Perhaps the "vigorous exchange" between Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac over agriculture policy put Vivendi CEO Jean-Rene Fourtou in the mood for an old-fashioned Anglo-French spat. It's tough to see why else Fourtou last week rejected Vodafone's €6.8 billion offer for Vivendi's stake in mobile-phone operator Cegetel. The sale could have eased Vivendi's crippling €19 billion debt. Just as importantly, to retain control of Cegetel Vivendi must now pre-empt Vodafone's bid for the shares held by BT and SBC, costing the cash-strapped company between €2.6 and €4 billion. Fourtou's gambit could pay off with a higher offer from Vodafone a big gamble at a time when analysts think the company should cash in its chips and leave the table. "Having spent a long time with a French organization," says WestLB Panmure analyst John Tysoe, "I have a natural inclination to think they'll end up in the worst of all possible worlds," deeper in debt and still without full control of Cegetel. The revelation that prosecutors have begun a criminal investigation into whether Vivendi misled investors under former CEO Jean-Marie Messier reminded observers that Fourtou was parachuted in to clear the air of scandal. But this rejection of Vodafone's offer risks plunging Vivendi deeper into the abyss. The big question now is how long Vivendi's shareholders and lenders are willing to stay there.
Hacker, Or Just A Great Hack?
saying a reporter breaks news too quickly is like saying a priest is too religious. But when employees of Swedish information technology group Intentia saw a Reuters story broadcasting their third-quarter results a full hour before they were to be released, they began to lose faith in the integrity of the press. "We aren't pointing fingers," says Intentia spokesman Thomas Ahlerup, "but we scanned our internal systems and found that an IP address from Reuters downloaded the information from our private Web server before it was made public on our website." That could cross the line between hacking and reporting, and Intentia has filed criminal charges with the Swedish police. Reuters vehemently denies any wrongdoing, but throughout the month it has been walking a tightrope, publishing results from at least three other Nordic companies before their official release. It's unlikely that anyone will go to jail in this case: but perhaps Intentia and others will lock down their data more tightly the next time hacks come poking around.
It may be too early to say if this is the wisdom of Solomon, but last week Citigroup tried to save itself by dividing in half. Responding to alleged conflicts of interest between the research and investment arms of its Salomon Smith Barney investment bank, the world's largest financial institution will split off analysts into a new unit called Smith Barney and headed by Sallie Krawcheck. As CEO of independent research firm Sanford Bernstein, Krawcheck became the model of honest analysis while banks like Citigroup were rocked by scandal. But is this real reform, or just a gesture? Significantly, Citigroup's announcement came the day that it and nine others agreed to pay about $1 billion to fund independent research. And although regulators consider Salomon's divide a good first step, ultimately they are likely to demand still deeper cuts.
U.S. and European consumers may be running out of steam. In the U.S., the Conference Board consumer confidence index crashed from 93.7 to a nine-year low of 79.4, while surveys in Germany, France and the U.K. also showed a loss of faith in the economy.
Mario Vs. Super Mario
The score was Mario Monti 1, Nintendo €149 million, as the European Commission levied its fifth-largest fine ever against the Japanese video-games company for keeping prices artificially high in some E.U. states during the 1990s.
Gross Domestic Product
When hundreds of ASDA's British supermarket customers were caught illegally using vegetable oil as a cheap, tax-free fuel, the company got an idea. From January, ASDA will reprocess used frying fat to power its delivery fleet. That may be environmentally sound. But will trucks emblazoned with the charming slogan "This vehicle is powered by chicken fat" really boost ASDA's image?
Free Trade On A Roll
How low will countries stoop to avoid Europe's free market? Last week the E.U. started court action against Belgium, which is accused of obstructing wheelchair imports by rigging social security payments to favor Belgian manufacturers.
"Our research shows the average male in the U.S. owns one pair of jeans that are 10 years old and one size too small."
Phil Marineau, Levi Strauss CEO, explaining why the company is launching a brand to be sold in discount stores
"Your middle name must be Teflon."
George Mudie, British M.P., on how the country's chief statistician survived after his office made a $67 billion accounting error
"We had been promised a great leap forward. What we got was an inch in the right direction."
Brian Coulton, senior director at the Fitch rating agency, on Japan's new bank reform plan