Salomon's pounds 184m profit joy turns sour

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The Independent Online

New York

The future of Salomon Brothers, the venerable investment bank battered by losses, defections and low morale, is once again in question.

For the bank and its beleaguered chief executive, Deryck Maughan, Thursday should have been a day to pop open the champagne as its latest quarterly results showed an unexpectedly strong profit of $289m (pounds 184m). Instead, Warren Buffett, its principal shareholder, said he was selling $140m in preferred Salomon shares.

Mr Buffett, the feted investment guru from Omaha who came to the rescue of Salomon in 1991 after it was struck by a near-fatal bond-trading scandal, announced that he had better things to do with the money than plough it back into Salomon, even at a discount price.

To make the announcement on the day the profits became public hardly smacked of a vote of confidence and is seen as a further blow to Mr Maughan, whose future has been the subject of speculation for months.

The Buffett sale sparked gossip of a buyout for the bank, very likely by a foreign institution and quite possibly by one of the British clearing banks.

Mr Buffett insisted that his decision should be seen in isolation and did not imply that he had started a long-term strategy of pulling out of the bank. He will have four more opportunities to convert his preferred stock. "The decision not to exercise in no way predicts what I will decide when each of the four remaining options expires," he declared.

It is possible to take his statement at face value. At the slightly discounted price of $38, the common shares on offer to Mr Buffett might not have seemed very attractive. Salomon stock is not so low as to be a steal, but it languishes far behind other brokerage firms that have seen their market valuations leap in recent months.

If Salomon were to be bought, Mr Maughan's future there would probably become moot. Some analysts yesterday wondered aloud whether Mr Buffett had not exercised his option because he may be involved personally in buyout talks and could be worried about conflict of interest.

Among those with such thoughts was Michael Lipper of Lipper Analytical in New York. "There has been chatter ... that somebody substantial would like to buy them. And definitely someone foreign."