City Republic: Housing crisis needs urgent surgery

LONDON - If there are two words guaranteed to make Gordon Brown stand up and salute, they're new deal, writes Stephen Foster.

Housing crisis needs urgent surgery
These were most famously uttered by President Franklin Delanor Roosevelt as he tried to wrench the US out of the great depression of the 1930's with a programme of public works.

And to a large degree he succeeded, although those folks who brought us Pearl Harbor had the greater impact, as the US economy sprung into mighty action in World War ll.

Brown has had one new deal already, his scheme to get young people into work. Now he's mulling over another.

The second, and much more damaging blast of the credit crunch in the UK, is the paralysis it's causing in the housing market.

This, unlike the ongoing banking troubles, is affecting everyone: from people who can't afford a home (whether or not they're already living in one) to companies ranging from distressed house-builders to big ticket retailers (John Lewis sales are sinking like a stone). Even media stocks like Trinity Mirror are now suffering a sharp write-down, as property, retail and car ads disappear.

Even worse, and unlike banking so far, it's set to send the unemployment figures soaring as hard-pressed house-builders shut up shop and tens of thousands of mostly Labour voters find themselves out of work.

This week, the Liberal Democrats will announce their policy of allowing councils, housing associations and just about any institution with any money to buy up properties and land, to create more housing obviously but also to put a floor under property prices.

So far all the Government has done is wheel out indefatigable housing minister Caroline Flint to offer a Band-Aid here and there.

But it's obvious to everyone that this particular crisis is not likely to be solved anytime soon by letting the markets take their course.

Brown and his Chancellor Alistair Darling have not so far proved slow to nick ideas from other parties (such as slashing inheritance tax from the Tories).

For once, everyone from City grandees to the bloke on the building site will be hoping that they nick another one, double quick.

D-Day looms for Sorrell and TNS
WPP's Sir Martin Sorrell has until Wednesday to make a full bid for market researchers TNS, which are trying to merge with German firm GfK

Sorrell's bid, as is sometimes the case with WPP takeovers (Ogilvy & Mather, Tempus), has turned nasty. TNS chairman Donald Brydon is saying that the bid (just over £1bn) undervalues TNS and that Sorrell is just interfering to prevent a merger that will push his own "underperforming" Kantar outfit (in Brydon's view) further down the pecking order.

Brydon's attempt to warn off Sorrell could easily backfire as Sorrell may decide that he's got to push ahead with a hostile bid now, just to show he won't be pushed around.

But, if TNS won't recommend the bid, Sorrell could have a fight on his hands. The City seems to think TNS is worth more than Sorrell's £1.1bn and a "white knight" alternative bidder could easily emerge, with TNS's approval.

At least this sort of dust-up makes life interesting at a time when bids are thin on the ground.

And they used to say that market research was a boring business.

Is it 'Swap Shop' time for Sky, Five and ITV?
Sky is set to make a further big write-down on its 17.9% stake in ITV, purchased for an eye-watering £940m.

To make matters worse, it's been told by the Competition Commission to sell this down to 7.5%. The result of Sky's appeal against this may also emerge this week.

With ITV's shares rattling around at just over 40p (Sky paid 135p a share), Sky is looking at a total write-down of more than £600m.

Current speculation is that Sky wants to swap its stake in ITV for Five, owned by continental European rival RTL.

A combination of Five and Sky One might finally create a viable alternative in entertainment to the BBC and ITV.

RTL, in return, would gain a big and potentially commanding stake in ITV extremely cheaply (RTL is burdened with heavy debts and so short of cash).

ITV too might not be too displeased, as a tie-up with RTL would give it access to European markets and keep it out of the hands of the private equity boys.

ITV boss Michael Grade badly needs a value-creating deal for his company as the City is currently paying no attention at all to the many improvements he has made to ITV's operations.
He just might be tempted to hang his hat on this one.

Transforming ITV into a European TV player wouldn't be a bad legacy, even if it means giving up the network's cherished independence.

Stephen Foster is a former news editor of Campaign, former editor of Marketing Week and Evening Standard ad columnist. He is a partner in Editorial Partnership and writes the blog and Politics of the Media for Brand Republic.

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