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European Business News (EBN), 97-02-28
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From: The European Business News Server at <http://www.ebn.co.uk/>
Page last updated February 28 1815 CET
 French unemployment rate remains steady at 12.7%France's unemployment rate remained steady at 12.7% in January, though the number of jobseekers rose by 18,000 or 0.6%, following a decline in December.
Separately, industrial manufacturing leaders said production is continuing to improve, though the automobile sector remains depressed.
According to the French National Employment agency, the number of jobseekers had fallen by 29,000 in December.
The jobless rate has remained at 12.7%, a record, since November, although there was some relief from the problem of youth unemployment.
The number of men under 25 seeking jobs fell 1.5%, while the number of women fell 0.7%, the ministry said.
French Prime Minister Alain Juppe gathered students, business and union leaders earlier this month to try to find a way to curb 25% youth unemployment, a key issue ahead of next year's parliamentary elections.
The number of jobseekers who have been looking for work for more than a year rose 2%, which the government attributed to particularly high unemployment during the first quarter of 1996.
Meanwhile, French industrial business said that they think business improved moderately during the past three months and that industrial activity over the coming months should continue to improve.
The national statistics bureau INSEE said its February survey showed that the index for production outlook stood at 6, compared with 1 in January. The figure is the difference between the percentage of businesses believing production will improve (a positive value) and the percentage believing it will deteriorate (a negative value).
The rise in manufacturing output, however, was not seen in the automobile sector, which remained depressed, INSEE said. Business leaders said that the production outlook for the auto sector is improving and that the sector should rebound in coming months.
 Italian economy ends 1996 on a low noteThe Italian economy ended 1996 on a low note, with industrial output declining and trade activity worse than expected.
The national statistics agency Istat Italy's 1996 fourth quarter gross domestic product fell 0.1% from the third quarter and was up a real, or inflation-adjusted 0.5% from the year-earlier period.
Istat also said that it confirmed expectations that GDP would grow 0.8% in 1996 over 1995.
Istat attributed the fall in GDP in the fourth quarter to the fact that there were two less working days in the period, compared with the third quarter of 1996. The statistical agency said that there were two more working days in the fourth quarter of 1996 compared with the like, year- earlier period.
The agency said that both Italian exports and imports have slowed down. Meanwhile, the services sector showed moderate growth, as it did in the third quarter, Istat said.
The country is striving to get its economy in shape for the 1999 launch of European economic and monetary union.
Analysts noted that the report indicates the Italian economy began the year with weak momentum and that the medium-term outlook is for stagnant or very slow growth.
An Istat spokesman said the dip in quarterly GDP was largely caused by a decline in industrial output, which was only partially offset by a slight improvement in the service sector.
The statistics office gave no further details but figures released last week showed industrial production tumbling an unexpected 3.1 percent year- on-year in December. Full GDP data for 1996 will be presented to parliament by the end of March.
The Istat spokesman said exports were worse than forecast, while imports were sharply down year-on-year.
Economists believe imports were hit by a decline in equipment investment and flat domestic consumption.
Prime Minister Romano Prodi has forecast that the economy will grow between one and 1.5 percent this year, scaling down confident, original projections of two percent growth.
 European markets are roiled by rumours of a delay in start of EMUEuropean markets were rocked by rumours, swiftly denied by officials, that Europe's 1999 currency union would be delayed.
The unsubstantiated rumours, which could be a precursor to ever-increasing market turbulence as the 1998 deadline on choosing currency union members draws nearer, drove up the Deutsche mark sharply against the lira, peseta and escudo during early European trading.
The Deutsche mark's surge triggered selling of the German currency by the Bank of Italy and the Bank of Spain, traders said. As usual, neither bank would confirm the foreign exchange intervention.
And European stocks are mostly lower in London trading Friday, partly in reaction to the rumours. German officials Friday issued blunt denials in response to the market talk, which in various versions purported that Germany was going to announce a delay in the currency union or that it was going to make an unspecified announcement about Southern European EU members' participation.
German government spokesman Peter Hausmann said the market rumours reflect a ''vivid imagination'' in the markets that ''has nothing to do with reality.'
''In other words, there is no truth to it,'' he said.
The German finance ministry and the Deutsche Bundesbank also flatly denied the market talk that the country is preparing to announce a delay in Europe's planned 1999 currency union.
''Neither here nor in Bonn are we planning an announcement,'' a Bundesbank spokesman said. ''The rumour is total nonsense and it lacks any basis,' he said, adding, 'We are not aware of any intentions which go in this direction.'
 US economy grew slower than originally thought in 4th quarterExports and personal spending helped boost economic growth in the fourth quarter of 1996, but at a slower pace than previously thought, the Commerce Department said.
The economy, as measured by gross domestic product, expanded at a 3.9% rate in the fourth quarter, Commerce said. In an advance report last month, the Commerce Department estimated GDP grew at a 4.7% rate in the fourth quarter.
The report also confirmed that inflationary pressures remained subdued in the fourth quarter. The chain-weighted index for GDP was unrevised at 1.8%. That was the lowest reading since the third quarter of 1992 when it was 1.5%.
The downward revision to GDP was more than accounted for by a slower accumulation of business inventories than previously estimated, the Commerce Department said.
Businesses increased inventories $16.4 billion in the fourth quarter, substantially less than the $31.9 billion originally reported.
Real final sales, which measures GDP less the change in inventories, was revised to 5.0% from 4.9%.
Fourth-quarter economic growth picked up from the 2.1% pace in the third quarter, but was down from the 4.7% rate in the second quarter.
''As in the advance estimate, real GDP growth accelerated from the third to the fourth quarter, and the acceleration was more than accounted for by a sharp turnaround in exports and an acceleration in consumer spending that were moderated by a downturn in inventory investment,'' the Commerce Department said.
Despite the weaker figure for fourth-quarter GDP, the revised report showed the economy had considerable momentum as last year ended. The quarterly GDP figure will be revised a final time a month from now.
For example, consumer spending -- which fuels two-thirds of national economic activity -- was revised upward modestly to show an annual rate of increase of $39.8 billion, instead of $38.8 billion as previously estimated.
Before the revised report was released, analysts pointed out that even if lower inventories put a dent in fourth-quarter growth, it still might provide a bounce for the first quarter as manufacturers power up to replenish stocks.
 Neste's 1996 profits plunge, but firm forecasts growth in the current yearNeste's 1996 profits nearly halved, hit by losses in crude oil trading and by growing retail competition.
The energy group, Finland's largest company, said operating profit plunged 98% to 1.08 billion markkaa ($162 million) from 2.14 billion markkaa the year before. Pre-tax profit slumped 44% to 745 million markkaa.
Sales were flat at 43.38 billion markkaa. Neste said losses in crude trading rose to 560 million markka from 495 million reported for January- August, but it no longer had major exposure.
'The trading contracts due to mature in 1998 that were open at the turn of the year were closed at the end of February 1997. Consequently, the group no longer has trading contracts that would have a material impact on earnings in future years,' Neste said.
It said the increase in the losses was due to the strengthening of the dollar and the fact that commitments due at the end of this year were booked as liabilities in 1996.
Neste said its refining profitability improved, helped by stronger refining margins internationally, but increased retail competition capped the unit's overall results.
Falling prices also weakened its chemicals business, but exploration and production doubled its overall profit.
'Uncertain market prices notwithstanding, Neste's performance in 1997 is likely to be better than in 1996,' Neste said.
 Porsche net profit nearly quadruples in first halfPorsche said that first-half net profit nearly quadrupled last year and that it expects to show a 25% jump in sales in the current year.
The German sportscar maker said 1996 net profit soared to 38.4 million Deutsche marks ($22.7 million). And in a letter to shareholders, the company said sales should rise about 25% in the current year to about 3.5 billion marks.
Group sales in the period jumped 26% to 1.78 billion marks. The gain was led by robust demand for Porche's new Boxster model and the continued popularity of its 911 model.
The earnings are nearly 2 million marks higher than the company had said they would be in a preliminary report at the end of January.
Porsche said margins were boosted mainly by improvements in operational processes, and to a lesser extent by the stronger dollar.
The company also noted that the group sales figure for the first half includes 484 million marks from spare parts sales, leasing and other activities. Revenues from auto sales alone were up 18% at £1.3 billion.
Employment within the group also rose by 9% to 7,565. Including new consolidations, employment was 7,896, up 14%.
 EU commission will look closely at GAN bailout planA European Union Commission spokesman said the panel will probe with a fine- tooth comb France's plans for a bailout of 20 billion francs ($3.55 billion)for state-controlled insurer Groupe des Assurances Generales.
French Finance Minister Jean Arthuis late Thursday unveiled plans to recapitalise the company to the tune of 11 billion francs, and pump a further 9 billion francs into GAN to write off debt.
This will be the second time GAN's fate has come under the commission spectre. Last year, the EU executive body cleared a 2.8 billion franc capital increase, on condition GAN privatise its CIC banking unit, a major distributor of life assurance products. The French government said then that GAN itself would be privatised after 1997 ''as soon as market conditions and progress with the group's restructuring plan permit.'
Arthuis admitted, however, that that restructuring plan hadn't been realistic. ''There was probably too optimistic a gamble taken,'' he said.
The new bailout plan will separate the company into three separate divisions: insurance, under GAN; banking, under CIC; and a separate division holding UIC and other businesses.
Earlier in the day, trading in GAN was suspended four times in a row on the Paris bourse, with regulators saying they would requote only if the stock price stayed under a ceiling of 149.10 francs. The shares were suspended at 123 francs on Thursday ahead of the bailout announcement.
Several attempts to requote were abandoned after the share price repeatedly breached limits triggering a halt in trading.
Speaking on Europe 1 radio this morning, French Finance Minister Jean Arthuis also reiterated that the restructuring of France's banking system must move ahead quickly and that he expects state-controlled insurer Groupement des Assurances Nationales to be privatised this year.
 Deutsche Telekom discusses business links with C&WDeutsche Telekom said it's talking with Cable & Wireless of the UK about business links, but both companies cautioned against jumping to conclusions.
'We talk with everyone,' Deutsche Telekom Chairman Ron Sommer told a dinner gathering this week. 'But to interpret anything into it would be wrong.'
Analysts said that while any deal wouldn't be imminent, the possibility of Germany's national carrier and Britain's second-largest telecommunications group teaming up makes sense.
A link-up would give Deutsche Telekom access to the UK market, which it has long singled out as a key country where it lacks presence, as well as Hong Kong, potentially giving it an entree into Asia, analysts said. For C&W, a deal with either Deutsche Telekom or with its Global One alliance with Sprint Corp. of the US and France Telecom would give C&W sorely needed muscle. Some say Global One may have an edge over other global telecom alliances because C&W Chairman Richard Brown is a former Sprint executive.
But other potential partnerships for C&W have faltered. Earlier this month, the company pulled out of its German alliance with Veba and RWE, citing differences over strategy. An attempt by British Telecommunications PLC to buy the company last year also foundered.
'Analysts and investors are often very quick to put two and two together and have it reach five,' said Evan Miller, a European telecom analyst with Credit Suisse First Boston Corp. 'I don't think there's a certainty here at all, and they are right to add a note of caution or a note of realism.'
 EMS Chemie beats expectations and shows 12% profit gainEMS Chemie Holding outpaced analysts forecasts and posted a 12% rise in net profit.
The Swiss chemical firm said net profit rose last year to 229 million francs ($156.8 million). Operating profit rose 10% to 152 million francs. Analysts attributed the improvement to the effect of the weaker Swiss franc and higher-than-forecast financial and operating incomes.
EMS credited its 1996 group results to the 'active efforts made to concentrate on high-yield products.' The company said these products have a strong market position. It also cited 'excellent cost discipline' and 'high standards applied in the management of cash assets.'
EMS said its 1996 operating income margin as a percentage of sales was 16%. Group sales rose 2.3% to 945 million francs in 1996.
The company said it expects its sales to rise in 1997. Operating income should also rise, the company said, if the currency-rate situation 'doesn't significantly deteriorate.'
EMS predicted that 1997 financial income would at least hold at the 1996 level.
Cash flow will cover planned investments of about 95 million francs in 1997, the company said.
Chairman and Chief Executive Christoph Blocher said in a renewed effort to boost return on equity, the parent company is considering skipping a cash dividend for the 1996-97 financial year ending April 30. The company paid 150 francs a share the previous year.
Instead, the company would launch a share buyback, and announce details in May.
Shareholders equity as part of total capital currently amounts to 67.2%, which corresponds to 951 million francs. Blocher said an ideal ratio would be 50%.
In discussing prospects for this year, Blocher said business started well for the company and expressed confidence that operating results will increase.
He said the company had no immediate plans for acquisitions, but said that 'we are continually monitoring' possible candidates.
 UK political analysts predict Labour victory after crushing Tory defeat in by-electionA resounding British Conservative defeat in the key Wirral South by- election has convinced many political insiders that the stage has been set for an opposition Labour Party victory in coming general elections.
Labour's candidate, 56-year-old former civil servant Ben Chapman, stormed to a 7,888 majority over his Conservative rival Les Byrom in the Tory stronghold, a 17% swing, with a 73% turn-out.
The Labour win, largely in line with pollsters' forecasts, gave sterling only a tiny nudge lower, currency traders said. Markets have had time to get used to the idea that after 18 years, the Conservatives could lose government in a vote due by May 22. Opinion polls have consistently shown the opposition party with a solid lead over the Tories.
The most recent, a MORI poll published in The Times of London Thursday, had Labour 21 percentage points ahead of the Conservatives. Labour was favoured by 52% of those who had made up their minds, compared with 55% in a similar survey a month ago and 51% in December.
Conservative Party Chairman Brian Mawhinney Friday put the loss down to a 'by-election culture' and predicted the Conservatives would win the general election.
Mawhinney's party has lost every Tory-held seat in by-elections since 1989 when the last 'survivor,' William Hague, now Welsh Secretary, managed to cling on to Richmond, North Yorkshire.
Even constituencies which boasted five-figure majorities have not been immune. In this Parliament alone, they have played a prominent role in the gradual erosion and final destruction of Prime Minister John Major's original 21-seat majority in 1992.
However, in the last general election in 1992, the Conservatives regained all their by-election losses of the previous Parliament.
That precedent doesn't seem to be making Labour overly nervous. The by- election turnout Thursday was one of the highest seen in the last five years, despite heavy rains.
 NTTstock drops 4% after firm's profit forecast falls below expectationsNippon Telegraph & Telephone shares dropped 4% in Tokyo trading after its fiscal 1997 profit forecast came in below expectations.
The company's shares closed at 859,000 from 893,000.
The Japanese telecommunications giant issued its first official forecast for the new fiscal year, predicting a slight 1.4% rise in . parent-only pre- tax profit to 354 billion yen ($2.9 billion).
However, Japan Company Handbook, a reference book for many market participants, listed its own forecast for NTT at Y400 billion yen in pre- tax profit earlier this year.
Traders say the fact that NTT's own forecast fell far short of the reference book's projection triggered a sell-off in NTT and pushed the overall market lower.
Shuichi Kizuka, an NTT managing director, said a drop in telephone-related revenue due to a long-distance rate cut enacted in February will be more than offset in the next fiscal year by strong sales of new home- and small business-use digital phone lines. The company said it expects to sign up 830,000 new subscribers to its INS Net 64 integrated services digital network service in the 12 months to March 1998.
Kizuka said NTT will complete the ongoing digitalisation of its domestic network by the end of the next fiscal year, allowing the company to cut its expected capital outlays to 1.940 trillion yen, down from the 1.980 trillion yen NTT expects to spend in the current fiscal year.
By April 1998, all of NTT's switching equipment will be digital, Kizuka said, while fiber-optic cable will cover 19% of the country.
 ITT plans to expand hotel operations by 5% over 3 yearsITT, embroiled in a $6.5 billion hostile take-over attempt by Hilton Hotels, announced plans to expand its hotel operations by more than 5% over the next three years.
ITT, based in New York, said it will buy one hotel and has entered franchise or management agreements with 27 other hotels around the world. In all, the expansion will add some 7,100 rooms to the roughly 132,000 hotel rooms that ITT owns or operates through its ITT Sheraton subsidiary.
The company said the expansion isn't a defence against Hilton's bid, which ITT has rejected as 'inadequate.' 'It doesn't have anything to do with the Hilton offer,' Jim Gallagher, ITT's spokesman, said. He added, 'This is how you run a hotel business.'
Hilton executives agreed. Calling ITT's hotel agreements 'terrific,' Hilton spokesman Marc Grossman said, 'We've said all along that one of the reasons ITT is attractive to us is the hotels.'
Meanwhile, Hilton, of Beverly Hills, California, took steps to prevent ITT from delaying its annual meeting, asking a Nevada judge to order the meeting held as usual in May. ITT said it isn't ready to set the date of its meeting, at which shareholders will consider Hilton's $55-a-share tender offer and nominees for ITT's board. The company says it isn't legally obligated to hold the meeting until mid-November.
ITT closed on the $15 million acquisition of a 239-room hotel in Monterrey, Mexico, last Friday. It said it will open 14 new Four Points Hotels, which is its midpriced brand, under franchise agreements in the US and Canada this year. The company has entered a franchise agreement for a Sheraton Grande Edmonton Hotel in Alberta, Canada. And it has entered agreements to manage a dozen international hotels in Israel, Malaysia, Argentina, Finland, China, Vietnam and the Philippines.
 Mazda plans to integrate 5 North American unitsMazda Motor, the Japanese automaker 33.4% owned by Ford Motor, has asked a former Ford executive to direct efforts to integrate 5 North American units in a move aimed at strengthening the company's position in that market.
Richard N. Beattie, formerly executive director of Americas and world-wide export operations, Ford automotive operations in Detroit, will become head of Mazda's North American operations from March 1, a Mazda spokesman said.
He said Beattie will begin putting a plan together to integrate Mazda's five North American subsidiaries in a bid to make them more efficient.
''It will probably take about three months before the plan is ready, so it's impossible to say now what it will involve,'' the spokesman said.
Mazda's North American operations have been slumping recently. Mazda Motor of America Inc. announced earlier this month that its January car sales came to 4,873 units, down from 5,938 units in the same month last year. Truck sales slipped to 2,651 units, down from 2,868 units.
Beattie's job will be to integrate the operations of Mazda (North America) Inc., Mazda Motor of America, Mazda Systems Services of North America, Inc., Mazda Research & Development of North America, Inc. and Mazda Canada Inc., the spokesman said. It's unclear whether the re-alignment will result in job cuts, the spokesman said.
The spokesman said Beattie will report directly to Henry D.G. Wallace, president of the parent company, and he will be based at the California headquarters of Mazda Motor of America.
In previous posts, Beattie was executive director for Ford's rental, lease and remarketing operations and, before that, was vice president of US sales and marketing for Jaguar.
 Corporate and Economic BriefsOrders to Germany's machine and plant-building industry rose a real 16% in January from January 1996, the VDMA machinery industry association said. The rise follows a decline of a real 13% in December. Domestic orders were up sharply compared to previous months, rising by 28%, while foreign orders rose by only 4%. The VDMA gave no reason for the rise, though the Deutsche mark was significantly weaker in January, making German domestic products cheaper than previously.
Spain's Telefonica de Espana said 1996 revenue gained on the back of domestic telephone service use, which grew 16%, as well as mobile telephone use, which grew 128.6%, and international business revenues, which grew 19% for the same period, the company said. At the end of 1996, the company had 2.34 million mobile telephone clients, up 153% from 1995. In international business, the company said the activity of its CTC in Chile and Telefonica de Peru grew, while Telefonica International managed more than 10 billion lines of service and more than 984,000 cellular phone clients. In addition, the international branch of the company had nearly 1.15 million cable television clients, the company said.
Ranstad Holding, a Dutch commercial services company, said its net profit in 1996 rose 27% to 207.4 million guilders ($110 million) on a 27% jump in sales to 5.95 billion guilders. For the current year, Randstad said it is 'optimistic' about its prospects, and said sales and profit growth are expected to broadly exceed the 10% average annual growth of its markets. Randstad said it won market share in all the regions where it is active, and that its number of branches increased by 7% to 962. The daily average number of temporary workers at Randstad in 1996 was 148,000, up from 118, 000 in 1995, the company said.
Getronics, a Dutch information technology company said 1996 profit rose 35% to 131.6 million guilders ($70 million) thanks to internal growth of 14% as well as the full-year consolidation of its 100% stake in software services company Raet. Sales rose to 2.21 billion guilders from 1.7 billion guilders in 1995. Getronics said, barring unforeseen developments, 'continuing growth in net sales and earnings is expected.' The company also said its 'strategy remains focused on internal growth in order to take advantage of favourable market conditions. Furthermore an active acquisitions policy will be pursued,' Getronics said.
Dutch retail sales in the fourth quarter of 1996 rose an unadjusted 4.5% from the same period a year earlier, and in December rose 0.2% from December 1995, the Central Bureau for Statistics said. After adjustment for a 0.6% increase in prices, however, the CBS said the volume of retail sales in December declined 0.5% from a year earlier. The CBS also revised its figure for 1996 retail sales growth to 3.4%, from its earlier report of a 3.2% increase from 1995. The CBS said that in 1996, the increase in food sales was limited to 2.7% from a year earlier, while non-food sales gained by 3.7%. The biggest gain in retail sales was recorded in the DIY sector, which showed 7.1% sales growth from a year earlier.
Fuchs Petrolub said that its preliminary net profit for 1996 will probably be around 'last year's level,' although operating profit 'rose clearly.' However, the German lubricants maker said it expects net profit to rise in the current year, noting it said sees sales rise 7% this year, to 1.45 billion Deutsche marks ($868 million), and earnings growing at an even faster rate. In 1995, the company reported a net profit of 28 million marks. Fuchs said extraordinary items and restructuring expenditures put 1996's earnings under pressure.
The Austrian Finance Ministry, citing a study the WIFO economics institute, said participation in a common European currency will add half a percentage point in real growth a year in the mid-term. 'The study shows that the earliest possible participation by Austria will bring clear advantages, while not participating would mean a break from the valuable Austrian hard-currency policy with serious negative affects for the economy and employment,' the ministry's summary said. The study was commissioned by the government ahead of a information campaign set to begin in mid-March to convince Austrian's of the benefits of joining the Economic and Monetary Union, which is slated to start Jan. 1, 1999.
Finland's total output grew by 6.2% in the year to December, 1996, faster than the 4.4% rise in the year to November, statistics agency Statistics Finland said. Output rose a seasonally adjusted 0.4% in December from November, and increased in all branches of industry. The greatest increases were noted in the construction industry, where output rose by nearly 16% from a year earlier, and in the manufacturing sector which saw a 9% increase in output calculated per working day.
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