James Moore: M&S might benefit from time out of the spotlight – a Qatari holiday, perhaps
Outlook. Plus: Thanks to Lamprell, things are looking fine; Another skeleton at the back of HSBC's closet?
James Moore is the Independent's Associate Business Editor and writes the Outlook City comment column from Tuesday to Friday. He also has a keen interest in disability issues and when not attempting to further injure himself playing wheelchair basketball.
Tuesday 19 March 2013
The Qataris are coming, the Qataris are coming! The prospect of the Gulf state's sovereign wealth fund leading a consortium to take the retailer-cum-national institution that is M&S private had investors queueing up to buy the shares. M&S hasn't been this exciting since a pregnant Myleene Klass emerged from the waves in a white bikini, which then flew off the shelves faster than yesterday's denials.
Those denials, which were somewhat muted because nothing was said officially, didn't convince the stock market: the company's shares were still just as fashionable as Myleene's bikini once was.
Whether the buyers' faith that the business is in play will prove justified remains to be seen. This could well end up as the same sort of false dawn as the small pieces of fabric that made up that famous swimwear: another brief moment during which the company threatened to matter.
That could be a shame, because the Qataris might be good for what ails the retailer
The good shop M&S's status as a near national treasure is a terrible millstone that has defeated most of the managers who have sailed in her, although they've largely enjoyed the trip, given what the company's shareholders have had to pay up to get them on board.
It's hardly a surprise. While others can get away with the odd disappointment – even several of them – if an M&S trading update suggests the shops having picked up a sniffle it's pounced upon by the City and the media, and by the end of the day the company will be said to be suffering from financial 'flu.
The same goes for each and every fashion collection.
All that expectation seems to weigh heavily on its top team, stifling creativity and relieving them of the ability to conjure up the X factor that helps other retailers (hello Next) to fly.
M&S is debated, discussed, digested, and then debated some more by people who might love its food and will regularly take advantage of one of its dine-in-for-a-tenner (or whatever) promotions without ever thinking of crossing the floor to where the womenswear – by which it will always be judged – can be found.
A time spent in private ownership – where the scrutiny will be less intense and the company won't be under an obligation to admit to snafus like last year's failure to order enough woolies when the weather was bad – might benefit M&S.
There would be opportunities to try things out and, yes, fail a few times, under a less blinding spotlight. Who knows, the company might even come up with a few more fireworks like those created by that bikini which, incredibly, hit the shelves and the headlines five years ago.
This is a company that needs a reboot; that needs to be able to say "this isn't the M&S your parents knew" and have the clothes to prove it; to get those food customers on to its escalators.
For the moment, it seems, the Qataris are staying in the desert. But yesterday's flurry of interest suggests that the doors to M&S's stores could be open to them.
Thanks to Lamprell, things are looking fine
Forget the unseasonal chill, March has been a fine month in the City without a single penalty being levied by the Financial Services Authority. Until now.
Not many people will have heard of Lamprell – an engineering firm which operates in the oil and gas sector (it helps build rigs). But what made the company relevant yesterday was that it became the first to be fined for a listing rule breach under the City watchdog's new regime.
As is too often the case, Lamprell found itself in a spot of bother, with rising costs and various other operational issues messing up its numbers, early in 2012. The trouble is, it wasn't until the middle of May that it 'fessed up and issued a profit warning (there were subsequently four more). In that time knowledge of the problems was seeping out and employees were able to deal in the shares (although the FSA didn't find evidence of insider dealing).
The £2.4m penalty is the biggest yet for this type of offence, dwarfing those issued to Photo-Me (£500,000) and JJB Sports (£455,000).
Rather than pulling a figure out of the air, it was settled upon by using a formula linked to the company's market value. That makes appealing against a fine's quantum that bit harder.
Companies that behave like Lamprell in future will have to take their medicine, however unpleasant the taste. The formula also means a much bigger dose, although British companies that fall afoul of watchdogs will – if they take a look across the Atlantic – still feel like they're getting a spoon full of sugar to make it go down.
Let's face it, UK fines might be getting bigger but they are still dwarfed by the penalties imposed in the US, as the hedge fund "titan" Stephen Cohen can testify. His firm is having to shell out $615.7m (£408m) to settle charges that it improperly traded in two stocks.
Another skeleton at the back of HSBC's closet?
It seems that the world's local regulators are falling over each other to get a piece of the world's local bank. After the US fined HSBC £1.2bn, the Argentines want a piece of the pie. Their tax agency says it has uncovered 392m pesos (£50m) of allegedly fraudulent transactions and has called for an investigation into the possibility of tax evasion and money laundering. That may not be the end of it.
It all casts a decidedly unflattering light on previous generations of managers – managers who were held up as uniquely talented individuals that rivals were queuing up to poach at bonus time. The same arguments that are used to enrich the current generation of executives, it should be noted.
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