City Republic: Next shows retail's upside as Jaguar deal moves closer

LONDON - High street retailer Next reports good figures and Jaguar and Land Rover look set to move on, as Stephen Foster even finds some good news in the US financial markets.

Markets soar, so are we out of the woods?
Not necessarily but there are some positive signs.

Just because share markets rose sharply, as they did in New York and London yesterday, and the Far East this morning, doesn't mean that the credit crunch is over.

But there is some good news aside from this, if you look hard enough for it.

In New York yesterday, investment banks Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers (tipped by many to be the next Bear Sterns) both reported better than expected first quarter earnings.

Actually the figures were horrible; Lehman dropped 57% compared with the same period last year and the mighty Goldman 53%, but this was markedly better than expected (particularly from Lehman).

The first quarter of 2007 was boom time for banks on Wall Street so the figures should be seen in context.

Also in New York, the credit card payments operator Visa raised a chunky $17.9bn, a record, in its initial public offering of 406m shares at $44 each.

Of the sale proceeds, $10.2bn will be paid to Visa's shareholder banks, a nice boost to their battered balance sheets. Some $3bn is being set aside to cover the cost of litigation Visa is currently involved in, mostly from retailers.

But it was brave of Visa to go ahead with the offer in the midst of a financial crisis and $17.9bn is a pretty big bet on the markets by the institutions that invested in the IPO.

There's also evidence from the US that its half a trillion dollars trade gap is finally narrowing, as you'd hope would happen when the dollar is as low as it is.

This makes imports more expensive, of course, therefore pushing up inflation but should be a huge boost for big manufacturers like General Motors, Ford and Boeing in export markets.

Shares will probably fall back on Thursday as Wall Street and London prepare for the Easter break with traders closing positions and a lucky and brave few (like the ones who bought Lehman brothers which rose 46% yesterday) banking profits.

But the panic earlier this week still looks over-done.

They say that when the amateurs pile into stock markets it's time to sell. When the newspapers start digging out analogies with the Wall Street Crash of 1929, as they have been doing, arguably it's time to buy.

The point about the Wall Street Crash wasn't so much that shares went down (which they did in a spectacularly destructive manner, of course) but that they didn't start to go up for a decade.

The Dow Jones Index of big US stocks didn't recover pre-Crash levels until the consumer boom of the 1950s, helped along the way by the expansion of US industry and employment in the Second World War.

Even on Monday we were some way away from an event like that.

Next boosts London market
The FTSE 100 in London opened up again this morning, helped by good figures from retailer Next.

The City has been calling time on Next for years (there was even a fanciful story doing the rounds a few weeks ago that Marks & Spencer was going to buy it) but it continues to confound the sceptics.

Profits in 2007 rose 4% to £498m and revenues 1.4% to £3.33bn, mainly through increases in its mail order and internet division.

Some analysts will look at this and say "what's the point of the stores then?" but there you go.
Actually it's a creditable performance all round and some evidence that the real economy hasn't fallen off a cliff -- yet.

Tata closes on Jaguar and Land Rover
There's still money out there for some companies as Indian motor firm Tata has just demonstrated in successfully securing a $3bn banking facility to finance its $2bn purchase of the two luxury car marques from Ford.

Even at the best of times Land Rover and particularly Jaguar would require brave investors.

Land Rover never seems to make as much money as it should despite solid sales of the expensive gas-guzzlers and Jaguar has lost money most years for all its various owners.

Turning these round for Tata is a big ask, particularly as it says it will keep most of the manufacturing in the UK, so it won't be able to benefit directly from much lower Indian labour costs.

The British government will be hoping it succeeds with this policy.

The pound in your pocket is getting smaller
On Monday, the pound dropped to a record low of 79p against the Euro and even fell two cents against the battered dollar.

Sterling rallied a little yesterday in line with the markets but on a trade-weighted level is now at its lowest level since 1997, when Labour came into power...

This is presumably one of the reasons why the Bank of England is so reluctant to cut interest rates, unlike the interventionists at the US Federal Reserve (UK rates are 5.25% against the new US rate of 2.25%)

As with the US, a falling currency pushes up inflation and, to be fair, controlling inflation is the Bank's main remit from the government.

The trouble is that the UK's official inflation rate excludes so many items, like energy and mortgage costs, that it's practically meaningless.

"Real" inflation has been running at closer to 10% rather than the Bank's target of less than 3% for months now and is set to increase further as the mortgage rates on offer in the high street continue to rise whatever the official interest rate.

So Bank Governor Mervyn King ought to drop Chancellor Alistair Darling a line, pointing out the absurdity of this and telling him he's going to slash rates whatever happens.

But I bet he doesn't.

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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