CITY AND BUSINESS: Deal mania gives a glimpse of the future

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The Independent Online
Forget e-commerce. The news in retailing is that we're going back to the future - to the neo-general store where one place sells all.

For years now, the supermarkets have been quietly moving in on high-street shops - selling everything from Levis to computers along side cans of beans. Now the retailers, in the shape of Kingfisher - owner of Woolworth, B&Q, Comet, and Superdrug - are moving in on the supermarkets.

The real news, however, in the pounds 19bn merger between Kingfisher and Asda is how this underlines Europe's role in the restructuring of global commerce that is under way. The technological revolution still comes to us courtesy of Silicon Valley. The financial nuts and bolts of the cascade of deals are being handled by a small group of Wall Street banks. But the action is here.

Alongside Kingfisher/Asda there's the minuet between BNP, Paribas and Societe Generale. There's a similar banking deal under way in Italy. Elsewhere in Italy, Gucci is tangoing with LVMH and Telecom Italia is up for grabs.

If Telecom Italia and Deutsche Telecom were to merge while the French banking sector radically restructured, that would be enough to make it a banner year in the changing shape of European commerce. But it's only April.

Barclays may also be in play. Last week, Kohlberg Kravis & Roberts, of Barbarians at the Gate fame, hired a second managing director for its new London office, while raising $3bn (pounds 1.86bn) for a buyout fund targeting deals in Europe.

Warren Buffett, the world's sagest investor, did not deny rumours last week that he is about to take a strategic stake in a Footsie 100 company. The word in the City is that he's interested in Marks and Spencer, another retailing target in the wake of its management troubles. But another possibility is that British Airways - whose shares have also been lacklustre - is about to receive a capital injection from Omaha.

Out of all this comes an appendix to the Third Way - a new style of industrial combination. Anglo-Saxon and continental European practices are blending. The watchword remains shareholder value. But the definition of the term has become elastic.

To see how it is evolving, watch the battle for control of the European pay-TV market. On one side: Rupert Murdoch playing his characteristically crafty but go-in-with-all-guns-blazing game. On the other: Canal Plus, Kirch and Mediaset, which have stymied Murdoch by playing a waiting game.

At some point something's got to give. The continentals will come under pressure from their shareholders. Meanwhile, Mr Murdoch is learning a bitter lesson: He cannot blow away the competition in Europe by taking big risks and paying over the odds.

Forget the local excitement of Kingfisher/Asda. As the European pay-TV industry shapes up, we shall get a glimpse of how European dealmaking will be done in future.

Winners in the car wars

FOR MONTHS now we've been reading that the world car industry is in trouble. Then on Friday came the headline "Profits hit record at GM and Ford" - and the penny dropped. Trouble translates into winners and losers. Nissan, Volvo, Chrysler, and - probably - Mitsubishi Motors and Fuji Heavy Industries, which makes Subaru, are likely losers. Renault and Daimler, as well as GM and Ford, are winners.

The question is where this leaves Rover. Deal done, vanished from the front pages or no, the BMW/Rover saga rolls on. It will end dramatically. BMW/Rover will join GM and Ford or Nissan and Volvo. Failure means the Birmingham car industry, worth some 50,000 jobs, goes down the chute. Success means the economy benefits even more than it has from Ford's turnaround of Jaguar.

Is the Government on the case? It is the winner in the BMW/Rover story so far. For a relatively piddling pounds 200m, the sum it has committed to help Rover's turnaround, it has won a guarantee of pounds 1.7bn of further investment from BMW - in effect securing the Birmingham vote at the next general election.

The question is what will the Government and BMW do now to make sure the turnaround works. No doubt, plans are more complete than reported in the press. Still, I fear that the end of the BMW/Rover story will read like a football score: New Labour 1, BMW 0.

FSA worth more than SFA

WHAT'S the current definition of a cheap shot in the City? The target of many is the new super-regulator, the Financial Services Authority, and its chairman, Howard Davies.

The anti campaign is easy to sum up because it's so neanderthal: The City works best with the least amount of regulation, it goes. The FSA, which is consolidating new, statutory regulatory powers in its hands from the old, blundering network of self-regulatory organisations set up in the mid-1980s, is therefore, by definition, anathema. The FSA and its chairman Mr Davies have, according to the anti campaign, gone power mad.

This is simplistic in the extreme. The City needs regulation. When it lapses, as it did in the early 1990s, we get the Maxwell affair, BCCI, Barlow Clowes and so on.

The question is what sort of regulation. The answer, especially given the rising power of Euroland, is regulation that is credible to the international financial community.

The FSA shows the world the City is serious about regulation. It demonstrates that our financial capital is not a covert offshore operation - chancers in pinstripes.

Without the FSA, Gordon Brown would be in a weaker position this weekend trying to win a compromise on Euroland's plan to impose a withholding tax on EU residents' savings and so threaten the City's $2,000bn eurobond market.

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