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European Business News (EBN), 97-03-13
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Page last updated March 13 1900 CET
 U.S. retail sales grew briskly in February following strong January revisionU.S. retailers showed brisk sales activity in February, reflecting continued strong consumer demand at the start of 1997.
The February retail sales data followed strongly revised January figures that showed the strongest surge in nearly a year. Retail sales increased 0.8% in February to a seasonally adjusted $213.18 billion. The rise was led by gains in auto sales and building materials.
January retail sales were revised to an increase of 1.5%, the largest monthly gain since February 1996 when retail sales rose by 1.9%. January retail sales were previously reported as rising by 0.6%.
The Commerce Department said the January revision, while large, was not unusual and was not tied to one particular item.
The department said calculating January retail sales is more difficult than other months because many retailers close their books for the fiscal year in January.
The February performance was a notch above expectations. A Dow Jones Newswires' survey of 23 economists forecast retail sales to be up by 0.7%. Retail sales, excluding autos, was forecast to be up by 0.5%.
A Commerce Department official said sales of virtually all types of goods were revised upward in January. Many retailers were still in the process of closing their books on year-end sales during January, so revisions in that month tend to be larger than for other months, the official said.
Analysts said before the report was released that steady job and income gains, a rising stock market and generally strong consumer confidence were bolstering retail demand.
That was reflected in the February sales report, which showed a 1.6% jump to $87.6 billion in sales of costly and long-lasting durable goods like new cars, hardware and furniture after a 1.5% January rise.
Sales of more quickly used nondurables, such as food, drugs and gasoline, were up more moderately last month by 0.2% to $125.6 billion following a much stronger 1.5% January gain.
During February, sales by automobile dealers rose 1.7% to $53 billion after a 1.9% increase in January.
New cars account for one-quarter of total retail sales, so swings in demand strongly affect the overall monthly figures. Excluding cars, retail sales rose 0.5% last month after a 1.4% pickup in January.
 Kohl and mining union reach compromise on reducing subsidiesGerman Chancellor Helmut Kohl and mining union leaders have reached a compromise that will avoid massive job cuts but sharply reduce government subsidies to the coal industry.
Bonn still wants subsidies cut 39% to 5.5 billion marks ($3.2 billion) from about 9 billion marks to by the year 2005, said Friedrich Bohl, Chancellor Helmut Kohl's chief of staff.
However, Economics Minister Guenter Rexrodt said that as a result of an agreement reached in talks with Germany's two coal-mining states, and with leaders of the coal industry and the miners' union, only one mine will be forced to close by the year 2000.
The mining industry and North Rhine-Westphalia - Germany's main coal- producing state - have agreed to provide funds needed to keep other mines running in the interim, Rexrodt said.
Nonetheless, the number of coal mines will have to be reduced by half after 2000, Rexrodt said.
Hans Berger, head of the IG Bergbau mining union, said he was satisfied with the agreement he helped negotiate during a one-hour meeting at Kohl's office. He hailed the deal as a success that met the union's main goals, and many of the protesting miners awaiting the news in nearby Cologne appeared ready to accept it.
'The fight was worth it,' Berger said, adding that he had the impression from union officials that the miners would accept the deal.
The miners had virtually besieged Bonn's government quarter for three days this week, but withdrew Wednesday after Kohl postponed talks planned for Tuesday at short notice, saying he would not negotiate in a climate of intimidation.
After Kohl's government said last week it would slash the subsidies, tens of thousands of coal miners walked away from the pits and started daily demonstrations to demand that ways be found to avoid massive layoffs.
 Fokker trustees reach pact aimed at reviving collapsed plane makerThe trustees of bankrupt aircraft manufacturer Fokker, the Dutch government, industrial machinery group Stork and Deleye Investment Group have signed a memorandum of understanding aimed at resuscitating the collapsed company before May 1, Fokker said.
The parties are now planning to negotiate with Khazanah Holdings, an investment company owned by the Malaysian government, to see whether they are willing to contribute some financing for the new Fokker.
If Khazanah is interested then Fokker will seek further financing and consult with major suppliers and customers, the Fokker statement said.
Fokker cautioned however that the signing of the memorandum is only a first step and that a 'number of essential matters shall have to be settled between now and May 1, 1997, before an actual restart can take place.'
Fokker also said that even if some of the assets of Fokker Aircraft are sold 'no payment on the (certificates of) shares or subordinated loans shall be possible.'
Fokker had said earlier that no payment on share certificates or subordinated loans issued by Koninklijke Nederlandse Vliegtuigfabriek Fokker would be forthcoming.
The bankrupt Fokker companies will not participate in the new Fokker Aircraft factory.
Fokker's more viable units were restarted under the name of Fokker Aviation and acquired by Dutch industrial machinery group Stork last summer for about 300 million guilders ($157.9 million).
The aircraft manufacturing unit was given a few aircraft orders to keep it going while it searched for an investor.
Fokker has been looking for more than a year for a suitor to take over all or part of the company, but failed to convince a handful of candidates including Canada's Bombardier Inc. and the Samsung Group.
Fokker collapsed in March 1996, folding the three units that made up 90% of its activities and laying off 5,600 workers after majority shareholder Germany's Daimler-Benz withdrew its support, following months of negotiations with the Dutch government.
Fokker reported losses of 651 million guilders in the first half of 1995.
 Spanish inflation slides on a slippery index componentThe most slippery item in the food and beverage component in Spain's consumer price index - olive oil - oozed passed the calculations of most analysts who expected a favourable reduction in consumer prices.
'The figures were really good. Better than I was expecting,' said Juli Collins-Thompson, Italian and Spanish markets analyst at Yamaichi International in London. 'Food prices dropped 0.8% on the month and most of that was due to lower olive oil prices.'
Spain's CPI was down 0.1% in February from January, lowering the year-on- year rate to 2.5% from 2.9% in January, the national statistics institute said Thursday.
Underlying inflation, a measure of consumer prices excluding fresh food and energy prices, increased 0.1% in February, lowering the year-on-year underlying, or 'core' rate to 2.3%, down from 2.8% in January.
According to Collins-Thompson, Spain's case is almost an exact replica of what has happened in Italy over recent months, with olive oil being one of the principal factors for that country's lower inflation rate.
'Obviously, we'll have to pay more attention to this (olive oil) in the Mediterranean countries,' since it appears to have a stronger weighting in the component's basket, said Collins-Thompson. 'Realistically, I guess I was too pessimistic about the food component's performance.'
General food and beverages in February were down 0.8% on the month, and up 1.3% on the year, as compared to up 0.2% on the month and up 1.9% on the year in January. Processed food was down 0.4% on the month from down 0.3% in January, and in February was up 0.5% on the year from up 1.8% on the year in January.
The latest European Union's harmonised CPI showed the E.U. CPI up 2.2% from a year earlier, with only Spain, Greece and Portugal not having yet met Maastricht Treaty criteria for European economic and monetary union convergence of inflation rates. Meeting the criteria would allow them to be among the first countries forming Europe's planned single currency Jan. 1, 1999.
The E.U.'s calculation for January was 2.8% - instead of Spain's calculation of 2.9% - actually closer to convergence criteria. The E.U.'s harmonised figures for February are still to be released.
'I think what this (February CPI) shows that Spain will at least meet EMU criteria for inflation,' said Collins-Thompson.
'They were exceptionally good figures,' agreed David Brown, chief European economist at Bear Stearns International in London. 'It just highlights the sort of disinflation going on in Spain.' Both Brown and Collins-Thompson see Spanish inflation continuing to drop, possibly bottoming out in the range of 2.00%-2.25% by mid-1997.
Robert S. Duncan, AP-Dow Jones, Madrid
Judi Collins-Thompson, economist at Yamaichi International in London, discusses the Spanish economy with EBN's Sarah Clements
Peseta is expected to firm against its European counterparts if central banks holds back on rate cut
 Enterprise Oil earnings surged in 1996 on higher prices and new discoveriesEnterprise Oil posted a 77% surge in 1996 pretax profit bolstered by higher crude oil prices and exploration successes.
Enterprise said that it added 160 million barrels of oil equivalent to its reserves and that average daily production rose 3% to 242,932 barrels of oil equivalent.
The company's pretax profit figure of £355.1 million ($568 million) was at the high end of analysts' expectations as was a dividend increase of 6% to 17 pence a share.
The markets were pleased with the performance by the UK's largest independent oil company and Enterprise's stock price showed strong gains.
'I think the best things in this set of results are the dividend, which showed a good rise, but also the large level of (oil equivalent) replacement' said Elizabeth Butler, analyst at Panmure Gordon.
John Toalster, analyst at Societe Generale Strauss Turnbull said: 'The big thing was the replacement ratio at 193%, which is very strong indeed.'
He said he was also impressed by Enterprise's production target of 320,000 barrels a day by 1999, compared with 242,932 barrels in 1996.
'What these figures suggest is that Enterprise is going to power ahead in the near term, but they don't really say much about the longer term prospects of the group,' said Toalster.
Chairman Graham Hearne said Enterprise is in 'excellent shape', with a range of exploration possibilities in its three core areas of the U.K., Norway/Denmark and Italy.
'The U.S. Gulf of Mexico is emerging as the group's fourth core area while, for the longer-term, we have promising exploration opportunities in other countries,' he added.
New Chief Executive Pierre Jungels quashed rumours that the company was preparing for a major acquisition.
Bid hopes had spread through the market after weekend reports that Enterprise might spend as much as £1 billion on an acquisition.
Monument Oil and Gas and British-Borneo were mentioned as potential targets. British-Borneo has promising operations in the Gulf of Mexico.
But Jungels said Enterprise was not interested in either firm and said that chances of an acquisition in 1996 were no bigger than in previous years.
 NatWest suspends more staff and boosts charges for options lossesNational Westminster Bank has suspended four more members of its NatWest Markets staff and announced that it will take a net charge against first half pretax profit of £77 million ($123 million) in connection with its losses in interest rate options trading.
The bank also says that it will not be paying bonuses to personnel in the loss making derivatives group.
The figure is higher than the £50 million provision announced in February, following a thorough examination of its interest rate options portfolio.
'The losses have been quantified and the first stage of the investigation has confirmed that they are confined to the interest rate options area,' said NatWest. The bank suspended four more members of its NatWest Markets staff in addition to the two suspended when the losses were first announced.
NatWest said the suspensions were 'part of NatWest Markets' normal investigation procedure' and it stressed that the decision carried 'no implication of misconduct.'
Those suspended include Ian Gaskell (head of swaps options trading, U.K. and Europe), Christophe Lanson (global head of rate risk management), Jean- Francois Nguyen (managing director, debt derivatives) and Phil Wise (chief administrative officer and former senior managing director, capital Markets).
Neil Dodgson, global head of options, has already been suspended and Kyriacos Papouis, an options trader, left the group on Dec. 16, 1996.
NatWest said Peter Hall, president and chief operating officer at NatWest Markets, will temporarily assume extra responsibilities as chief administrative officer, and Vincent Tomasi, currently senior vice president and head of U.S. debt capital markets at NatWest Markets, New York, is acting head of global debt derivatives.
NatWest also said that bonus payments to personnel in the global debt derivatives group of NatWest Markets totalling £8 million won't be paid.
In addition, it said, Martin Owen, NatWest Markets chief executive, will forgo £200,000 of his performance-related bonus for 1996.
 Credit Lyonnais to sell majority stake in WoodchesterCredit Lyonnais said it will sell its 53.4% stake in Irish specialist finance group Woodchester Investments, a move that could net the state- owned French bank as much as 315 million punts ($491 million).
But that's a drop in the bucket for financially troubled Credit Lyonnais, which needs as much as $2 billion in hard cash to shore up its balance sheet and bring its capital ratios up to international standards ahead of a planned privatisation in late 1998.
'The sale is an acknowledgement that Credit Lyonnais will honour its underlying commitment to divest its non-core European assets,' said Sheila Garrard, banking analyst at Lehman Brothers in London. 'Woodchester is the beginning of the sell-off process and one tiny piece towards that goal.'
Credit Lyonnais must sell off non-French assets to win European Union approval for a second massive bailout package from the French government.
Just who will buy the 212.1 million Woodchester shares is anybody's guess. At the intraday price, the group is capitalised at around 604 million punts, although any bidder would likely have to pay a premium, banking specialists said. The purchase will also herald the largest takeover of a quoted Irish company.
Because of the size of the French bank's shareholding, the sale will automatically trigger an outright bid for Woodchester's entire share capital. Chase Investment Bank and Goldman Sachs International are leading the search for buyers.
One of the front-runners to buy the stake is U.S. leasing company General Electric Capital, a unit of General Electric, which has already approached Credit Lyonnais, according to London-based corporate-finance sources.
Also among potential buyers are several British financial institutions, including commercial bank Barclays. Market-watchers say that closer to home, Ulster Bank, a unit of National Westminster Bank, may be interested in Woodchester because it doesn't have a strong auto-finance network in the Irish Republic and could afford the transaction based on NatWest's strong balance sheet.
U.K. bank Abbey National also is thought to be in contention for Woodchester, which might make a nice fit with its First National Finance consumer-credit activities.
Irish Permanent, for its part, said it's not interested in Woodchester.
Woodchester underwent a painful retrenchment in the early 1990s, when it suffered from a combination of rapid expansion and management difficulties. That was compounded by the recession, while a slump in interest rates ate into the substantial returns Woodchester had been banking from surplus capital.
But in the last year, the company has clinched a series of key deals across Europe that have raised its profile as a focused company in its niche markets of Britain, Denmark, Ireland and Portugal.
Debra Marks, AP-Dow Jones, Dublin
 Olivetti says PC operations will return to profit within 12 monthsOlivetti's chairman Bernard Auer claims that Olivetti Personal Computers division should swing to profit within twelve months. In an interview with Dow Jones Newswires, he also raised the possibility of a share listing, though not in the immediate future.
'The (new) investors expect to see the company swing from red to black in a twelve-month period,' he said. Auer declined, however, to specify the company's loss in 1996.
In February, Italian information services group Ing. C. Olivetti & C. sold off its loss-making personal computer subsidiary to holding company Piedmont International, controlled by London-based U.S. lawyer Edward Gottesman.
The Olivetti group now only holds only a 12% stake in the personal computer firm.
Auer noted that the current gross profit margin in the market totals between 20% and 30%, and that 'some of the product range' falls within this band.
However, he said that there still is work to be done to raise margins on some products.
Auer sees the majority of future profits stemming from notebooks and servers, which are the fastest-growing product areas. 'Most of the profit will be generated in these areas, which are the fastest-growing sectors, and offer the most value-added,' he said.
With regard to a future public listing of Olivetti Personal Computers in its own right, Auer said he 'could not exclude a possible listing' in the future.
He cautioned, however, that 'there are certain advantages to being a private company,' and noted that the company's shareholder structure must first be finalized and the firm put back on its feet before the issue is raised.
He cautioned, however, that 'there are certain advantages to being a private company,' and noted that the company's shareholder structure must first be finalized and the firm put back on its feet before the issue is raised.
'That would then be an issue for the board and the shareholders,' he said.
Though there will be no major restructuring of the personal computer company, Olivetti PC will invest in new agreements and services, Auer said. 'The largest part of the restructuring has already taken place,' he said.
Auer said Olivetti PC is co-operating with SAP to provide the German software applications company's main runner - the R/3 business administration software package on its products 'wall to wall' to small and medium-sized businesses. 'There'll be investment, but not in the sense of' considerable capital inflows, he said.
On Thursday, Olivetti also announced a cross-European initiative with Microsoft Corp. of the U.S. to provide small and medium-sized companies with Windows NT-based Olivetti PC platforms spanning all the company's computer sectors - servers, notebooks, desktops and workstations.
'Our agreement with Microsoft adds more value to Olivetti PC solutions, by preloading Microsoft Windows NT Workstation 4.0 or Windows NT Server 4.0 on a selection of servers, notebooks and desktops,' Auer said.
 Germany reasserts that it will meet the criteria for monetary unionGerman economics minister Guenter Rexrodt said Europe's planned 1999 single currency will start on time and that Germany will qualify in 1997.
''We will meet the criteria and introduce the euro within the timetable,'' Rexrodt said after a news conference in Bonn. Meanwhile, German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel said in a German newspaper interview that there is ''no doubt'' about the European Union's intent to introduce the euro on time on Jan. 1, 1999.
Since the agreement among European Union members on a so-called stability pact, ''a point of no return'' has been reached on the currency union, Kinkel said in an interview in Die Welt. ''Also, the financial markets, which usually have unerring instincts, appear to be assuming that the introduction will be on time,'' he added.
Germany has a ''realistic chance'' of meeting the EMU entry criteria in 1997, he said, adding that there can be no common European currency without German and French participation.
Some observers continue to remain sceptical of the benefits of EMU and of whether a single currency makes economic sense.
Bill Cash, a Conservative Member of Parliament in Britain told EBN that Germany was unlikely to meet the criteria without 'creative accounting' and said that the drive for EMU was a political rather than an economic force. (See audio below)
But Philip Shaw, chief economist with Union Discount in London, says Germany may meet the criteria, but Paris will have a harder time. (See audio below)
Bill Cash, Conservative MP in Britain, discusses EMU with EBN's Anna Mike
Philip Shaw, Chief Economist at Union Discount in London, discusses the chances of Bonn and Germany meeting the criteria for the planned European single currency
 Legal & General operating profit gains 15% on strong U.K. operationsLegal & General Group said its full year operating profit rose 15% in 1996 largely on the back of a strong performance in its core U.K. life and pensions markets.
Operating profit climbed to £291.4 million ($466.2 million).
Legal & General said pretax profit of £1.94 billion, was distorted by the reclassification of shareholders' retained capital within the U.K. long term fund, in line with a European Union Insurance Accounts Directive. The adjustment was made in March and first reflected in the company's interim accounts in September last year.
In an interview with Dow Jones Newswires, Prosser said Legal & General leads the field in volume growth, posting a 54% expansion of new premium income. Its market share of U.K. business is now around 5% compared with 3.25% two years ago. 'We are in the business of providing a good deal for the consumer as well as a good return for shareholders,' he said.
Legal & General's total dividend for 1996 was 11.13 pence per share from 9.76 pence a year earlier. Prosser said future distributions are likely to mirror the current 14% growth.
'Although I can't make a dividend prediction, we base our progress on the ability to make transfers from the long term fund. Projecting forward for the next five years, if every thing stays equal, we can see 14% per annum growth,' said Prosser.
In a statement accompanying the results, Prosser said 1996's growth in dividend reflects changes in the operation of the U.K. long term fund.
'These enable the directors to adopt a basis for transfers from the long term fund which reflects the shareholders' interest in this fund,' said Prosser.
Prosser said the overall growth in revenue and profit reflect the company's ability to achieve organic growth and offer competitive products.
'The pursuit of our strategy has led to our success in 1996. It underpins our optimism for continued growth, despite the competitiveness of the market place. The first two months of 1997 have continued the momentum,' said Prosser.
 CeBIT '97: What's happening at the world's biggest computer and telecoms fairSiemens said it continued to post 'solid growth' in its telecommunications businesses in the first five months of its fiscal year ending Sept. 31, 1997. It attributed the projected growth to its broad range of telecommunications products offered in a market that is showing strong growth.
Siemens Nixdorf Informationssysteme, the computer division of Germany's Siemens, said its unadjusted sales rose 11% to DM5.7 billion in the first five months of the current fiscal year ending Sept. 31. Adjusted for changes in the company's consolidation, sales rose 13% in the first five months, the company said. Over the five months, new orders rose an unadjusted 13% to DM6.0 billion, the company said. On an adjusted basis, new orders were up 14%.
Mannesmann Mobilfunk said it signed an agreement with Omnipoint Communications that will allow its D2 mobile phone network customers to telephone from parts of the U.S. The Omnipoint network is in operation in the greater New York area, and will soon expand to cover New Jersey, Vermont, Connecticut and other states in its license area, the Mannesmann Mobilfunk mobile telecommunications unit of industrial company Mannesmann said at a press conference. Separately, Mannesmann Mobilfunk said it will introduce six-month tryout tariffs for first-time customers in April. First- time D2 users won't have to pay a connection or basic monthly fee for a six- month period, as long as the monthly telephone bill totals at least DM29.95.
Mannesmann management board member and Mannesmann Arcor Chairman Peter Mihatsch Wednesday called on the German government to speed up its appointment of a telecommunications market regulatory body for when the market is liberalized on Jan. 1, 1998. 'The names of those responsible for regulation have not yet been finally decided,' he said, adding that the body should acutally be up and running by now. 'We're active in the market, we have invested and will invest a lot more - we expect encouragement from the policy-makers not handicaps,' he said.
Thyssen Telecom said its corporate network unit PLUSNET has signed a cooperation agreement with Danish carrier Tele Danmark. The agreement is aimed at expanding the companies' international telephone operations, in preparation for the liberalization of the German telecommunications market on Jan. 1, 1998, said Stefan Baustert, a member of Thyssen Telecom management board. In addition, Baustert announced new measures for Thyssen Telecom's fixed network operations which will make the company less dependent on national carrier Deutsche Telekom.
Start-up losses at Viag's telecommunications operations last year weren't as high as market speculation, but will surge in coming years, a company official said. Viag management board member Maximilian Adelt said ''In response to rumors about our startup losses in the telecommunications business, Viag Interkom and Bayernwerk Netkom posted a start-up loss of just DM100 million in 1996.'' That was between 40% and 50% lower than planned, Adelt said, adding that the cost will ''jump considerably'' this year to above DM300 million.
Microsoft and Intel released the NetPC reference specification for broad industry review. Intel said the NetPC is a new class of personal computers for business designed to reduce ownership costs by delivering new manageability advances. NetPC product announcements from many personal- computer manufacturers are expected over the next 90 days, the company said. NetPC systems will offer the performance and flexibility of traditional personal computers and will be compatible with existing investments in hardware, software and training. Compaq Computer, Dell Computer Corp., and Hewlett-Packard Co. helped develop the reference specification for the NetPC.
Deutsche Telekom announced details of its strategic Internet cooperation with Microsoft. 'The two companies have agreed on common marketing strategies for T-Online and the Microsoft Network, as well as cooperation on security solutions for online banking and the marketing of Microsoft's Internet and Intranet solutions,' Telekom said. T-Online is Telekom's Internet access service.
Sales at Siemens' three communciations units will rise by about 10% in the fiscal year ending Sept. 31, and earnings will rise 'at about the same rate,' a member of the company's management board. Volker Jung, who is responsible for Public Network Communications Systems, Private Network Communications Systems, and Defense Electronics, said the divisions' sales rose by a total of 18% in the first five months of the fiscal year, which was a greater increase than planned.
Germany's SAP said all of its R/3 software applications are ready for the year 2000 and Europe's single currency planned to go ahead on Jan. 1, 1999. 'SAP AG and the R/3 system are fully prepared for the year 2000 and for the conversion of IT systems to the euro,' the company said. There had been some market speculation that some standard software packages would have difficulties dealing with the date change to the new millenium.
China may leap over the U.S. as Swedish telecommunications company Ericsson's single largest market this year, Ericsson President and Chief Executive Lars Ramqvist said. ''China could very well become our largest this year,'' Ramqvist said. In 1996, the U.S. market accounted for about 12% of Ericsson's worldwide sales of 124 billion kronor and China, together with Hong Kong, for about 10%. In Germany, Ramqvist estimated sales in 1997 would rise to 1.6 billion German marks from 1.16 billion in 1996. In 1996, 32.4% of sales came from the cellular business. Further, he ruled out any issues of new shares this year, saying Ericsson had enough money to fund expansion and product development. ''We won't have to ask our shareholders for money,'' he said.
O.Tel.O Communications, the telecommunications joint venture between Veba and RWE, said it expects to reach breakeven in five years. The company also said by the year 2005 it will have invested a total of DM7 billion and have sales revenues of between DM7 billion and DM9 billion.
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