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City Republic: Business as unusual?

LONDON - Tory business policy in disarray, car meltdown, Yahoo! back on the takeover agenda and bank deals may still unravel.

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Tory shadow chancellor George Osborne's embarrassing brushes with Russian aluminium tycoon Oleg Deripaska , Nat Rothschild and Peter Mandelson -- choose your dining companions more carefully George if you're going to gossip about them -- is having a big effect on the business landscape.

Before the financial crisis struck the Tories were way ahead in the polls and most big UK businesses were assuming it would be a shoe-in for David Cameron at the next election.

Some expected prime minister Gordon Brown to fail to last the year, evidenced by the fact that the Tories had more company exhibitors at their conference than Labour, for the first time in years.

Now those expectations are being rewritten with Brown making the biggest comeback since Lazarus thank to the financial crisis -- strange but true -- and the Tories in disarray over their economic policy.

When nationalisation is the flavour of the month it's difficult for the Tories to compete. When your chief financial officer is chatting away about donations from dubious sources it becomes almost impossible.

Car industry in meltdown

UK car sales are down about 20% this year and, almost as alarming, makers and dealers don't seem to be trying very hard to get the market moving.

The usual glut of special deals for September registrations -- new number plates -- have been largely absent and the carmakers have decided to cut production and lay people off instead.

In the US it looks as though the merger between General Motors and Chrysler will go through although no-one expects the combined outfit to do any better in terms of sales.

The focus now will be on Ford, which of the three, owes the most money. Ford at least has more economic European models it can ship over there but few people are buying a car of any description at the moment.

The trouble, from the makers' point of view, is that cars last much longer these days. So they've become a discretionary purchase, like a new sofa.

Even the likes of Toyota aren't immune from the problems. Its sales in the US in September fell by a staggering 32% and it now says its group global sales -- it also owns Daihatsu -- will be down from 9.37m in 2007 to 9.3m this year, the first fall in a decade.

As the recession deepens the premium export-dependent economies of Japan and South Korea will slow and that's hitting the markets there.

Falls in the Far East this morning set off another sell-off in Europe.  

China is rather different as it makes mostly cheap products but a recent report said that half the country's toy factories had closed, which doesn't augur well.

Christmas is clearly off this year.

Two up, one down among US high techs

Apple produced a third quarter profit of £1.14bn, up from $904bn although its sales were slightly below expectations.

CEO Steve Jobs says the company sold more of everything, with the new iPhone leading the way, but he warned that the Christmas season would be tough.

Fellow NASDAQ giant Yahoo! could do with some of this as its third quarter profits tumbled to a miserable $54.3m from $151m, while arch rival Google recently reported third quarter profits of $1.35bn.

Boss Jerry Yang says he's going to cut 10% of the work force and move some jobs to cheaper locations in the Far East. But this looks like a case of shutting the stable door.

Yahoo! is still a good product but it looks as though the company has nowhere to go -- even its plan to sell ads with Google is on hold while the regulators take a closer look.

Earlier this year Microsoft bid $33 a share for the company, around $50bn. Yang turned the deal down, to the fury of his shareholders.

Now the shares are trading at $12 although they actually rose 6% when Yang announced his gloomy figures.

This can only mean that some optimists think Microsoft's Steve Ballmer, who will announce Microsoft's latest figures after hours on Thursday, will come back with another offer.

He might, but it won't be anywhere near $33.

UK bank deals could still unravel

Gordon Brown may be bestriding the world like a colossus but his £37bn plan to recapitalise the banks is under pressure as shares in HBOS and Lloyds TSB continue to slide.

The banks are supposed to be merged and then receive £17bn of government money, but shareholders hate the idea of the new bank not paying dividends for an extended period.

Lloyds has been penciled in for about a third of this but, if it doesn't merge, it doesn't need the money -- the recapitalisation is there to finance HBOS' mortgage book.

So Lloyds shareholders -- which include many big pension funds and insurers who need the dividends -- may well vote the deal down.

Business secretary Lord Mandelson, who's moved up in the world since sharing a kebab with George Osborne in Corfu, says they won't get any money if they don't merge.

So what happens to HBOS?

Meanwhile Barclays, which says it doesn't want any government money, is to offer the UK's first public bond from a bank, aimed at raising £1bn.

Which could be a better deal for brave taxpayers.

Even RBS, which the Government says needs £20bn, is unhappy over the deal. It looks closer to selling its insurance businesses Direct Line and Churchill, which could bring in around £6bn.

With the Bank of England underwriting £250bn of inter-bank loans in the market for the next couple of years and the prospect of more steep rate cuts to come, the banks have a window to rebuild their capital positions themselves.

Do we really need to throw £37bn at them?  

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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