Arise Sir Booby, here's your award

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The Independent Online
WELL DONE Rocco Forte, Ronnie Hampel, Bruce Pattullo and Ian Prosser. The heads respectively of Forte, ICI, the Bank of Scotland and Bass were awarded knighthoods yesterday. So much for the official New Year's Honours. Now for the Business on Sun day Wooden Spoon awards, the not-so-coveted prizes for the businessmen and women who made the biggest boo-boos in 1994 and so perked up some drab days for us financial journalists - if not for their shareholders, staff or customers.

There was some stiff competition. After all, this was a year when virtually everyone was wrong-footed by the changing direction of interest rates. Then there was the dismal performance of equities and bonds. The housing market remained comatose, and consumers doggedly declined to go out and spend money. With circumstances like these, the potential for disasters, scandals and plain cock-ups was magnified.

So, in no particular order, here are the awards.

The White Rabbit Prize for Lousy Timing goes to Conrad Black, chairman of the Telegraph newspaper group. He slashed the price of his flagship newspaper just a month after selling £73m worth of shares in the company. The share price collapsed, leaving investors livid and the Telegraph short of a stockbroker when Cazenove resigned in protest.

Runner-up in this category was Lord Archer, who bought 50,000 shares in Anglia Television (where his wife is a director) just days before MAI launched its agreed takeover bid, sending the shares into orbit. Fortunately for him, the Department of Trade and Industry decided it had insufficient evidence of insider dealing to take action.

Lord Cairns, chief executive of SG Warburg, takes the title of Most Chastened Banker after an awful year for the group. It began with Warburg's unimpressive advisory work for Enterprise Oil, which somehow failed to capture Lasmo. It continued with an embarrassing profits warning, and ended with jilting by Morgan Stanley.

Michael Heseltine takes the title of Consumer Basher of the Year. The President of the Board of Trade has significantly altered competition policy, favouring big business over consumers. Over the past couple of years the car distribution, compact disc, luxury perfume and ice cream industries have all escaped serious reform. Questionable mergers have also slipped through unchallenged. He at least referred the two bids for VSEL to the Monopolies Commission, but not before Sir Bryan Carsberg announced his resignation as Director-General of Fair Trading.

The medal for Most Insensitive Pay Rise is always hotly contested. But this year there was no contest. Cedric Brown's 75 per cent hike to £475,000, revealed just days after British Gas raised its prices, was a classic. It became even more astonishing when the company started demanding pay cuts for its showroom staff. As chairman of the British Gas remuneration committee, Roger Boissier receives the actual gong.

It was an annus horribilis for new flotations, but the market debutant which sold its new shareholders furthest down the river has to be Aerostructures Hamble, the aerospace components maker. Chief executive Andy Barr therefore wins the Titanic Award forUnsinkable Floats. The shares collapsed to a quarter of their 120p float price, but not before Mr Barr had realised £1.74m for himself. He later retired due to ill health.

There was no question about the winner of the 1994 Fabulous Freebie - awarded to the recipient of the finest executive perk. In May it emerged that Julian Sheffield, chairman of Portals, had been living for 14 years in the company's magnificent Georgian pile, Laverstoke House in Hampshire. Alas, Mr Sheffield had omitted to mention the fact to shareholders.

The Lord Lucan Prize for Convenient Disappearance goes to Jurgen Schneider, the German property developer. He vanished in April leaving debts of DM5.5bn and a letter to his bankers saying his doctors had ordered him to recuperate in an undisclosed location. He hasn't been seen since.

George Soros, the international financier, takes the Nemesis Prize for Investment Come-Uppance. After making more than $1bn betting on sterling's crash out of the ERM in September 1992, his fortunes were reversed after the US Federal Reserve unexpectedlyraised interest rates. He lost $600m on St Valentine's day.

The Horatio Nelson Award for Turning a Blind Eye goes to Andrew Large, head of the Securities and Investments Board. The true scale of the mis-selling of personal pensions finally became apparent: it seems likely that more than half a million people losta minimum of £1bn, probably much more. The SIB put together a package to identify and compensate the victims. But nothing has been done to identify and punish the perpetrators of this financial scandal, some of whom head our largest financial institutions.

Future imperfect FINALLY, a bit of crystal ball gazing . It's a mug's game. But on the understanding that this column is fish and chip paper by tomorrow, here are 10 tips.

Interest rates will rise and keep rising, and by more than the consensus view among economists, who see them ending 1995 only a point above today's 6.25 per cent. Wage pressures will creep in as skill shortages appear.

It will be a difficult year for the stock market. Good corporate earnings will be offset by political uncertainties. The Footsie will end 1995 well below the consensus forecast of 3,500.

It will be a good year for the mergers and acquisitions business. Expect more mergers among the regional electricity companies, broadcasters, brewers, insurers and pharmaceuticals firms. SmithKline Beecham, Glaxo, Wellcome and Zeneca won't all exist as independent businesses by the year-end.

But no one will bid for those perennial targets Fisons and United Biscuits.

The accounting profession is heading for upheaval. KPMG Peat Marwick will finally decide to convert from partnership status to a limited liability company. The others among the Big Six will agonise over whether to follow suit.

Building societies will also have a busy year of courting and being courted. The Halifax-Leeds merger will trigger other deals.

Cable TV will come of age, as investors realise the profits to be made from telephony. More cable companies will float and shareholders will pile in.

The derivatives market will claim a corporate casualty in Britain, which has so far escaped the catastrophic losses of organisations such as Orange County and Metallgesellschaft.

Eurotunnel will be a popular success with travellers, but it will need another refinancing nevertheless.

The Serious Fraud Office will be amalgamated into the Crown Prosecution Service, and mourned by no one.

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