Money: Bankers talk telephone numbers

SANTA is being very generous to the boys and girls of City merchant banks this season, handing out bonuses running into billions of pounds. But my, haven't they worked for it. Now Vodafone has finally launched its formal offer for Mannesmann, the value of takeover bids across Europe will have exceeded pounds 750bn in the past year.

Worth more than pounds 80bn, the Mannesmann deal is the largest hostile bid launched in world history. The largest hostile bid for a British company also continues over Christmas, with Bank of Scotland and Royal Bank of Scotland squabbling over NatWest in a pounds 24bn fight. Financial services, telecoms and pharmaceuticals dominated the market during the year.

In continental Europe, France was rocked by a three-way bid war in which a tie-up between Societe Generale and Paribas was broken up by a hostile bid from BNP. In the resulting fall-out, BNP bought Paribas but was blocked from taking control of SocGen, which remains one of Europe's favourite bid targets.

In Italy there was an even more complex deal, in which Olivetti bought Telecom Italia, the former state-owned phone company. En route Telecom Italia tried to tie up a deal with Deutsche Telekom. When that failed, it consoled itself by buying Britain's One2One.

Another German suitor for One2One, Mannesmann, re-acted by paying pounds 19.5bn for Orange. This angered Vodafone - which had happened to buy Airtouch of the US for pounds 38bn earlier this year - so much that it was forced to bid for Mannesmann. If Vodafone wins Mannesmann it has vowed to float Orange. This would return it to the stock market only a few months after it was delisted, achieving little but the enrichment of a few merchant bankers.

The Mannesmann bid was nearly scuppered by a row about the role of Goldman Sachs, the investment bank which apparently has advised on a trillion dollars' worth of deals this year. The Germans sought a court injunction, claiming Goldman could not act for Vodafone because it had worked on the sale of Orange. However, when a senior Mannesmann director was found to have forgotten about a key meeting, the case was dismissed.

Amid all this one could almost forget that Zeneca merged with Astra in the biggest pharmaceutical deal London has ever seen, BOC fell to Air Products/Air Liquide for pounds 7.2 bn, WalMart bought Asda, Siebe merged with BTR, and United News & Media is planning to merge with Carlton Communications.

Corporate financiers are predicting 2000 could be even more exciting, with swathes of European industry ripe for consolidation. You have been warned.

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