City Republic: GM faces up to gas guzzling reality

LONDON - General Motors is still the world's biggest car company (just, ahead of Toyota), but it has lost $51bn over the past three years, as pretty well all the bets it made have been losers.

Now GM's going to close four US plants that make gas-guzzling SUVs to concentrate on producing more "environmentally friendly" motors.

And not before time, you might say.

It's also trying to sell its Hummer brand, those gross machines that are more at home in the Iraq desert. This is not marvellous timing with the price of oil at record levels, with Hummers using about an oil well's-worth to make it to the shops.

GM, and its even more embattled rival Ford, are operating in a US market in sharp decline; the number of miles driven by Americans actually fell in March for the first time, suggesting that America's long love affair with the internal combustion engine may be coming to a close.

Mind you, there's still a way to go.

Sales of Toyota's Corolla and Camry saloons overtook GM's long-time US best seller in May. And the GM model? The F-series pickup truck.

City cool on TNS merger plans
The City, predictably, is not keen on researcher TNS's plans for a nil-premium merger with German firm GfK.

It doesn't like nil-premium mergers for a start (deals which don't offer shareholders a higher price).

And the "jam tomorrow" argument wheeled out by TNS (an eventual reduction in annual overheads of £76m at an initial cost of £94m) is hardly compelling.

To the City these deals look far too cosy, especially as the company will have, in effect, a dual management with headquarters in the UK and Germany.

They can work, of course. Shell and Unilever managed to straddle the UK and the Netherlands pretty well and former Aegis boss Crispin Reed has done an excellent job at Reed Elsevier, moving away from print and into online information.

But investors need to take their money where they can find it these days and a nice takeover premium is what they're looking for.

There is one on offer, of course, from WPP's Sir Martin Sorrell. Sir Martin's overtures have been rejected by TNS boss David Lowden but the acquisitive knight still has a bid in the wings of just under £1bn.

US banking giant Citigroup has already said that shareholders should accept WPP's 236p bid.

The clamour would be much more pressing for TNS if Sir Martin were to offer a little more, but so far he shows no sign of so doing. £1bn is a pretty fair price for a research company in these troubled times and even the mighty WPP might find it hard to pay more as its own earnings are likely to take a dip if the advertising and media markets collapse.

But this bid's not over yet.

Big Ben makes the oil price slide
Not content with riding to the rescue of the US economy by slashing interest rates, Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke has leapt to the defence of the dollar, saying that the Fed doesn't want to see the currency weaken any further.

The price of oil (denominated in dollars) promptly fell although it's still at a vertiginous $127 a barrel.

The oil price (as we noted above) is causing Americans big problems, hence Bernanke's intervention.

US Fed Reserve bosses don't usually concern themselves publicaly with the dollar, leaving that to the Treasury Secretary. The implication is that the Fed might start buying dollars to force the price up, leaving oil speculators, if such there be, exposed and needing to sell to cover their positions.

There's a big debate going on about the impact of speculators on the oil market.

The producers say there's enough of the stuff and hot money is driving the price. Banks and hedge funds says it's supply and demand, chiefly increased demand from places like China and India.

Bernanke's intervention will help us find out who's right.

Oil is bad enough, but now sushi's going up.

The price of the finest cuts of tuna has risen by 25% in Tokyo, reports the Financial Times, and the sushi restaurants are blaming this on the oil price driving up fishing fleet costs.

Well we all have to suffer in these straightened times. Mind you, this will presumably also increase the costs of the vast Japanese whaling fleet, possibly bringing a halt to their nefarious activities.

Somehow I doubt it though.

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