City Republic: After magazine exit, what now for News Int?

LONDON - After moving out of magazines, what might News International do next, asks Stephen Foster, and it looks like being a bumpy week for the wider financial market.

News Corporation pulls in its horns
At the end of last year, as it acquired The Wall Street Journal, it looked as though News Corporation had finally achieved the world domination its critics had been predicting for years.

Rupert Murdoch had seen off rival magnate and unwelcome shareholder Liberty's John Malone and installed son James, riding high at Sky, as the clear heir apparent.

But then things began to go awry.

Sky bought 17.9% of ITV to prevent a merger with Virgin and promptly saw its £1bn investment halve in value as ITV's share price headed south.

The Competition Commission, to everyone's astonishment, then told Sky it had to sell down the stake to 7.5%.

Rupert Murdoch then bid for New York suburban paper Newsday, only to pull out early in proceedings as other bidders and competition issues emerged.

Management was changed more rapidly than expected at the WSJ, suggesting that the $5bn News Corp paid was on the toppy side.

Then last week in the UK James Murdoch, now installed as head of all News Corp's UK operations, pulled the plug on its loss-making UK magazine business after it lost £10m, a drop in the ocean for News Corp in most circumstances.

Now commentators are suggesting that its freesheet thelondonpaper might be vulnerable, following a long and expensive stand-off with Associated Newspapers and its cheaper and cheerful spoiler London Lite.

This is all most un-Murdoch type behaviour (Rupert version) and suggests either that James is less enamoured of risky print initiatives than his father or that the evil credit crunch (with the price of borrowed money soaring) is hitting even the mighty News Corp.

Or maybe both.

Almost certainly it reflects the imminence of a sharp advertising fall-off in the US and UK; bad news for an empire that depends heavily on advertising across all its market sectors.

Rupert Murdoch used the recession of the early 1990s to spend heroically behind ventures like Sky in the UK and Fox in the US to build a market-leading position.

A decade and a half on it looks as though the News Corp strategy has changed a little.

Could Informa be left at the altar?
United Business Media has pulled out of its nil-premium merger approach to Lloyds List publisher Informa, leaving the field open to a US private equity consortium of Carlyle, Hellman and Friedman and Providence Equity.

But whispers around this deal suggest that it's no certainty it will go ahead, not at around £2bn anyway.

Informa has run up debts of around £1bn as it has expanded rapidly in recent years. 

While nobody seems to doubt that it has a good line-up of information and conference businesses, this chunky figure may be making buyers think twice as fears grow that the world may be embarking on a second, nasty leg of the credit crunch.

The bears are out in force - again
Stock markets have been remarkably resilient recently despite soaring commodity prices and mayhem in the banking and housing sectors.

But last week, the world's major indexes lost an average of around 2%-3%. Markets in the Far East and India fell sharply again this morning although the ever-heroic London market opened higher.

Taking the UK FTSE 100, it's easy to see that were it not for miners and energy producers the index would be trading at around half its current level.

So the people in part responsible for the bad news (higher commodity prices) are actually the only people supporting the stock market.

If these companies start suffering then a lot of nasty stuff really would hit the fan.

But there are signs that even the rampant economies of China and India are starting to balk at higher commodity prices.

Oil at $130 a barrel and higher (and there are no signs it's going to drop imminently despite Saudi Arabia's promise to increase production) hurts, even if your economy is growing at around 10%.

China has raised fuel prices recently by cutting subsidies and is currently involved in a stand-off with big iron ore producers Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, which want to raise prices by 80%-90% in the next annual contract with China.

The Indian government is worried about inflation, caused by commodities and a consumer economy that may be running out of control.

There are still hundreds of millions of people in India who aren't benefiting directly from the consumer boom and who are having to pay much more for rice and other staples. So there's a danger of political instability too.

Even those masters of the universe at investment bank Goldman Sachs have announced that they're going to cull 10% of the workforce, on top of the 5% they dump every year through Goldman's own version of natural selection.

So fasten your seatbelts, it might be a bumpy old week.

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 www.editco.net and Politics of the Media for Brand Republic.