City Republic: fears of high street downturn hit M&S

LONDON - Having made a high-street comeback, M&S shares plummet as consumers tighten their belts, writes Stephen Foster, with the downturn also hitting classified revenues at Trinity Mirror.

M&S sales signal recession
Steven Esom, Marks & Spencer's head of food, walked the plank this morning as the company announced that sales had fallen 5.3% in the past three months -- 6.2% in clothing and 4.5% in food.

This looks a bit tough on Esom but food sales are reckoned to more resilient in recessionary times so I guess someone had to go.

M&S boss Sir Stuart Rose has made no secret of his opinion that the economy is heading for the buffers, and when it does middle market M&S tends to take a big hit.

In 2007, the firm announced its first £1bn annual profits since the 1990s. That was followed by a rapid decline as it was hit by tighter wallets and the rise of the discounters.

We could have history repeating itself.

Mirror on the block as classified evaporates
When the old Mirror Group Newspapers merged with Trinity local newspapers to form Trinity Mirror it looked like a smart move, giving the new company an alternative to slugging it out with that 600lb gorilla, Rupert Murdoch.

And for a few years it was. Recently local newspapers have enjoyed a brief boom, cutting costs to run highly profitable titles based on property and recruitment classified ads.

Companies like Johnson Press expanded rapidly, buying up some of the country's more venerable regional titles and, overseas, former Mirror boss David Montgomery's Mecom company set about buying dozens of papers in continental Europe.

Right now, though, this boom in the regions looks  like a dead cat's bounce, a temporary boost before a combination of tightening credit and the relentless march of the internet sent the moggy to the vet's.

Yesterday, Trinity Mirror's shares plunged 28% as it produced the first of what might be a long list of profit warnings, admitting that its classified property business (the cornerstone of most regionals) had fallen by 27% in May and June.

The pressure is now on CEO Sly Bailey to demonstrate that she has more to offer than just battening down the hatches.

The obvious thing to do is sell something, but with private equity offers drying up it's hard to see what exactly she can put in the shop window.

In another time and place News International, publisher of the Mirror's nemesis The Sun, might have been interested but, as it's now run by heir apparent James Murdoch, one doubts it.

This is likely to be the first of many shocks this summer for the once-dominant "old" media sector.

ITV shares continue freefall
Time was when the Daily Mirror and ITV went together like fish and chips, both brash and successful expressions of the "never had it so good" 1950s and early 1960s.

Indeed Michael Grade, current ITV boss, began his career as a sports reporter on the Daily Mirror, turning up for work on his first day in uncle Lew Grade's Rolls-Royce.

ITV shares slipped back further yesterday to 44p, partly in response to the Mirror's woes, and weary shareholders will be thinking back regretfully to Greg Dyke's private equity bid of 130p, made just a couple of years ago.

It was a different world then, of course, and Dyke's backer Goldman Sachs will be thinking it had a narrow escape.

But ITV is still performing relatively well as a business and current City talk is that a bid of 70p a share (about £3bn) would be enough to buy the company.

Its big production arm, which Grade says he's committed to holding, could then be sold off for around 45p a share. Surely the private equity boys should be queuing round the block?

But private equity deals have mostly dried up in the credit crunch (new figures from the US show that they're currently running at 5% of 2007 levels), leaving other media owners as the only candidates, and they have problems of their own.

Sky (those Murdochs again) would buy it if they could, especially as they're sitting on a near £700m loss on their 17.9% stake. But that wouldn't be allowed.

Or would it?

Informa deal may be back on
One private equity deal that might go ahead is Providence Equity Partners, Carlyle and Hellman & Friedman bidding £3.4bn (including £1bn of debt) for information publisher and conference outfit Informa.

Informa has confirmed a tentative approach from the three US giants.

So the publisher of Lloyd's List (among many other titles) is worth more than ITV? Strange days indeed.

Microsoft goes back for (some of) Yahoo!
The Wall Street Journal reports that Microsoft has been talking to media owners (including the WSJ's new owner News Corporation) about a deal to break up Yahoo!.

Yahoo! shareholders are still enraged that Yahoo!'s Jerry Yang turned down Microsoft's £44bn bid for the whole company, a price they're not likely to see again for a year or two, if ever.

Apparently Microsoft wants Yahoo!'s search business and would like Time Warner, News Corporation or someone to take the rest of it, chiefly a very big website.

Yang has been busily trying to bolster Yahoo! by, among other things, buying internet search tool Powerset for $100m but the market (and a number of exiting senior employees) clearly thinks its days of independence are numbered.

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