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Comment: Double-guessing the OFT on Chubb

As the election approaches, the Office of Fair Trading's reputation for unpredictability grows steadily stronger. Attempting to double-guess what the politicians want is producing some perverse decisions. Just ask Liam Strong at Sears, who is still smarting over the OFT's advice that the sale of Freemans should go to the MMC. What then will it make of the pounds 1.3bn bid by Williams for Chubb?

There is obvious potential for difficulty here, for when Williams last bid for Chubb - when it was part of Racal six years ago - undertakings were required that it would sell Chubb's entire UK locks, safes and research business within 15 months. Williams is confident that this time round it will escape largely unscathed; since 1991 there has been greater import penetration and in any case, Williams argues, it is generally accepted that the market definition should be much wider than it was then. The 50 per cent share of the UK locks market that the two combined would have had in 1991 is, as a consequence, considerably lower.

Is the OFT going to buy it? If it doesn't, and Williams is again required to sell off all or part of the UK business, it makes the already toppy price it is paying for Chubb look even fuller. Williams can protest vainly about being mainly interested in Chubb's Far Eastern interests, but surely monopoly value in Britain is a large part of the motive for this deal? If not, why is the normally canny Sir Nigel Rudd paying so much?