Review of the year: The Square Mile

Foreign predators that circle the City
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The Independent Online

Corporate Britain came under siege from foreign predators, the consumer and housing booms petered out, a plague of locusts descended on Germany, pension reforms were proposed and dismissed, nuclear power was reborn, the golden rule was manipulated to destruction, there was an explosion in on-line gaming, it was the year of the £1bn dividend cheque, and last but not least came the curious incident of Sir Gerry Robinson's bid to become Britain's ratcatcher-in-chief.

Why is it, I am sometimes asked, that the stock market goes up when the economy seems to be bombing? The last year has been a case in point. For most of us, it may have seemed like the good times were finally over. After years of strongly rising consumer spending and house prices, things seemed to come to a juddering halt. House price inflation abated to zero, with some property prices showing a sharp fall in value, and consumption all but stopped growing, too.

As the economy slowed, the Chancellor was forced to trim his growth forecast from more than 3 per cent to less than 2 per cent, upsetting his projections for the public finances and forcing him to bend his famous golden rule on financial prudence to breaking point. Some of the more alarmist commentators even began to talk of recession.

The shortfall was variously attributed to the high oil price (the Chancellor), too severe a tightening in monetary policy by the Bank of England (the Chancellor again), and the squeeze on disposable incomes caused by rising levels of taxation (the Governor of the Bank of England, that one).

Whatever the cause, it failed to upset the stock market, which over the last 12 months has had one of its best years on record. The apparent paradox is easily explained. The economy may be slowing, but corporate profits are booming. What's more, though the outlook for the UK may look lacklustre as the economy deals with the aftermath of the debt-fuelled spending binge of recent years, prospects for the international economy are not that bad, with strong Chinese and US growth continuing to sustain a thriving level of international trade and expansion.

Yet there is a third factor, too, behind the surge in stock prices, and that's a sharp revival in takeover activity. One of the defining stories of the year has been the large number of British companies being taken over by foreign predators - from BPB, the world's largest producer of plasterboard, to the mobile phone operator O2, and from P&O to Marconi and Pilkington Glass. Even the London Stock Exchange itself has been under siege from foreign acquirers.

Why so? Well, perhaps most important of all, because it is still possible to buy here in the UK in a way that it perhaps isn't in more protected overseas markets. Britain has a deliberate policy of being open to inward investment, rather than closed.

This has made our companies a natural target for the vast amounts of surplus capital being generated worldwide by the boom in corporate profits. After years of selling by the traditional holders of British equities - the big pension funds and life assurers - the UK stock market also looks relatively inexpensive, compared to others.

But it is not just Britain. Even Germany has ceased to be immune to the value-seeking habits of the City's growing band of private equity and hedge-fund players, leading one leading politician to claim in Biblical terms that the country is falling victim to a plague of asset-stripping, Anglo-Saxon locusts.

One of their number, the inappropriately named Children's Investment Management, even managed to force the Deutsche Borse, stalwart of the German financial establishment, to abandon its bid for the London Stock Exchange and return the money that it would have spent to shareholders instead.

Never far from the headlines, the irrepressible Philip Green once more managed to make a splash, this time by paying himself a £1.3bn dividend from Arcadia, the Topshop retailing chain he bought from the City for a song three years back. The move was pure bravado. "Look how much money I could have made for you," he seemed to be saying to City investors, "if only you had backed my bid for Marks & Spencer." By paying himself £1.3bn, he also topped the previous record, the £1bn dividend cheque Lakshmi Mittal, the steel magnate, had paid himself earlier in the year. If there were an annual award for pure chutzpah, Mr Green would win it year in, year out.

So where do rat catchers fit in with all this? Rentokil Initial is Britain's largest pest control and office services group, but it has been underperforming for years. Enter Sir Gerry Robinson, the famously workshy star of the TV series I'll Show Them Who's Boss, former chairman of Granada, the Arts Council, and much else besides. To begin with, he said he was considering a bid for the company. No bid materialised. OK, OK, so I can't raise the money, Sir Gerry eventually admitted, but how about you pay me £57m in free shares and I'll come and run the company for you?

Thanks, but no thanks, said Rentokil, so Sir Gerry huffed and he puffed, he lobbied the shareholders, he employed an expensive PR man, but still he couldn't blow the house in.

Sir Gerry was philosophical. "Well, you have to have a go, don't you?" he said afterwards.