission has made its decision on the BskyB stake in ITV and confirmed that, the satellite broadcaster, should cut its stake in ITV to below 7.5% because the shareholding reduces competition in the all-TV market and works against the public interest.

If BSkyB sold 10.4% of its 17.9% ITV holding at the price of 84.2p, it would crystallise a loss of £205 million. John Hutton, the Secretary of State for Business, has until January 29, 2008, to consider the Competition Commission's report and announce final decisions, but in publishing the findings early he has indicated he is minded to accept its possible remedies.

The move re-opens the door for Virgin Media and other potential suitors to attempt a merger with ITV. As the market opened, shares in ITV rose by 1.2p to 84.2p on possible takeover speculation, while BSkyB shares were virtually unchanged.

The watchdog decided against forcing BSkyB to sell the whole of its 17.9 per cent stake as demanded by Virgin Group, saying that a partial sale was less intrusive and that with a holding below 7.5% Sky would be unable to materially influence ITV's strategy.

A statement from BSkyB said that the broadcaster was considering the contents of the Commission's report carefully. It said: "The next phase of this process lies with the Secretary of State. We will be making representations to him in due course." BSkyB snapped up the stake in ITV for £940 million, or 135p a share, in November 2006 when NTL, its pay-TV rival, was trying to mount a takeover.

BSkyB, where former chief executive James Murdoch replaced his father Rupert as non-executive chairman this month (News Corporation on taking over Dow Jones), has always insisted that it had not broken any merger rules when it acquired its ITV stake, which it called a long-term investment. (source: Timesonline) - Heathrow voted worst airport (article on BSkyB ITV shares), Virgin Lost 40 000 customers & Sainsbury's Bid dropped (includes aticle on Virgin & BskyB sales)

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

New bidder for Northern Rock

A newcomer to save Northern Rock, Bradford & Bingley, has approached the stricken bank about buying assets. According to reports, the buy-to-let firm and mortgage lender is not looking to buy the troubled Newcastle-based bank outright, but could become part of a private-sector rescue package.

Two preferred bidders, Virgin Group and Olivant, are vying to take control of the stricken bank as discussed in earlier articles and press releases. Northern Rock has an attractive portfolio of mortgage assets which Bradford & Bingley would be happy to hold.

Bradford & Bingley, which has been plagued by concerns over its liquidity since Northern Rock's problems emerged, has, on paper, a more risky portfolio of lending since more than half of its business is in the buy-to-let market and 20% of its lending is on self-certified mortgages. Adding Northern Rock's quality assets to Bradford & Bingley should give ballast to the buy-to-let specialist's loan book.

Last month Bradford & Bingley went some way to easing fears over its liquidity by selling £4.2 billion of loans, which gave it a substantial cash cushion in preparation for further tightening of credit markets. Northern Rock's shares rose 6.6% this morning to 91.7p in early trading, while Bradford & Bingley's climbed 0.5% to 258.75p. (source: Timesonline) - Northern Rock dreams fading, New Bid for Northern Rock by Olivant, Northern Rock offers below value, Final bids for Northern Rock today, New player in Northern Rock bid, Virgin pushes forward in takeover, BAA must halve queueing times to avoid fines, SAB Miller to buy Royal Grolsch, BHP Billiton's offer rejected, News Corporation on taking over Dow Jones

Sports Direct today reported a 70% slump in first half profits and failed to name a new chairman for the troubled sportswear retailer after a seven month long search. The company, has issued two profit warnings since its flotation in February and blamed the decline on bad weather and the England football team's failure to qualify for the European Championships.

Profits for the six months to October 28 fell from £70.1 million to £21.2 million as sales fell by 7.1% to £668.1 million. Since floating in February, Sports Direct's shares have fallen in value by 70% to a current all-time low of 84.25p.

Sports Direct has been without a non-executive chairman since May when David Richardson, the former finance director at Whitbread quit after differences with the board.

Sports Direct refused to comment on its search for a chairman or its stake in Umbro, which is being pursued by Nike. Mike Ashley, Sports Direct's owner, added he had no intention of taking the company private. (source: Timesonline) - Northern Rock dreams fading, Alitalia SpA in sight for Air France-KLM, Sports Direct to block Nike takeover

The internet auction house formerly known as QXL Ricardo has been agreed to be bought by Naspers, Africa's largest media group. The sale for Tradus (new name for QXL), has been set for an all cash deal £946 million, which is £18 per share.

Having weathered the dot-com bust of the late 1990s, the FTSE 250-listed group has since been embroiled in a series of long-running legal disputes over the ownership of key assets, bitter shareholder wrangles and failed bids. The takeover will also unlock a £123 million payout to three managers of Tradus’s Polish operations.

The group of Polish executives, led by Arjan Bakker, was accused by the main board of what was then QXL Ricardo of wresting control of the Polish business "fraudulently", through an improper share issue. A three-year legal battle followed and that was finally settled with the fast-growing Polish unit, which also includes operations in the Czech Republic, Ukraine and a Hungarian joint venture, being reintegrated into the parent company.

EBay, the US online auction giant, which is currently planning a revamp of its own business, has held talks several times over the years with Tradus. Shares in Naspers fell as much as 11% in Johannesburg, with investors concerned over the agreed price.

The Naspers proposal represents a 19% premium to share price before Tradus revealed that it had received an approach, on November 7. Ahead of the approach being made public, Tradus traded at about 63 times earnings for the previous year, compared with about 26 times for eBay.

The company, which operates sites in Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Ukraine and Russia, is also is diversifying from trading & auction sites into classifieds advertising, price comparison sites and online payment services.

When the group received a failed bid from Florissant, a private equity group, in 2005 it was valued at less than £30 million. At its peak, the former dot-com darling, founded by the journalist Tim Jackson, was briefly worth more than £2 billion. Florissant, which holds a 15% stake, will join Izaki, the Israeli investor group, with 14%, in also receiving a windfall profit from the sale to Naspers.

Tradus recently reported a 165 per cent jump in first-half pre-tax profit, to £3.68 million. Naspers, meanwhile, has been expanding overseas. The group, which owns South Africa's largest daily newspaper, the Daily Sun, and the pay TV outfit MultiChoice, has been building up its operations in sub-Saharan Africa, China and Russia. (source: Timesonline)

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Velocity Interactive Group - New Investment Company

Two high-profile media and Internet executives will join with venture fund ComVentures to form a new investment company with $1.5 billion in assets. The two high-profile executives will be, former AOL Chief Executive Jonathan F. Miller and former Fox Interactive Media President Ross Levinsohn. The partnership with ComVentures will form a new group focused on investing in Internet and media companies, and will be announced today. The firm will be named Velocity Interactive Group.

ComVentures, Palo Alto, California, has focused on early-stage investments in communications equipment and services and the current fund of ComVentures's will move to the new company. It is providing the $1.5 billion (£750 million) in funding. Partners at the new firm said they will try to raise more money next year.

The firm is looking for investments in both early-stage companies and larger growth companies. Investments will be as small as $500 000 (£250 000), though Velocity expects investments in a company could grow to between $5 million (£2.5 million) and $30 million (£15 million). Velocity also plans today to announce its first investments. They include NDTV Networks, an Internet video and television producer in India. In the U.S. the firm has funded three companies that include Fabrik, a Web site consumers can use to store and manage their videos, photos and other digital creations.

Mr. Miller was chief executive of Time Warner Inc.'s AOL division from 2002 to 2006. Mr. Levinsohn formed News Corp.'s Internet division in 2005 and spearheaded the purchase of the social networking Web site Mr. Levinsohn left News Corporation. in late 2006. (source: The Wall Street Journal)

Nintendo, makers of the sought after Wii video games console, will miss out on an estimated $1.3 billion (£639 million) in sales this Christmas by failing to meet soaring global demand for its Wii video games console.

Production has been hit by shortages of components and it insists it is doing all it can to meet demand. Some analysts believe, however, that the company privately welcomes tight supplies because it wants to delay market saturation to prolong interest in the console.

Nintendo has raised production targets several times in recent months and now plans to ship 17.5 million units globally this year, up from 14 million. It said that demand “has been higher than we could ever have anticipated and the company is withdrawing planned television advertising for the Wii because of severe shortages of the games console in the run-up to Christmas.”

Stock market investors appear to believe that Nintendo can maintain its success. Over the past two years the group’s shares have risen fivefold to make the company Japan’s third most valuable quoted business. However, last month Sony’s PlayStation 3 beat the monthly sales of the Wii in Japan for the first time, signalling that the battle between the two next-generation consoles may yet have further to run. Sony sold 183,217 PS3s in Japan in the four weeks to November 25, against sales of 159,193 for the Wii. (source: Timesonline)

Air France-KLM sought to deal a death blow to the rival airline bidding for Alitalia, Italy's loss-making national carrier, by unveiling a £530 million plan to refurbish the carrier's fleet. Yesterday, analyst saw the Franco-Dutch giant as the heavy favourite to win the 49.9% stake that is being auctioned by the Italian government. Air France is bidding against Air One, a domestic Italian carrier. Under Air France's plan, it would raise the £530 million through the issuance of new shares, which it would use to update the interior of Alitalia's planes and to launch a marketing plan to attract international clients back to the carrier. It would also replace the company's old Boeing 767s and McDonnell Douglas MD80s with new aircraft.

The Italian government is expected to make its decision today. If a definitive winner is chosen, it would bring to an end a long and sorry chapter for the Italian government, which first signalled its intention to sell its stake in the carrier a year ago. The process has run into problems repeatedly, most recently in October when the last of the previous bidders dropped out of the auction over objections to onerous terms that were being imposed by the government. (source: The Independent) - ArcelorMittal to by China Oriental Group Co., Alitalia SpA in sight for Air France-KLM

Monday, 17 December 2007

Arriva outperforming Virgin Rail

Arriva boasted today that the sacking of Virgin from the long-distance CrossCountry train network has led to an immediate and dramatic improvement in performance. After a decade of disappointments since privatisation and despite the introduction of smart Voyager trains, Virgin Rail - a joint venture between Sir Richard Branson and Stagecoach - was relieved of CrossCountry on 11 November 2007.

In a thinly veiled attack on previous management, Arriva said today: 'With 86.3% of services arriving on time over the first four weeks of operation, that is substantially better than the equivalent services run in the same period last year.'

Arriva has not been immune from hashing up in the past, having been sacked from its North of England train franchise in a maelstrom of strikes and poor services, but it claims things have changed. According to the most recent National Rail Trends 2007-8 performance report, it is confirmed as the UK's most improved rail operator with 92.3% of its services arriving on time compared with 85.7% for the same period last year.

The company, which also runs buses in London, said it is on track to make the £121 million pre-tax profits expected by analysts. (source:

Tata, is to be named as the preferred bidder for Ford’s Land Rover and Jaguar brands in the next few days as the Indian Company is trying to bring the world’s cheapest car to the South Asian country. Tata is the front-runner in a race that includes Mahindra & Mahindra, a fellow Indian car group, and One Equity, the American buyout group.

Tata is set to roll out a 100,000 rupee (£1,200) “People’s Car” next year. Ratan Tata, the chairman, has said that he wants the cut-price vehicle to help poorer Indians to upgrade from motorcycles, which currently transport entire families, to cars.

If Ford chooses Tata, it will be an historic moment for the car industry, marking the first time that a major Western car group has been bought by an Indian company. Ford, the US carmaker is expecting to make up to £1 billion from the sale, although it is expected to keep some form of equity interest in the devolved business.

Tata, a conglomerate whose interests range from salt mining to software engineering, has been gradually expanding in the UK, where it owns the Tetley tea brand, and it is now the world’s fifth-largest steelmaker after buying Corus. Jaguar and Land Rover together employ 15,000 in Britain. It is understood that Tata plans to retain all three of the UK factories, at Solihull and Castle Bromwich in the Midlands and Halewood on Merseyside.

Ford sold Aston Martin earlier this year. The company is struggling to return to profitability after record $12.7 billion (£6.3 billion) losses last year. Tata’s image as a mass-market supplier took a knock at the beginning of the year during protracted negotiations over land for its small car plant in West Bengal, which ended in violence. (source: Timesonline) - Acer & Tata in today's news

Friday, 14 December 2007

Northern Rock dreams fading

There are only two interested parties left in the dying dreams of Northern Rock - Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group and Olivant, the firm led by former Abbey National banker Luqman Arnold. Even that might be over optimistic as Olivant wants to bypass the formal process, which has a February deadline. It wants its executives in place by Christmas and thinks delay would further damage Northern Rock.

Olivant's interest is fading, and it was probably no coincidence that Adam Applegarth, the Rock's chief executive, was pushed out very early yesterday. His departure was an admission that Olivant is right about one thing: it is time to get real. It is also time to drop the pretence that this is an auction. Nobody has ever proposed buying Northern Rock with all its assets and all its liabilities. It has been a competition to see who could best safeguard taxpayers' money.

Solutions to Northern Rock – Olivant’s proposal is to repay £10 billion to £15 billion of the £25 billion immediately and this gap between the figures illustrates the degree of wishful thinking running through the plan. The Virgin solution - on the sketchy public details - doesn't sound much better. Its management has no experience of running a bank with a £110 billion mortgage book, and the Virgin name has made little impact on the financial services industry in 10 years of trying. When the taxpayer is on the hook for £25 billion, those facts can't be ignored.

Things actually got worse last night and The Virgin Group was stripped of its preferred bidder status in the battle for Northern Rock after rival Olivant threatened to walk away unless it was put on an equal footing with Sir Richard Branson’s company. Northern Rock agreed to the measure at a meeting with representatives of the Treasury, the Bank of England, the Financial Services Authority and the bidding consortium, which is led by Luqman Arnold, the former chief executive of Abbey. In exchange, Olivant agreed to remain in the auction until at least mid-January.

In a preclose statement yesterday, the Rock unveiled a £281 million write-down on sub-prime mortgage investments, including a £118 million hit on structured investment vehicles (SIVs) and a further £32 million from higher-risk SIV-lites. It did not change its September forecast of underlying pretax profits in 2007 of between £500 million and £540 million.

Meanwhile, Andy Kuipers, Northern Rock’s sales and marketing director, yesterday replaced chief executive Adam Applegarth with immediate effect but the move failed to comfort shareholders, who saw the bank’s stock plunge more than 13%. (source: Guardian & Timesonline) - New Bid for Northern Rock by Olivant, Northern Rock offers below value, Final bids for Northern Rock today, New player in Northern Rock bid, Virgin pushes forward in takeover, BAA must halve queueing times to avoid fines, SAB Miller to buy Royal Grolsch, BHP Billiton's offer rejected, News Corporation on taking over Dow Jones

The Controversial Sports Direct founder and Newcastle United football club owner, Mike Ashley, faces a legal threat to his attempt to acquire Les Ambassadeurs, the London casino.
Although Mr Ashley’s estimated £95 million offer is believed to be the highest bid on the table, it is understood that Las Vegas Sands, the American gaming behemoth, is claiming it had previously agreed a deal at about £75 million, and the owner of Las Vegas Sands and one of the world’s richest men (£13 billion) is threatening to sue. The reason for sueing is because Mr Sheldon Adelson was understood to be the original bidder at £75 million.

Mr Adelson is also believed to have contacted rival bidders through his lawyers, Mishcon de Reya, claiming he has a binding verbal agreement to buy Les Ambassadeurs and threatening legal action against them if they attempt to gazump him.

In the early stages of the sale process analysts were tipping Harrah’s Entertainment, another Las Vegas gaming giant and the owner of LCI, the casino’s former owner. However, Harrah’s is itself the subject of a recommended $27.8 billion (£13.9 billion) takeover by Apollo Management and TPG Capital, and the buyout firms are said to have vetoed a purchase of Les A in the light of tough trading conditions in the UK.

Las Vegas Sands is believed to view Les Ambassadeurs as a strong brand that could be rolled out as part of Mr Adelson’s ambitious expansion plans. In addition to the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino and the Sands Expo and Convention Center in Las Vegas, it runs the Venetian Macao Resort Hotel and the Sands Macao.

Las Vegas Sands declined to make any comment, while Mr Ashley could not be reached for comment. (source: Timesonline) - Alitalia SpA in sight for Air France-KLM, Sports Direct to block Nike takeover

Thursday, 13 December 2007

ArcelorMittal to by China Oriental Group Co.

The world’s largest steelmaker, ArcelorMittal, agreed to take over China Oriental Group Co. to gain a foothold in the fastest-growing steel market, valuing the company at a minimum of HK$18.6 billion ($2.4 billion or £1.2 billion). ArcelorMittal offered at least HK$6.355 for all the China Oriental shares it doesn't already own and said it plans to raise its stake to 73.13% from 28%.

The takeover may allow Chief Executive Officer of ArcelorMittal, Lakshmi Mittal, to bypass laws that restrict overseas control of steelmakers in an economy that expanded more than 11% in the first three quarters of the year. China has accounted for 65% of global growth in steel production in the past 10 years, and is now four times the size of the U.S. steel industry.

``Strengthening our position in the fast-growing Chinese market is one of the important elements in ArcelorMittal's strategy,'' Mittal said today. “We plan to develop China Oriental into a leading producer of heavy sections, focusing on leadership, quality and sustainability.''

Mittal is however still waiting for approval of his 2006 accord to buy a 38% stake in state-owned Laiwu Steel Corp., after the Chinese government last year tightened scrutiny of acquisitions by overseas companies. ArcelorMittal already holds about 29% stake in Hunan Valin Steel Tube and Wire Co. and has 12% of a Shanghai- based venture with Nippon Steel Corp. and Baoshan Iron & Steel Co. that supplies sheets to the automotive industry.

Hong Kong-listed China Oriental makes billets and strips, producing more than 3 million tons of crude steel a year. It posted a 769 million yuan ($104 million) profit from sales of 6.65 billion yuan for the six months ended June 2007. China Oriental will resume trading in Hong Kong at 2:30 p.m. local time after being suspended since Nov. 7, when they closed at HK$5.40. (source: Bloomsberg) - Merger would not affect ArcelorMittal

The internet search engine, Microsoft, has agreed to buy the privately owned British company, Multimap. Multimap is snapping at the heels of Google, the dominant online mapping service. The deal, understood to be worth slightly above $50 million (£24.4 million) and will further expand Microsoft’s fast-growing footprint in online and mobile advertising.

It will also deliver a $25 million (£12.5 million) windfall to Sean Phelan, the Multimap founder, who owned a majority stake in the business that he founded 12 years ago. Multimap’s 120 staff will share a further $13 million (£6.5 million), with an unnamed angel investor who holds the remaining 25% receiving a similar amount.

Multimap’s consumer-orientated website attracted more than four million unique users in the UK last month. It placed the site second in the British rankings, sandwiched between the market-leading Google Maps, which attracted about 11 million users last month, and Google Earth.

Multimap also operates in the commercial market, where it supplies online maps for websites run by other businesses. Clients include Ford and Royal Mail. The business-to-business service traditionally has delivered the lion’s share of Multimap’s revenues, but the consumer site is growing more quickly, Mr Phelan said.

The company is expected to post revenues of about £12 million this year. It made profits of nearly £900,000 in 2006. (source: Timesonline)

Air One was expected to be named at the preferred bidder for Alitalia by The Italian Government last night. Air One, owned by Carlo Toto, the Italian entrepreneur, faced competition from Air France-KLM. Air One was said to be the preferred bidder partly because it offered an “Italian solution” and partly because Air France-KLM wanted to downsize Milan Malpensa Airport.

Mr Toto said, “Obviously, some think that the Italian solution is the best right now”. However, Anpac, the pilots’ union, said that Air One’s business plan offered “no real European integration for the future Alitalia.”

AP Holding, the parent company of Air One, said that it had the support of four banks – Intesa Sanpaolo, Nomura, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs. Reports said that AP Holding was ready to buy the Government’s 49.9% stake in Alitalia and try to buy out minority shareholders. Air One had guaranteed that it would maintain Alitalia’s two national hubs, at Rome and Milan, and up-grade international routes, with 90 new aircraft for short and medium-haul flights and 20 for long-haul services. It also planned to cut 2,750 jobs in a staff of 19,000. Air France-KLM said that it would cut jobs if its bid was successful.

Alitalia, which has been hit by strikes over restructuring plans and loses €1 million (£719,000) a day, has been trying to find a buyer for nearly a year. Maurizio Prato, the chairman, has indicated that he favours the Air France-KLM offer, but union leaders said that “if Alitalia were to go to a foreign company we would, in effect, be the only big European country not to have a flag carrier”. (source: Timesonline) - Alitalia SpA in sight for Air France-KLM

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

As reported a couple of weeks ago in the entrepreneur, BHP Billiton Ltd., the world's biggest mining company, is finally studying the next steps in its takeover approach for Rio Tinto Group, which continues to reject talks on the $137 billion (£68.5 billion) proposal. Rio Tinto Group is the world's third-largest mining company and asked U.K. regulators yesterday to force BHP Billiton Ltd. to formalize its position. BHP Billiton Ltd. wants to create a company that would be the biggest producer of energy coal, copper and aluminium.

BHP Billiton Ltd is under pressure to increase its offer. Perennial Investment Partners Ltd., Argo Investments Ltd. and Baker Steel Capital Managers LLP say the three-for-one stock offer is too low. BHP Billiton Ltd needs to come back with an offer of 3.9 shares for every Rio share to get Rio to engage. BHP Billiton Ltd’s CEO, Marius Klopper (pictured) said in a speech for presentation to investors, ``We continue to believe that our proposal is compelling and in the interests of both sets of shareholders,'' (source: Bloomberg) - BHP Billiton's offer rejected

Pat Shanahan, Boeing's man on the hot seat offered customers yesterday and Wall Street the makings of a credible plan to keep the troubled 787 Dreamliner on track to meet its revised schedule.

But investors will have to fly on the faith of Shanahan's commendable record of fixing some of Boeing's most intractable problem programs. While offering insight into how he is making operational changes since the program schedule was reset in October, Shanahan, vice-president and general manager of the 787 program, and Boeing Commercial Airplane CEO Scott Carson offered few new details on the issues that matter the most to the 787's fate: namely, how to get from zero to six airplanes a month by 2009 and how exactly to prod some struggling suppliers such as Vought Aircraft to step up to the daunting challenge. Other key questions relate to weight reduction, aircraft certification, and suppliers being able to adapt quickly to engineering changes. (source: Business Week) - BP fined for a record amount (Article on Dreamliner delays)

Competition Commission’s Business and Enterprise Secretary, John Hutton, is expected to publish within the next week the Competition Commission’s conclusions from its inquiry into the legitimacy of BSkyB’s shareholding in ITV.

Mr Hutton can reject any penalty on Sky proposed by the commission, but is bound to accept the regulator’s in-principle findings — as long as they are purely on competition grounds. Yesterday, the commission inquiry team met to consider the case and will now finalise its report in the hope of delivering it to Mr Hutton this week.

The regulator is expected to repeat its provisional conclusion that Sky’s 17.9% ITV stake is too high and in breach of competition law. Mr Hutton then has up to 30 days before he publishes the commission’s report. Sky is 39.1% owned by News Corporation. The level to which the commission wants Sky to sell down is not clear and Sky has said that it was willing to put a 3.9% holding into an independent trust. (source: Timesonline) - Heathrow voted worst airport (article on BSkyB ITV shares)

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Lemsip & Dettol brands sold to Reckitt Benckiser

The owner of brands such as Lemsip and Dettol, Reckitt Benckiser, took its first steps into the US healthcare market yesterday by unveiling a £1.1 billion all-cash deal to buy Adams Respiratory Therapeutics, a Nasdaq-listed pharmaceutical company. Adams, markets two cough mixtures in the US, Mucinex and Delsym, which together generate annual sales of more than $322 million (£157 million).

Reckitt will pay $60 a share for the company, representing a 37% premium to Adams' closing price of $43.68 on Friday. It is the Anglo-Dutch group's second major acquisition in the over-the-counter pharmaceuticals sector in the past two years. Last year, the group bought Boots Healthcare International, which includes the Strepsils and Disprin cold remedy brands, for £1.93 billion.

Mr Becht, chief executive, said the deal would be immediately earnings enhancing, adding that the group expects to achieve "substantial" cost synergies from the acquisition, although there would be a one-off restructuring charge of $60 million. (source: The Independent)

Reuters is in discussion with The New York Times about supplying business news to the American newspaper, after reaching a similar agreement with its sister title the International Herald Tribune .

The tie-ups are designed to augment both titles’ business coverage, in an attempt to fend off the competitive threat from The Wall Street Journal , which is due to be acquired by News Corporation this week.

From January, the International Herald Tribune will feature five or six pages of business coverage under the brand Business with Reuters and part of the newspaper’s website will be co-branded.

Rupert Murdoch, the chairman and chief executive of News Corporation, plans to broaden The Wall Street Journal’ s focus so that it better competes with The New York Times on its home turf, and to invest in its international editions to compete with the International Herald Tribune abroad. (source: Timesonline)

Monday, 10 December 2007

Alfred McAlpine to be sold

Alfred McAlpine is to be sold to Britain’s second biggest construction company, Carillion, for £572 million to create one of Britain’s biggest support services and construction companies. It is understood that Carillion will pay 558p per share for London-based McAlpine.The offer was down from its previously agreed 585p a share proposal. News of the deal sent McAlpine shares up 27p to 518p, while Carillion shares were down 22.25p to 341.25p at 9.15am.

The purchase, which creates a company with annual sales of about £4.7 billion, will give Carillion direct access to raw materials used in construction and generate annual savings of £30 million. The deal will also boost Carillion’s position in other support services, adding McAlpine's strength in financial services and retail to its existing focus on education, health, defence, transport infrastructure, telecommunications and insurance.

Carillion said it had already received favourable responses from McAlpine directors and investors representing 17.9% of the issued shares in the company. In August, McAlpine announced plans to split into two listed companies, effectively demerging support services from its construction activities, which it planned to complete during the spring of next year.

McAlpine had previously rejected two approaches from Carillion, one in October priced at 570p per share and the other in August at 560p. It rebuffed both proposals because it said it believed they materially undervalued the company. (source: Timesonline)

Drawing up this year’s list for businessman of the year has provoked a furious debate among The Sunday Times business staff, and there were verbal fisticuffs over the omission of, for example, Emilio Botin, chairman of Banco Santander, the fast-growing Spanish bank. This has been the year when the gift of perfect timing has separated the great from the merely good. Our finalists have demonstrated the knack of putting themselves, and their organisations, in the right place at the right time.

Botin got the best of the biggest financial-services deal of all time, when a consortium led by Royal Bank of Scotland bought ABN Amro, the Dutch bank, for €71 billion (£51 billion). While Botin was a junior partner in the consortium, he managed to sell on ABN’s Italian assets for a tidy €2 billion profit.

Sergio Marchionne, leader of the remarkable turnaround at Fiat, was a contender, as was Katsuaki Watanabe, president of Toyota, which is on the brink of overtaking General M as the world’s No 1 carmaker.

John McAdam, chief executive of ICI, who was a finalist last year, only narrowly missed out again for doing a great job in selling the chemicals group to Dutch rival Akzo Nobel.

The Times now invite you to have your say. Please e-mail them at and let them know what you think. Your opinions will help the judges choose from an impressive field.

Lloyd Blankfein, GOLDMAN SACHS
The Goldman Sachs chief executive grew up in a tough Brooklyn neighbourhood and won a scholarship to study law at Harvard. When he joined the famed investment bank, he wondered how he would ever survive. But survive he did, and prospered, reinventing himself and becoming one of the key architects of the bank’s own reinvention.

Goldman has moved from a firm that made money by giving advice on deals, to doing deals itself. And it called the credit crunch better than rivals, paring back sub-prime exposure early in the year and hedging most of what remained.

Clive Cowdery, RESOLUTION
This year saw the battle of the “zombie” funds – pools of life-insurance funds that have stopped to write new business, but live on to service current policy-holders.

The big winner was Clive Cowdery, founder and chairman of Resolution, one of the first and largest of the zombie players, who will walk away with £151m after selling the group to rival Pearl.

Less than four years ago, Cowdery had the vision to set up Resolution with £500,000 of his own money. The firm pulled off a number of deals, then merged with Britannic and embarked on a frenzy of ever-bigger transactions, becoming a FTSE 100 company worth £5 billion.

This year he proved a pragmatic dealmaker. Having agreed a merger with Friends Provident, he flushed out Standard Life and then Pearl, netting another £200m for shareholders.

This will be the first Christmas in three years that Clara Furse, chief executive of the London Stock Exchange, has not spent in the heat of a takeover battle.

She has made a name for herself in the City for saying no. Over the past two years, she has seen off approaches ranging from Australia’s Macquarie and Germany’s Deutsche Börse to America’s Nasdaq.

But that in itself does not make her a candidate. What does is her nimble-footedness in ensuring that despite the multiple takeover distractions, the LSE has enhanced its reputation as a global centre for equity fundraising.

With the acquisition of Italy’s Borsa Italiana, Furse has retaken the initiative and if she does want to pursue further tie-ups with other exchanges, it will now be of her own volition.

Chris Hohn, TCI
When Chris Hohn, who heads the TCI fund, blocked Deutsche Börse’s bid for the London Stock Exchange last year, he was dubbed a “locust” by the German establishment. But even his admirers were stunned by his target this year: ABN Amro, the pillar of the Dutch establishment.
In February, Hohn dropped a letter to ABN’s chairman dissecting the bank’s failings, lambasting its “terrible” shareholder return and demanding the bank break itself up or sell itself. While the Dutch establishment spluttered, the letter kick-started the biggest financial-services takeover battle of all time.

Steve Jobs, APPLE
The Apple boss won three years ago, and he is back in the running again, despite some opposition. “You can’t put Jobs in,” moaned one member of the business team. “The iPhone isn’t the iPod.”

There are a lot of customers who would beg to differ.

Jobs makes the final 10 because the iPhone, a device that incorporates a mobile phone, music player, web browser and personal organiser, represents the fifth major industry (personal computing, desktop publishing, film animation, and music retailing were the four before mobile phones) he has shaken up in a remarkable business career.

This fact is pointed out in this month’s Fortune magazine, which makes Jobs No 1 in its annual list of the most powerful business people in the world.

Finian O’Sullivan, BURREN ENERGY
Burren Energy began 12 years ago in O’Sullivan’s garage in Hampshire. Ten days ago it agreed a £1.7 billion takeover by Eni, the Italian oil group, with the possibility of a higher counter-offer from KNOC, South Korea’s national oil company still to come.

This rapid accumulation of wealth was based on O’Sulli-van’s willingness to go where others would not – resource-rich but uncomfortable places like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Turkmenistan.

John Paulson, PAULSON & CO
The sub-prime crisis brought financial hardship and woe to most major financial institutions, but success and a fabulous pay-day to hedge-fund managers like John Paulson, who runs Paulson & Co from offices in Madison Avenue, Manhattan.

Last year Paulson told investors he thought the American sub-prime mortgage market was going to crash, and raised $2 billion for two funds that would bet that way. By the end of September, the two funds were worth $8 billion.

It is estimated that his firm’s reward for such confidence will eventually be between $2 billion and $4 billion, making him the highest paid hedge-fund manager in history.

Ratan Tata, TATA
The head of one of India’s largest and oldest business empires had a breakthough year in his bid to go global. He paid $6.7 billion to win control of Corus, the Anglo-Dutch steel group that contains the rump of British Steel.

The deal made Tata Steel an international force, and demonstrated to the world that Ratan Tata was prepared to be aggressive in his move offshore.

Next on the radar are Jaguar and Land Rover, the British car marques, for which Tata Motor is the leading bidder.

The chief executive of British Airways has a lower profile than his predecessor, the charismatic Sir Rod Eddington, but has tackled the difficult issues that have dogged the airline for years.

The biggest of these was the company’s hefty pension deficit, which has (hopefully) been dealt with through a funding deal laboriously hammered out with trustees and unions.

Walsh has also confronted some of the company’s old-fash-ioned working practices in the run-up to a move next year to a new base at Heathrow.

BA now has a fair chance of meeting its long-held goal of a 10% profit margin, and Walsh is even looking at growth, with a big new aircraft order, expansion at London City airport anda plan to launch transatlantic services from the Continent.

Wendelin Wiedeking, PORSCHE
This year Wiedeking, Porsche’s maverick boss, will earn about €70m, making him probably the best-paid industrial executive in the world.

His remuneration has sparked political controversy in Germany, but you can’t deny he is being rewarded for success. Not only has Porsche brilliantly widened its niche sportscar market, with sales growing from 12,000 a year 15 years ago to 100,000 now, but it has increased earnings by taking a large hedge bet on the weakening dollar.

What’s more, as a result of a power play executed against the backdrop of manoeuvring between two of Germany’s most famous industrial families, the Porsches and the Piechs, Porsche is now poised to take majority ownership of Volkswagen, a much larger car company and possibly the only one with a realistic chance of challenging Toyota’s dominance.

2006 Lakshmi Mittal, chief executive of Arcelor Mittal
2005 Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the founders of Google
2004 Steve Jobs, chief executive of Apple
2003 Sir Ken Morrison, chairman of Wm Morrison
2002 Eliot Spitzer, New York attorney-general

Friday, 7 December 2007

News Corporation on taking over Dow Jones

With a week to go before the News Corporation, owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch, takes control of Dow Jones & Company, there are already management changes under way at the top of Dow Jones. Richard F. Zannino, Dow Jones’s chief executive, will leave the company after staying for a time to help with the transition, to be succeeded by Les Hilton, executive chairman of News International. News International includes News Corporation’s British newspapers: The Times of London, The Sunday Times, The News of the World and The Sun.

Executives at both companies say there will be a broader sweep of the upper echelon at Dow Jones in the next few weeks, both to eliminate duplication and to make way for Mr. Murdoch’s people. Mr. Zannino’s departure was announced by the company yesterday, a week ahead of the shareholder vote that is expected to seal the deal. He will stay on through a transition period.

Mr. Zannino said the choice to leave was his; others at Dow Jones were divided as to whether that was so, while some said the decision was mutual. Mr. Murdoch has a history of putting his loyalists atop newly acquired operations. Mr. Zannino is also in line for a financial windfall when he leaves, under a change-of-control provision Dow Jones adopted last summer. His exit package is worth more than $26 million (£13 million), including $3.4 million (£1.7 million) in severance pay and nearly $7 million (£3.5 million) in shares, according to estimates from James F. Reda & Associates, a consulting firm.

Mr. Zannino, 49, who became chief executive almost two years ago, is widely credited with making Dow Jones run more efficiently, and he led a shift toward electronic media and away from ink and paper. Under him, Dow Jones bought and the half of the Factiva archive service that it did not already own, and sold several small newspapers. News Corp is acquiring Dow Jones for about $5 billion (£2.5 billion) in a deal that is expected to close next week.

In an interview yesterday, Mr. Zannino said his legacy would be “getting us all to think like a media company rather than a newspaper company; viewing The Wall Street Journal as a franchise, as opposed to a newspaper.” (source: The New York Times) - New Bid for Northern Rock by Olivant

News Corporation has confirmed that James Murdoch, the chief executive of BSkyB, has been appointed as its new chairman and chief executive for Europe and Asia. Mr Murdoch will step down from his role as chief executive at BSkyB but will become non-executive chairman and succeed his father, Rupert Murdoch, who has stepped down as a director of the broadcasting group.

He will report to Peter Chernin, president and chief operating officer of News Corporation.
James Murdoch will be replaced by Jeremy Darroch, who is the chief financial officer of BSkyB. Sky is 39.1% owned by News Corporation. Commenting on the appointment, Rupert Murdoch, chairman and chief executive of News Corporation, said: "James is a talented and proven executive with a rare blend of international perspective and deep, hands-on experience in improving operational results. This is the right time to align our operations in Europe and Asia under new, structured group leadership."

The decision to move Mr Murdoch, who will become chairman of News Corporation’s European and Asian businesses, clearly positions the 34-year-old as the most likely successor to his father's leading roles at News Corporation, the media group that also owns the MySpace website and the Fox film studio.

James Murdoch, who was previously a member of News Corp's board between 2000 and 2003, said today: "I am excited to be rejoining News Corporation in this new role leading News Corporation's businesses across Europe and Asia, and I am delighted to continue working with the exceptional team at Sky in my new role as Non-Executive Chairman and as a Director." (source: Timesonline) - BSkyB buys Amstrad

RAB Capital, one of Northern Rock's largest shareholders, has confirmed it is backing Olivant's rescue bid for the stricken bank. Luqman Arnold's Olivant Advisors today said it has received non-binding letters of commitment from five institutional Northern Rock shareholders, who own 23% of the stricken bank, casting doubt on the future of Virgin Money's rescue offer. RAB, holder of 6.6% of Northern Rock, has confirmed it is supporting the former Abbey National chief executive's bid.

SRM Global, the largest shareholder in Northern Rock with over 9%, was unavailable to comment on whether it was backing Olivant's bid as Olivant has unveiled its proposal on the deadline for submitting bids to acquire the troubled mortgage lender which yesterday admitted for the first time that it has borrowed £25 billion worth of emergency funding from the Bank of England.

It also emerged last night that JC Flowers, which had been a serious contender to rescue Northern Rock, has pulled out of the race because it was unable to structure a deal that could both the Government and shareholders happy.

Olivant's proposal includes raising funds of up to £650 million through a rights issue. In contrast, Olivant said today it would issue the shares "at or around" the prevailing market price. Shares in Northern Rock hovered around the £1 mark again today after falling 1.46% to 101.5p. Richard Branson's Virgin Money, which is Northern Rock's preferred bidder, is also proposing raising £650 million through a rights issue but at a heavily discounted 25p.

Olivant said Northern Rock's total £25 billion in debt would be repaid to the Bank of England by the end of 2009 "through active operational management, accelerated through external market financing". The investment group said £10 billion to £15 billion of the £25 billion debt would be repaid after completion of the rights issue.

Olivant also confirmed it would retain the Northern Rock brand and that Mr Arnold be parachuted in to become Northern Rock’s executive chairman, with Kirk Stephenson, Olivant’s chief operating officer, taking up a role as a non-executive director at the bank. Virgin has indicated that they will change the Northern Rock name to Virgin. (source: Timesonline) - New Bid for Northern Rock by Olivant, Northern Rock offers below value, Final bids for Northern Rock today, New player in Northern Rock bid, Virgin pushes forward in takeover, BAA must halve queueing times to avoid fines, SAB Miller to buy Royal Grolsch, BHP Billiton's offer rejected

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Alitalia SpA in sight for Air France-KLM

Alitalia SpA is said to be in sight for the world’s biggest airline, Air France-KLM Group, as it will try and revive the unprofitable carrier that the Italian government is trying to sell. Air France is one of three candidates to buy Alitalia, the Paris-based company said in a statement today. Deutsche Lufthansa AG of Germany and Italy's Air One may also present offers before today's deadline. Rome-based Alitalia will select a partner for exclusive talks by the end of the month.

Alitalia hasn't reported an operating profit in nine years and is losing more than 1 million euros ($1.5 million) a day. ``No one is going to pay a premium for Alitalia,'' said Gianmaria Bergantino, head of asset management at Bank Insinger de Beaufort NV in Rome, who owns Alitalia convertible bonds. ``Whoever buys it is buying it for its airport slots.'' He spoke before the announcement was made.

Air France-KLM has sent a non-binding expression of interest, it said today's statement. The company already owns about 2% of Alitalia, which was initially slated to join the 2004 merger between the French and Dutch airlines. The Italian carrier was excluded because of mounting losses. (source: Bloomsberg)

Despite trying for months to find a new non-executive chairman for Sports Direct is still looking for this corporate vacancy that is proving impossible to fill. The role would hand the lucky candidate a competitive salary and a once-in-a-life-time opportunity to etch their name in the City’s memory for years to come. Senior headhunters said yesterday that the task could prove extremely difficult, given the challenge of working alongside Mike Ashley, the tycoon who founded the business with one shop in 1982.

Rivals also point to another looming problem – the state of its Sports World and Lillywhites stores. John David Group said on Tuesday that it believed shoppers were getting “tired” of the discount approach taken by Sports Direct, which has made its name on the back of a “pile ’em high, sell ’em cheap” strategy.

Shares in Sports Direct have plunged since listing in March at 300p in a float that handed Mr Ashley a £929 million windfall. A profit warning last month pushed the stock to a new low of only 93.25p. Yesterday they closed at 100p. Despite his vast experience as a retailer, Mr Ashley has admitted that he was “very green” when he floated the business and that he found being in charge of a public company “challenging”.

Analysts believe that Mr Ashley could soon buy the business back. He has a near 68% stake and Sports Direct will ask investors for the right to buy back more shares at an extraordinary general meeting in two weeks. (source: Timesonline)

PepsiCo is set to deal a blow to Apple’s dominance of online music and the music labels’ best efforts to fight piracy. Pepsi is preparing a year-long marketing campaign in the United States in which up to a billion digital music tracks will be given away. Based on the prices charged by Apple, the largest online music retailer, the offer could be worth up to $1 billion (£490 million).

Crucially, the drinks group is believed to be teaming up with, the online retailer vying with Apple’s iTunes music store, to distribute the giveaway tracks. It is also thought that the music will be distributed free of the digital rights management (DRM) technology that limits where legitimately downloaded tracks can be played.

There is speculation that PepsiCo’s huge distribution of DRM-free music could compel other labels, such as Warner Music and Sony BMG, to use the format. This year Steve Jobs, the chief executive of Apple, said that he would drop DRM “in a heartbeat”, but claimed to have had his hands tied by the labels.

Pepsi’s promotion – the latest shot in its long battle with Coca-Cola – is to start in February, in concert with the Super Bowl, one of the biggest advertising magnets in the world. It echoes a giveaway in 2003, in which Apple and Pepsi offered 100 million free tracks Amazon’s music ambitions need a boost. Since it began its download service in September, it has captured an estimated 3% of the market. By contrast, Apple accounts for about 80% and in July said that it had sold more than three billion songs.

PepsiCo is planning to place tokens on five billion drink containers. Consumers will have to collect five tokens to qualify for free tracks. In theory, the campaign could flood the market with $1 billion of free music (Apple charges 99% per DRM-free track), but redemption rates on these types of offers are usually low, at about 2%.

Despite Apple’s success, online music sales still account for only a tenth of the total market and are not yet growing at a rate to compensate for the decline in revenues from CDs – sales of which have fallen by about a fifth in America this year. (source: Timesonline)

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

New Bid for Northern Rock by Olivant

The former Abbey chief executive consortium (Olivant) led by Luqman Arnold, is expected to table a revised bid for Northern Rock by the end of tomorrow. It is understood that Olivant is to be in talks with both Northern Rock and potential funding banks as it hammers out the final details of its offer. This comes after revised bids from JC Flowers and Cerberus, the American private equity firms, despite Virgin Group winning preferred-bidder status in the auction of the troubled Newcastle-based bank.

The bank was forced to seek emergency funding from the Bank of England after it failed to raise cash in the wholesale markets as a result of the credit crunch. Meanwhile, staff at Northern Rock have been handed a £200 Christmas bonus and are also understood to have received a 2% one-off sum and 4% salary increase.

Shares in Northern Rock closed down 6p at 103p yesterday. (source: Timesonline)

News Corporation, parent company of The Times, bought the leading American religious website Beliefnet yesterday for an undisclosed amount in an effort to tap the faith market in a country where 88% of the population say that they pray regularly.

Beliefnet, formed eight years ago, attracts 3.1 million monthly users. It was sold by its founder Steve Waldman, who wanted to find a big media company willing to provide investment that the standalone business could not afford.

News Corp is perhaps best-known for its newspapers, with titles such as The Sun and the New York Post, and mass entertainment through the 20th Century Fox film studio. However, the media group also owns a handful of faith-based businesses, including Zondervan, the largest Christian publisher in the United States, and Fox Faith, which makes faith-based films.

Appealing to a Christian audience is big business in the United States, where films such as Walt Disney’s The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe are marketed, at least partly, at a Christian audience. Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of Christ earned $611 million (£295 million) worldwide despite an uncompromising narrative, of which $370 million (£135 million) was taken in the United States.

The website will be absorbed into News Corp’s Fox Entertainment Group, owner of the Hollywood film studio, rather than its Fox Interactive Media division, which is the group that includes MySpace, the social networking website. (source: Timesonline)

Founder of the five-year old Nectar card programme, Sir Keith Mills, set himself up for a £161m payday yesterday after agreeing to sell the customer loyalty company he started. Aeroplan, operator of Air Canada's frequent-flier programme, agreed to pay £350 million ($700 million) in cash for Loyalty Management Group, in which Sir Keith holds a 46% stake. Most of the company's management, including the chief executive Alex Moorhead, will stay at LMG, though Sir Keith will step down as chairman.

Warburg Pincus, the private equity firm that granted £25 million ($50 million) in start-up funding for the business five years ago, will pocket about £117 million for its one-third stake, with the remainder going to certain top managers who held the balance of the private company's shares.

Nectar runs loyalty programmes with partners including J Sainsbury, BP, Barclaycard, and Debenhams. (source: The Independent)

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Ambramovich to acquire 40% of Highland Gold

Russia’s richest main, Mr Roman Abramovich, will acquire a 40% interest in Highland Gold Mining Ltd for $400 million (£200 million) by subscribing to a new share issue in Russia's fourth-largest gold miner. Highland Gold, which produced 3.2% of Russia's gold last year, has seen its London-listed stock plummet to a record low this year after falling short of production targets and the disposal of a mine where 25 people died in a fire in 2006.

The financial and political clout of the billionaire helping Highland Gold Mining Ltd to fulfill expansion plans and acquire more assets in Russia has helped Highland's stock rose on Tuesday to its highest in over seven months. Gold prices hit a 28-year high last month as oil rose toward the $100 (£50) milestone and the dollar sank to record lows against the Euro. Russia has gold reserves second only to South Africa's, but ranks only sixth in terms of output. (The Guardian)

The world’s biggest Finland-based mobile handset maker, Nokia, is set to go head-to-head with iTunes to offer free music downloads to buyers of its new music phones. Nokia has announced a deal with Universal Music to provide the label's releases, and aims to ship more than 180 million music-enabled phones in 2008.

The company's intention to expand into music will be of concern to Apple, which dominates the digital music market with its iTunes online download store. Nokia’s executive vice-president and general manager for multimedia, Mr Anssi Vanjoki said: "Even if you listened to music 24 hours a day, seven days a week, you would still only scratch the surface of the music that we're making available," The company added that it was in discussions with a number of other record labels regarding the use of their material.

Meanwhile, at its annual investor day Nokia forecast that the overall market for mobile phone sales would grow by around 10 per cent next year. Last week the world's number two mobile maker, Samsung Electronics, estimated market growth of 12%. Nokia added that it expects margins of 20% from its phones and services business over the next couple of years and aims to increase market share.

Shares in Nokia fell around 4% on the margins announcement, with investors expecting a more positive forecast from its key business. (source: Timesonline)