Monthly Archives: September 2010

John Gapper

As a journalist, I  appreciate  people who are straight talkers – and agree with Lucy Kellaway’s praise of Steve Jobs’ pithiness – but Carol Bartz at Yahoo has been taking it too far.

Kara Swisher suggests that the Yahoo board has doubts about Ms Bartz, and may be manoevreing to find a successor. Among other things, it is apparently worried about internal instability and Ms Bartz’s well-known bluntness (including a penchant for swearing in public). Read more

Punk. Billionaire. Genius. That is the three-word description of Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, in the film account of how he took a social networking site from a Harvard dormitory to a valuation of $30bn in seven years.

John Gapper

The FT has two fascinating stories today about up-and-coming Asian leadership contenders at vast, powerful and impenetrable institutions.

One concerns Kim Jong-eun, third son of Kim Jong-il, the leader of North Korea. The other is about Michael Evans, vice-chairman of Goldman Sachs and head of its Asia operations. Read more

John Gapper

The Federal Trade Commission complaining about a company allegedly touting false scientific benefits for its health products would not normally be interesting but the case of POM Wonderful, a Californian company that makes pomegranate juice drinks, is an exception.

My interest is due to the fact that I have witnessed Lynda Rae Resnick, one of POM’s owners, giving her full salesperson’s pitch for the wonders of her products in reducing the risks of heart disease and prostate cancer. Read more

John Gapper

One way of viewing the explosive argument in the HSBC boardroom that has led to the departure of Michael Geoghegan as chief executive is purely as a personality clash between him and John Thornton, the former Goldman banker who might have been appointed as chairman.

The other is as the latest round in a very long tussle between Hong Kong and London over who should be in charge of HSBC. Confusingly, both sides of the argument are represented by white middle-aged men since Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank was a British colonial institution.

(A further way of looking at this, incidentally, is as the Scots versus the English, given that HSBC was at its heart Scottish Presbyterian).

It dates back to the HSBC acquisition of Midland Bank in 1992, when the Bank of England insisted not only on the combined bank being supervised from London, but on Sir Willie Purves, the entertainingly fierce former head of HSBC splitting the roles of chairman and chief executive. Read more

There are good banks, there are bad banks, and there is Westdeutsche Landesbank.

In a competition for the title of world’s most consistently accident-prone bank – measured by a talent for losing money on exotic activities it has failed to understand, not only once or twice but over decades – it is difficult to think of an institution that rivals WestLB.

“Strong banks want strong regulation.” That fact has been misunderstood in the wake of the financial crisis, according to Bob Diamond, Barclays chief executive.

“No one has suffered more than those strong banks that have been thrown in the same reputational basket as weak banks”, he said at a panel this morning at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York. Read more

John Gapper

Lady Bracknell would have something to say about the current proclivity of the British high street banks for losing chief executives.

First it was John Varley at Barclays, then it was Eric Daniels at Lloyds and next it may be Michael Geoghegan of HSBC, who has threatened to quit if he is not appointed chairman. Are you sitting comfortably, Stephen Hester of Royal Bank of Scotland? Read more

John Gapper

Steve Rattner, the Obama administration’s former “car czar” who has a book out about the bailing out of General Motors and Chrysler, gives an interesting summary of his first impressions of Detroit to Peter Lattman in the New York Times.

So, for example, I found that the culture in Detroit, and at General Motors in particular, was even more bureaucratic and more stultified than what I would have guessed before I got there. The financial controls were far weaker than anything I would’ve imagined before I got there. On the positive side, GM had better projects than I would’ve imagined and it had also brought its manufacturing efficiency to a much higher level than I would’ve predicted.

That can be summarised as: GM was a terrible company making surprisingly good cars. Or: Detroit itself was in a bad way, whereas its manufacturing plants were healthy. Read more

John Gapper

The FT’s call for Vince Cable, the UK business secretary, to examine News Corporation’s bid to acquire the 60.9 per cent of British Sky Broadcasting it does not already own has attracted further attention to what has become a crucial media ownership issue.

Most general interest newspapers are struggling to find a way to make money online, and Mr Murdoch has started experimenting by making The Times and The Sunday Times subscription-only. News International is now trying to extend that status to The News of the World. Read more

John Gapper

Whenever a company or an organisation tries to change the name of its main product, it is an admission that something is wrong.

The effort by the US Corn Refiners Association to ditch the term “high fructose corn syrup” and replace it with the more homely-sounding “corn sugar” is therefore intriguing. Read more

John Gapper

The meeting of the World Economic Forum in Tianjin – seems to have produced some results – or at least some rhetoric – for international companies worried about Chinese protectionism.

Wen Jiabao, China’s  premier, was at pains to suggest that worries over China’s “indigenous innovation” policy – in particular the idea that its procurement policies would favour Chinese technology over that produced by foreign manufacturers – were overblown.

Mr Wen’s pledge, according to the WEF, sounded good:

“I wish to reiterate that all enterprises registered in China according to Chinese laws are Chinese enterprises and their products are made-in-China products . . . In government procurement, China gives equal treatment to products from foreign-invested enterprises and Chinese-invested enterprises alike.”

 Read more

John Gapper

The Basel III deal imposing higher capital standards on banks is an improvement on the existing rules but it does have a quality of déjà vu.

The FT expresses the main new rule thus:

The package, known as Basel III, sets a new key capital ratio of 4.5 per cent, more than double the current 2 per cent level, plus a new buffer of a further 2.5 per cent. Banks whose capital falls within the buffer zone will face restrictions on paying dividends and discretionary bonuses, so the rule sets an effective floor of 7 per cent.

It sounds good but is awfully reminiscent of the original Basel accord, which established the 4 percent minimum level of tier 1 capital in 1988. This time, the numerator is not tier 1 capital but “core tier 1 capital” – a narrower version of the same thing. Read more

John Gapper

As Robert Andrews of Paid Content notes, the appointment of Stephen Elop as Nokia’s new chief executive included a Sarah Palin-esque moment in which he emphasised his natural links with the Finnish company because he is Canadian:

“That process has been greatly assisted by my heritage. As you may know, I’m a Canadian citizen, you may also know that Canada and Finland share the Arctic Circle, that’s something that holds me in good stead as I move forward.”

Depending on your point of view, this is either a laughable cover story or a highly inventive attempt to get around the fact that Nokia is reaching outside its Finnish roots and culture to rescue itself from its current malaise. Read more

John Gapper

As I noted the other day, there has been an upsurge in not only mergers and acquisitions but in hostile bids. There are many possible reasons – rising confidence following the financial crisis, companies being cash-rich, etc – but here is an alternative one: testosterone.

We are familiar with dominant chief executives who want to get their own way, but an academic study has found that young CEOs with high levels of testosterone are not only more likely to launch bids but more likely either to withdraw a bid in anger or to launch a hostile tender offer.

The researchers at the University of British Columbia did not actually test the CEOs in their study for levels of testosterone (they used age as a proxy) and my first reaction was to wonder if they were constructing a good story. Read more