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City Republic: Not Bretton Woods but not bad either

LONDON - The upside of the G20 global gathering, US car makers teeter on the brink, Stelios makes his move at EasyJet.

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Gordon Brown hailed the weekend’s G20 economic pow-wow in Washington as a "route map" for a more stable financial world.

More to the point, there did seem to be broad agreement that the countries concerned should boost their economies when and how they could, and preferably soon.

This is particularly important for the UK whose only high card at the moment is the falling value of the pound, which should boost exports if only there’s someone out there to buy them.

As to "route maps" we’ve seen enough of those disappearing into the sands of the Middle East to be a little sceptical.

There was much talk prior to the conference of establishing a new Bretton Woods-type agreement, the US-brokered deal that revived Western economies (apart from that of the UK which had to keep paying back its US loans) after the Second World War.

But it’s not an American game any more.

The real significance is G20 itself -- the fact that the conference included the likes of China, India, Brazil and Indonesia as well as the Western powers and Japan.

If these growth economies are going to do their bit for the world (meaning "us") aside from building-up their own trade surpluses then they have to be part of the club.

With a bit of luck, now they are.

Government to offer investors bank deal

The Government planned to take £9bn of preference shares in the three banks, RBS, HBOS and Lloyds TSB, queuing up for £37bn of state aid.

Now, however, it may make some of these shares available to other investors in the hope that this will encourage them to buy ordinary shares in the banks’ forthcoming share issues to reduce the Government’s investment.

The prefs pay a chunky 12% so there should be plenty of takers. If there are, it will reduce the amount the banks need to pay back to the government and bring the restoration of their ordinary dividends closer, so there’s a double reason for insurers and the like to invest.

This is not quite as much as the 14% Barclays is prepared to pay its new batch of Middle Eastern investors, over a mind-boggling 10 years.

UK and US investors, who aren’t being offered these generous terms, are up in arms and Barclays CEO John Varley might be wishing he’d decided to take the Government’s money instead.

In choosing to say ‘independent’ he’s handing 38% of the bank to Middle Eastern investors.

Not so independent after all then.

Armageddon for US car industry?

That’s what we keep reading as the time General Motors is due to run out of money seems to get closer by the day and the US car giants continue to plead for a share of the US bail-out fund.

It’s true that the big three Detroit car makers account for a lot of jobs and play a big role in supplying benefits and pensions to current and former employees scattered all across America.

But is the prospect of GM going bankrupt really so bad?

American companies don’t have to go out of business if they’re bust, they can go into Chapter 11, a form of administration which often succeeds in sorting them out, to a degree anyway.

Most of the US airline industry has been in and out of Chapter 11 for decades.

Among other things, the US auto industry is bedevilled by overcapacity, most years called Chrysler.

While there isn’t a big enough market for three producers there might be for two. So a GM/Chrysler merger, with huge job losses, could still be on the cards.

So whatever happens, and this is the main issue facing new president Barack Obama, we’ll see a much smaller US car industry.

But we shouldn’t forget that the likes of Toyota and BMW now have substantial manufacturing operations in the US too.

The whole affair is rather redolent of what happened in the UK in the 1970s and 1980s with the eventual loss of all the UK-owned volume manufacturers.

GM, with Vauxhall/Opel and Saab, is still a big player in the UK and Europe, as is Ford.

But these are, by and large, more successful businesses than their US counterparts and would probably attract investors from inside and outside the industry.

And they may already be seeing an independent future for themselves. This morning, German-based Opel announced that any German government bail-out for the car industry would be staying in Germany, not returned to the bottomless pit of GM in Detroit.

Ford’s biggest problem in Europe is Volvo, which is haemorrhaging money. This needs a new home and quick and that might be in Germany too.

Boardroom bust-up at EasyJet

EasyJet founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou is threatening to take back control of the budget airline unless it reins back its expansion plans and considers paying its first dividend.

Stelios speaks for enough shares to install himself as chairman and appoint two new directors to the board.

On the face of it reining in expansion but paying a dividend seems a touch contradictory, but one assumes the dividend would cost less than the new planes.

The board appears hostile to this idea and might fight Stelios’ plans.

Like fellow aviator Richard Branson, Stelios owns the Easy brand, something which has been markedly less successful in his other enterprises, like car hire and cruises, than it has for the airline.

But Sunday Times business editor John Waples came up with an intriguing idea yesterday.

Six years ago EasyJet bought British Airways’ budget carrier Go, a sale that is still hotly debated in airline circles.

Go was the class act in the budget field and, by selling it, BA not only boosted EasyJet but opened the door a lot wider for Irish interloper Ryanair, now bigger than BA in Europe.

So EasyJet, if it sees off Stelios, could become Go.

Some hedge funds haven’t lost the knack

The G20 meeting may have, inter-alia, promised to regulate hedge funds more closely but these wily customers can still spot a money-making opportunity.

Having chased oil up to $147 (£99) a barrel a few months ago some of them will bank huge profits today as December’s ‘put’ options in oil (contracts to sell) are settled.

Many struck deals with banks and others to sell oil at between $100-$120 a barrel and it’s currently trading at around $57.

Some funds, that put down only a few cents in the dollar to buy their options, stand to make returns of around 2,000%.

Should keep the wolf from the door for a while.

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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