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City Republic: GE and Philips prompt further market concerns

Stephen Foster reports on figures from the US and Europe, as Tesco proves to be one of the few bright spots in the UK retail market.

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Shares take a hit on GE and Philips
Markets worldwide headed south this morning on fears that the results season in the US and Europe is going to throw up some nasty surprises. GE (General Electric Company as was, now the owner of NBC Universal among many others) shocked Wall Street on Friday by missing its targets, prompting falls in all three US indexes and further tumbles in the Far East this morning.

Dutch consumer electronics to lightbulbs giant Philips produced moderate first-quarter figures this morning, prompting a steep early fall on Frankfurt's DAX index, home of the most of the big European industrials although shares then rallied.

The feeling in the European markets seems to be that there's no point arguing about the recession any more, it's here.

So interest rates are likely to keep on falling, helping share markets counter the damage from poor company results.

Now it's a real crisis for retailers
Retailers are notorious for crying wolf, blaming everything from the weather to interest rates for impending disappointment. In reality, UK retailers have been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the debt bubble in recent years, happily boosting their sales and profits as the UK's impressive collection of credit cards have fluttered their way.

Tomorrow, Tesco will announce profits of £2.8bn, a staggering amount but one that may mark the high water mark of the retail boom.

Tesco and its rivals (Tesco is about the same size now as Sainsbury's and Asda combined) will trade through the recession (if indeed that's what it is) but lots of smaller retailers won't.

Many have already gone bust as February's rent demands followed a disappointing Christmas.

This will add to the government's already multiplying woes as retailers are the country's biggest employers outside the public sector, particular of younger people.

It's also bad news for companies like Iceland's Baugur, which has somehow or other managed to garner the funds to buy stakes in large chunks of the British retail market, including outright ownership of House of Fraser.

Iceland is suffering its very own credit crunch at the moment, with interest rates pushing 15%.

A British retail crisis partly made in Iceland?

There's globalisation for you.

Politicians lose it with the banks
Tomorrow, Chancellor Alistair Darling will summon the big mortgage lenders to 11 Downing Street for a wigging, telling them in no uncertain terms that when the Bank of England lowers interest rates so should they. They'll say that they do when they can (some of them have lowered variable rates in the wake of the reduction in bank rate to 5%) but they can't afford cheap fixed rates because they're paying nearly 6% to borrow from each other.

But the Labour government's nerves are jangling -- Prime Minister Gordon Brown appeared in the News of the World yesterday (every banker's Sunday reading of choice) to call for lower rates following his heavy hint to Mervyn King last week that Bank of England rates had to come down.

Some banks will answer the Chancellor's call, others won't (or won't be able to).

This is all part of a pretty seismic shift in the mortgage market with the former building societies finding it's hard to compete in a credit crunch.

Northern Rock we all know about, Alliance & Leicester has been lashed by the City and has pulled in its lending horns and Bradford & Bingley, the main buy-to-let specialist, is denying that it was planning a big rights issue. Even the Nationwide (still a building society) has had to whack up its fixed price deals.

In the meantime, HSBC is promising to match expiring fixed rate deals (for a fee) and new figures show that Abbey, which was the last bank to offer 100% deals, has boosted its share of new mortgages to 20% over the last few months.

Abbey is owned by Spanish banking giant Santander of course, further evidence that only the very big boys can compete in today's trouble mortgage market.

More troubles ahead for EMI
US bank Citigroup, one of the biggest victims of the sub-prime fiasco, has been trying to offload the $4.8bn it lent to Guy Hands' Terra Firma to buy EMI -- and no one's interested.

Hands is making 2,000 jobs at EMI redundant and he's just discovered that the hapless music company spent £25m last year trashing CDs that consumers didn't want to buy. It also looks as though the Rolling Stones could take their business elsewhere. The old boys don't sell many records these days but their back catalogue is worth a fortune. All in all, a testing time for Terra Firma. Now we'll see if these vaunted private equity managers really are as good as they say they are.

Stephen Foster is a former news editor of Campaign, former editor of Marketing Week and Evening Standard ad columnist. He is a partner in Editorial Partnership and writes the blog www.editco.net and Politics of the Media for Brand Republic.

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