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City Republic: UK tumbles into recession

LONDON - Unemployment soars, Virgin and Yell lead job losses and US car giants plead for financial bailout money.

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In 2002, WPP's Sir Martin Sorrell famously said that the UK ad industry was in a "bath-shaped recession" -- a steep fall followed by a long journey along the bottom until a rise eventually (but inevitably) occurred.

Well now the whole UK economy is toppling into a recession that resembles a hot tub, steep sides and jets of energy that strike in all sorts of unexpected and, in this case, painful places.

The trouble is the water's extremely cold and there's no guarantee that we'll be able to clamber out anytime soon.

Later today the latest unemployment figures will be announced and they will show more than 1.8m people out of work, heading towards two million by Christmas (job seekers should probably head for Sainsbury's which announced a 13% increase in half-year profits today -- what a business).

This was precisely the figure forecast by economist David Blanchflower in the summer.

Blanchflower is the US-based boffin on the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee who has been pleading for rate cuts all year even as the home-grown experts were fretting about inflation and thinking of putting rates up.

Well, he was right and they were most definitely wrong, with most economists now saying deflation (falling prices) is a bigger danger than inflation.

Deflation means disaster all round, with company profits, asset values and savings rates blitzed.

It hasn't been seen in this country since the 1930s and it took 20 years to climb out of it.

What the Bank, and indeed the Government -- which belatedly took heed of professor Blanchflower and apparently Tesco's Sir Terry Leahy, who also gave it the benefit of his views -- would do for a bit of inflation now.

Virgin and Yell lead job cuts

Virgin Media and Yell, the former Yellow Pages, are heavily-indebted media businesses so it's doubly worrying when they start to cut jobs.

Virgin Media, which is quoted on the US Nasdaq tech exchange even though it only operates in the UK, is cutting 2,200 jobs or 15% of its workforce to save £120m a year.

It needs to do more as it has to pay back to £4bn to its bankers between 2010 and 2012, something it's not on course to do even if these savings come through.

The cable business in the UK has never made money despite its stiff prices to consumers.

Virgin Media is the result of combining loss-making NTL and Telewest and its grand plan was to offer a four-pack product of TV, internet, landlines and mobiles.

But customers, who are pretty used to shopping around these days, seem resistant.

It has recently reached a deal with Sky where both broadcasters will carry each other's basic channels (so I get my Sky News back, hooray) that will improve things a bit.

But Sky remains the big obstacle.

Virgin's second big idea was to buy ITV, which would have dropped some much-needed profit and cash flow into its pockets, but Sky scuppered this by buying 17.9% of ITV.

Sky is being forced to get rid of some of this stake (in the process taking a huge hit verging on £1bn) but Virgin's the operator in trouble.

And it won't be buying anything for a while.

As for Yell, which is also laying off all the staff it can, it's struggling with a mountain of debt acquired during an ambitious acquisition spree.

But for the time being at least, it's showing sufficient revenue-raising ability to stay one step ahead of its bankers.

But both companies (and indeed others in the sector) face an extremely difficult couple of years.

Tough times for the oligarchs

There's won't be a dry eye in the house over this one.

The fantastically rich group of Russian businessmen who made a fortune out of Boris Yeltsin's botched privatization programme are finding that their roubles are disappearing almost as fast as they arrived.

The Russian stock market is currently suspended (again) until Thursday as prices plummet and the Russian government spent $7bn the other day to try to shore up the rouble.

Any British banker old enough to remember 1992 and the abrupt exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism could tell them that this won't work.

The so-called Russian oligarchs, who include Chelsea owner Roman Abramovitch and well-connected aluminium king Oleg Deripaska made their fantastic fortunes from commodities -- oil, gas and metals.

But the prices of these have fallen through the floor (oil was trading at below $60 a barrel yesterday) as the speculative commodity bubble burst as the world economy began its sharp slowdown.

This wouldn't be such an issue for the oligarchs if they'd stuck to their last. People still need the above-mentioned commodities, they just don't need quite as much.

But the oligarchs raised massive loans on the back of their holdings in these producers to buy other companies (and yachts, property and football teams of course).

The business dealings of these people are opaque to put it mildly. But it's already quite clear that they are rushing to raise cash anywhere they can.

GM pleads for financial bailout money

General Motors, still the world's biggest carmaker by volume, is bust, and may run out of money by the end of the year according to some analysts.

The US auto industry, with Ford and Chrysler hardly in better shape, has been promised a $25bn loan from the US government but it might not have the money to pay it back -- and $25bn is less than it needs anyway.

GM and its competitors are the biggest private sector employers in the US and, through their generous pension schemes, support millions of people.

Their new plan -- the only plan really -- is to try to extract some money from the US Troubled Asset Relief Program, the $700bn bank bailout scheme.

This is not as odd as it seems because carmakers these days are effectively finance houses, lending consumers the money to buy their products.

So the car giants are trying to persuade the US government to inject equity and write off some of their debts, just like the banks succeeded in doing.

We're all socialists now.

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 and Politics of the Media for Brand Republic.

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