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City Republic: Shares defy recession

LONDON - The trading A team returns to its desks today, having watched the B team, the ones left in charge between Christmas and New Year, drive stocks all over the world to unexpected heights.

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London may be helped today by weekend Treasury leaks that it's mulling another boost for the banks, most likely through a massive loan guarantee scheme (a Tory idea but never mind).

While Main Street talk is all of recession, bankruptcies and lack of bank lending, global Wall Street seems to have decided that the second round of government interventions -- to get the wider economy as opposed to the banks moving again -- will eventually work.

We've already had more or less co-ordinated interest rate cuts (with just the Eurozone lagging a bit, but it steers its own path) and now the taxpayers (and voters, of course) should be preparing to be carpet-bombed with cash.

Incoming US president Barack Obama may not be saying anything in public or private about events in Gaza but he's making it very clear what he plans for the US economy, $300bn in tax cuts for consumers in the form of a $500 tax credit and $100bn for businesses to invest, he hopes in jobs.

Other governments, including the UK, will surely follow although here at least the stimulus may not take the form of such largesse.

We'll see another cut in the bank rate from the Bank of England, which will put further pressure on lenders, more likely on the purveyors of loans and credit cards than mortgages, and more incentives for businesses (Gordon Brown promised to create 100,000 new jobs at the weekend).

As for the UK stock market, its recent peak was 6700 and most optimists are forecasting an end of year 5000-5200, although that was before the recent rise to plus 4500.

An end of year level of 5500 would be more or less business as usual, which would be pretty extraordinary in the circumstances.

So why aren't the banks lending?

UK banks in particular are caught between a rock and a hard place, being required to maintain lending to creditworthy customers (difficult to judge in a recession) and also repair their balance sheets with profits (which at the moment means widening the spread between the rate they borrow money and the rate they lend it).

So this week's expected rate cut will boost the banks more than it will help borrowers. Savers will take a hit of course.

The big UK banks -- HSBC, Barclays, Lloyds TSB/HBOS and Royal Bank of Scotland say they are lending as much as they sensibly can, it's the others that have pulled out of the market.

They are pointing the finger at the Santander trio (Abbey, Alliance & Leicester and Bradford & Bingley), Northern Rock (which is busily running down its mortgage book on the Treasury's instructions, smaller building societies (which are hardly lending at all) and the Irish and Icelandic banks.

And they have a point.

Northern Rock, prior to its near collapse, accounted for around 20% of new mortgages while Bradford & Bingley was hell bent on fuelling the buy to let "boom", no more, alas.

The Irish were big players in what might be viewed as the sub-prime sector of the personal and corporate market while the Icelanders, now in effect controlled by the International Monetary Fund, provided capital to a large chunk of the UK High Street.

The experience of poor old Woolworths is instructive.

Woolies' lenders included Barclays (fine), GMAC (General Motors' finance arm which just been bailed out with $6bn from the US government), General Electric, which is retrenching after seeing its first fall in profits for decades and Icelander Kaupthing, which needs no further description.

A toxic mixture if ever there was one. We won't be seeing a combination of lenders like this in the UK market for a while and that's one reason why credit, by recent standards anyway, will remain in short supply.

Now it's administration for Wedgwood

Waterford Wedgwood that is, the latest incarnation of the premium glass and pottery businesses.

The company is calling in administrators Deloittes, ominous giving the firm's rapid execution of Woolworths, although someone will surely buy the two famous brands even if manufacturing moves from Staffordshire and Ireland to the Far East.

But both parts of the company have resisted the ministrations of numerous investors over the years, including at Waterford Tony O'Reilly, currently boss of embattled newspaper company Independent News and Media.

But recessions do weed out weak companies alas and there'll be plenty more over the next few weeks.

Media investors circle

Or should that be vultures?

Media stocks are on many people's lists for a revival this year, having dropped like a stone in retreating markets as their "fashionable business" premium has been brutally removed.

There aren't too many billionaires or big corporations in search of trophy assets these days.

One such who might be though is Greek investor Theodore Kyriakon who is allegedly flush with cash after selling a TV company called Nova to Modern Times Group of Sweden.

He says he can raise up to 1.8bn euros to buy bargain media assets, although "probably not newspapers."

Well we'll see.

But anyone thinking of investing in the media sector will be conscious of the recent rise in share prices across the board and anxious to buy as cheaply as possible.

So we may finally see some activity in the likes of ITV and media buyer Aegis, seemingly sliding into the clutches of Vincent Bollore, who controls Havas.

But who's got the money to buy?

Not other media owners or even companies like WPP, one would have thought.

But there are still some private equity companies out there who have raised big funds from their investors and they know perfectly well that buying cheap media assets ahead of an upturn is a sure way to make big returns.

All we need then is an upturn.

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