Business View: Non-stick Cheney faces his big test over Halliburton

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The Independent Online

Four more years. Maybe for George Bush. But what about Dick Cheney?

Four more years. Maybe for George Bush. But what about Dick Cheney?

The hawkish Vice-President has been dogged by one big problem throughout his time in office: Halliburton. Most of the criticism has come because of the contracts awarded to the company - which Mr Cheney quit when he became Mr Bush's running mate in 2000 - under the current administration. This may have been an embarrassment to the Vice-President - bringing accusations of feathering the nest of his friends. But however badly Halliburton performed on those contracts or behaved to get them in the first place, Mr Cheney could rightly say he wasn't there any more.

However, the looming row over the suspicious payments made by a consortium, including Halliburton, to secure a $12bn (£6.5bn) contract to build gas storage facilities in Nigeria is rather closer to home. It is alleged that over $130m was paid to a north London solicitor, who then used the money to oil Nigerian wheels. Three British executives at a Halliburton subsidiary in the UK all had dealings with the lawyer.

Two things make this particularly uncomfortable for Mr Cheney. One is that fraud investigators in four different countries - Nigeria, France, the US and the UK - are now poring all over this arrangement. The other is that it all took place on Mr Cheney's watch, while he was chief executive of Halliburton.

Though investigators can move slowly, I don't see them taking four years to come to a conclusion in this case. Of course, they could find nothing untoward. But if they don't, this will create a nasty smell, which would make it rather tricky for Mr Cheney to remain in office.

Chinese chance for RBOS

China was on British banks' minds last week. HSBC has agreed a crucial joint venture with Bank of Communications - in which it recently took at 19.9 per cent stake - to launch credit cards in the supposedly still communist country. And Standard Chartered - when it wasn't rowing with its largest shareholder over what was said or not said about not selling the stake - was talking about pursuing a similar joint venture with a Chinese bank.

This is a rapidly evolving market. The Chinese government is committed to privatising many of its larger banks, and they are looking outwards for expertise. Most of the world's financial companies, meanwhile, are looking inwards towards the world's most dynamic big economy.

But just opening a branch or two in Beijing and Shanghai is not going to get you very far. So joint ventures must be the way forward.

HSBC and Standard Chartered have the local experience, so it is no surprise they are getting in there first. But this is a good place for banks to go if they have the double issues of slowing domestic growth and more cash than they need for current purposes. That description nicely fits Royal Bank of Scotland, whose managers are too canny to let this opportunity pass.

Nuclear power in a spin

The nudge and wink tendency is pretty active in the nuclear debate at the moment. Here and there, government sources are softening us up for the launch of a large programme of reactor building. The latest bit of conditioning comes from the marvellously named Committee on Radioactive Waste Management, an "independent" body set up by ministers, which has floated the possibility of building 10 new nuclear power stations, even though it is not government policy - yet.

Yet if the Government is serious about all this, it needs good leadership in the industry. The UK's two main nuclear companies, British Energy and BNFL, have been corporate disasters and recent developments do not inspire confidence. At British Energy, a row with investors led the company to delist from the stock market, in effect disenfranchising shareholders who had already suffered enough. At BNFL, there is talk of a turf war between its recently appointed chief executive, Michael Parker, and Lawrie Haynes, who runs the group's nuclear clean-up operation. This business is crucial if BNFL is going to have a leading role in any nuclear future. So it has to have just one leader.