Martin Dickson’s pick of the week

by Martin Dickson

The financial tide rolled out a lot further last week leaving, in Warren Buffett’s phrase, a lot more naked swimmers on the beach.

The most sensational was in India, where the boss of IT group Satyam revealed its $1bn cash pile was a fraud. We have had tremendously good, colourful and insightful reporting from Joe Leahy and James Fontanella-Khan ( including an on-the-day slideshow by Joe and Josh Delamare ) – following on from their strong coverage in early December when funny things started happening at the company. Jenn Hughes gave invaluable support on the accounting angle and James Lamont put it all in an Indian context.

Over in Europe, billionaire Adolf Merckle committed suicide as his empire collapsed around him. James Wilson provided strong coverage on the day and he and Richard Milne followed through on Saturday with a great Analysis page – a compelling, colourful, sensitive and perfectly paced narrative which explained why such a man might want to take his own life.

And back in the US, the biggest fraud case of all, rolled on: Jo Chung provided a helpful explanation of how prosecutors are developing the case; while she, Brooke Master and Neil Hume had a great scoop with Madoff ordering a £100m transfer from his UK operations shortly before the crash.

Other great scoops this week: Lina Saigol on Stanley Fink becoming Tory party co-chairman; Javier Blas and William Wallis on how a US businessman is snapping up Sudanese farming land from a notorious warlord (backed up with an excellent analysis); and Michael Peel, Jenn Hughes and Stanley Pignal on how the FSA is cracking down on company announcements.

Also first in the FT were : Sunny Tucker, Geoff Dyer and Peter Thal Larsen on Royal Bank of Scotland discussions on the sale of its Bank of China stake; Beth Rigby, Tom Braithwaite and Dan Thomas on M&S slimming down its food store chain; Neil Hume, Paul Murphy and Bryce Elder on Roche preparing a fresh offer for Genentech; Steve Johnson on Steel Partners looking to convert its flagship fund into a listed company after a wave of redemption requests; Henny Sender on changing favourites in the race for New York Fed presidency; and John Murray Brown and Anouska Sakoui on KPS emerging as buyer for Waterford.

We continued to do well on the week’s other two big rolling stories: Gazprom and Gaza. Highlights of the Gaza coverage included Heba Saleh and Tobias Buck on Gaza’s extraordinary tunnel trade, Vita Bekker’s eyewitness accounts from inside Gaza, Tobias on the destruction of the Gaza economy, and powerful columns by Gideon Rachman, Philip Stephens and our leader writers.

Gazprom was a great team effort, involving correspondents all around Europe, but the greatest contribution surely came from Roman Olearchyk in Kiev who had quite enough on his mind, with his wife due to give birth, without a huge news story to contend with. He filed almost until the moment he dashed to hospital, and started filing again when he came out after his wife gave birth to a boy. Beyond the call of duty. Many congratulations to both.

Ed Crooks, meanwhile, gave a crisp analysis of the threat to western European supplies, Stefan Wagstyl’s Q&A gave the clearest explanation yet of precisely what the dispute was about, Quentin Peel’s Between the Lines analysed the Czech Republic’s wobbly start to the EU presidency, and Charles Clover, Isabel Gorst, Tony Barber and Nikki Tait kept us at the forefront of the running story.

Back in credit crunch territory, Ralph Atkins provided an extremely subtle and highly newsy analysis (for anyone reading the runes carefully) of the ECB’s attitude towards rate cuts, while over in Washington Krishna Guha, similarly reading the tea-leaves, explained how the Fed is warming to the idea of inflation targeting. Krishna, Ed Luce and Andrew Ward provided strong analysis of the soaring US deficit and Obama’s package

The German government surprisingly large new investment in Commerzbank produced strong cover from James Wilson, Bertrand Benoit , Ralph Atkins and Peter Thal Larsen, while Chris Giles and George Parker turned an interview with Alistair Darling into a splash and a page of excellent analysis (widely followed by the competition) on the UK’s gloomy economic prospects and a threat to the Bank of England’s monetary policy independence. Commerzbank produced one of numerous great Lex notes this week; others included Steve Jobs and Apple, Asian yields and corporate fraud.

We have had some find examples of colourful stories that show how people’s economic thinking is changing: Patti Waldmeir on how China’s budget hotels are booming while the Hyatts lie empty; Beth Rigby and Jane Croft on a booming website selling food past its sell-by date; and Roger Blitz and John O’ Doherty on the slump in UK foreign holiday enthusiasm, apart from the strange lure of Norway.

On a more upbeat note, for anyone who can still afford electronic equipment, we had strong coverage from the CES trade show in Las Vegas, notably Richard Waters’ interview with Steve Ballmer of Microsoft and Paul Taylor on the latest gadgets.

Strong analysis included Tom Mitchell on the problems facing China’s army of migrant workers – a great combination of colour, strong quotes and analysis, all crispy packaged by design and the page editors; Jon Boone’s lively account from Helmand on the “good enough” approach of British forces and the criticism this attracts from the US; Chris Giles, David Oakley and Michael Mackenzie on the test of bond market from the impending glut of government paper; Beth Rigby on UK retailers’ margins (a small but very punchy sidebar on UK companies); Francesco Guerrera and Jo Chung on rising criticism of US executive pay; Robert Wright on how they made the Northern Line function well – or at least better. John Murray Brown’s provided a Man in the News profile of Tony O’Reilly. George Parker’s description of Gordon Brown’s political war-room was a great read.

Powerful comment included John Gapper laying into funds of funds, Martin Wolf dissecting the UK economic policy clash between Labour and the Tories, John Willman on puritans versus spendthifts, and John Authers magisterial Long View on whether the stock market is overvalued or undervalued – a reminder that if we are going to seriously address market valuation we need to do it with rigour and clear metrics in mind – not just ring up a few analysts and ask if they think shares are cheap or expensive. Analysts are paid to be bullish and say what their clients want- as Tony Jackson reminded us at the turn of the year.

Good weekend reads included Joshua Chaffin in the magazine on the foodie world’s cult writer, and in HTSI Claire Wrathall both on new urban resorts and her maiden column on philanthropy. In Life and Arts the Take a Friend for a Fiver promotion was launched with a fine (UK) tie-in cover by Nick Lander, while Vanessa Friedman had an insightful lunch with designer Hussein Chalayan . The Arts section was strong across the board. had a “moment” this week when UK homepage led with a video (Tony Blair tackled on “light-touch” regulation) for the first time. That’s the concept of a “blended list” of different media (text, audio, video) and genres (news, comment, blogs etc) in a single vertical list in action. And a sign that our ever-improving output in new media can live alongside our traditional strengths in words and photographs.

Other video hightlights included two on-the-day interviews by Quentin Peel with think-tank experts on crises in Gaza and Ukraine; more interviews by Lionel Barber and John Thornhill from the Paris conference on capitalism; and a very strong View from the Top, by Henny Sender , with BlackRock’s Larry Fink, which also made a strong Business Life read. View from the Markets has been on a hot streak: recent interviewees include Meredith Whitney, Jim Rogers, Nouriel Roubini and, this week, Jim O’Neill. Cynthia O’Murchu completed the comprehensive 2008 investment banking league tables, using Dealogic data.

Jargon watch: A new horror made its way into the paper this week. We’ve had down-size, we’ve had right-size, now comes oversized, as in a company having the ability to be oversized for a while. Let us make it the first and last appearance.

Martin Dickson is deputy editor. This is an edited version of a weekly memo sent to all editorial staff

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