LONDON (Reuters) - Here is a round-up of the main stories from the business pages on Thursday.
BLOODIED BUT UNBOWED, ROSE WINS THE DAY AGAINST REBEL M&S INVESTORS
Almost one in four Marks & Spencer (MKS.L) investors at the retailer’s annual general meeting refused to back Sir Stuart Rose’s controversial promotion to executive chairman, with 22 percent of the company’s total investor base either abstaining or voting against his re-election to the board. A number of influential institutions, such as Legal & General (LGEN.L), are among those understood to have registered their protest by abstaining. One fund manager said: “We have made our point and we will keep on making it.”
British Energy BGY.L said on Wednesday its electricity output fell by 17 percent in the second quarter, down from 13.8 Terawatt hours (TWh) in the same quarter last year to only 11.4 TWh. An increase in output at BE’s coal-fired power plant at Eggborough, from 0.8 TWh to 1.9 TWh, partially offset lower nuclear output, which fell from 13.0 TWh in the second quarter of 2007 to 9.5 TWh in the same period this year.
B&B IS “PRICING ITSELF OUT OF MARKET” BY PUSHING UP COST OF BUY-TO-LET LOANS
Bradford & Bingley BB.L has cut its lending to landlords by pulling its Mortgage Express range from Moneyfacts, a Web site that potential borrowers use to compare interest rates. A mortgage broker with access to the withdrawn products said interest rates on them had risen sharply. “It’s been increasingly evident in the past few weeks that they’re trying to price themselves out of customers’ range. They don’t compare well with any other provider,” the broker said. But a B&B spokeswoman said a select group of mortgage brokers were still offering the loans. “This is just so we can better manage our distribution model,” she said.
The Daily Telegraph
Bovis BVS.L, one of the UK’s largest housebuilders, will next week put a stop to speculative development of new homes as it reels from plummeting sales volumes. The company said it would be halting production over the summer to assess the market, while it underlined its intention to complete homes that have been reserved or pre-sold. Chief executive David Ritchie said he would revisit the issue of speculative development next month.
The cash-and-carry chain Booker BOK.L appeared to have sidestepped the worst of the consumer downturn as it reported a 3.3 percent rise in like-for-like non-tobacco sales. The chief executive, Charles Booker, said: “This was a good performance and Booker continues to make progress in a challenging market.” The company blamed the smoking ban for a 2.2 percent decline in tobacco sales. Booker’s shares closed up 0.5 pence at 25 pence.
Centrica (CNA.L), owner of British Gas, has paid 375 million dollars (190 million pounds) cash to Marathon Oil for gas-producing rights and exploration rights in the Heimdal region of the Norwegian North Sea. With production in the North Sea in decline, Centrica is seeking acquisitions to bolster reserves and ensure continued supply to its UK customer base. According to Natalie Casali, analyst at JP Morgan, the deal was “a step in the right direction, but doesn’t solve (Centrica’s) overall problem. They will need to do several more deals like that to reach their target.”
BT EXPANDS ONLINE DIRECTORIES BUSINESS WITH THE 20 MILLION POUND ACQUISITION OF UFINDUS
BT (BT.L) has paid 20 million pounds to Iomart Group (IOMG.L) for Ufindus, an online classified advertising company with a portfolio of more than 1.9 million listings. The deal is part of BT Directories’ plans to expand its community based services. David Benjamin, the division’s chief executive, said: “Ufindus will play an important role in the continued development of BT Directories’ online portfolio. Through (its) considerable expertise and experience in online classified advertising, we access further local classified product offerings, significant search traffic and new customers for this fast-growing part of our business.”
Insolvency specialist Begbies Traynor (BEG.L) saw demand for its services surge in the second half of the financial year as companies struggled to ride out the economic downturn. Revenues rose 11 percent in the second half of the year, following a first half of no growth. Ric Traynor, executive chairman, said: “Following one of the quietest periods for corporate insolvency in nearly 20 years, reflecting the ready availability of easy credit, the advent of the credit crunch through the autumn of 2007 resulted in a significant change in activity levels.”
Bid speculation and a market-wide bounce helped Yell YELL.L and ITV (ITV.L)> recover from early lows yesterday. The directories group and the broadcaster have been hit hard in recent weeks as investors worry about the debt-laden balance sheet of the former and the impact of an advertising slowdown on the latter. However, speculation of a private equity advance after a ruling from the Competition Appeal Tribunal saw ITV shares gain 2.9 pence to close at 43 pence. The CAT is expected to rule next week on whether BSkyB BSY.L has to sell its 17.9 percent stake in ITV. Yell’s shares were up 7.25 pence to 62 pence on renewed talk of bid interest from Google.
A row has erupted at the BBC after it emerged the corporation’s eight billion pound final salary pension scheme boasted a surplus of 275 million pounds last year — widely at odds with the 150 million pound deficit predicted by its in-house experts. While the trustees have agreed that in light of the surplus the BBC’s own deficit payments are no longer needed, staff are still being asked to increase the amount they contribute to the scheme from six percent to 6.75 percent of pay from April 2009, and to 7.5 percent from 2010. The National Union of Journalists may ballot for industrial action.
HelpHire HHR.L, the accident-claim handling company, announced plans on Wednesday to reduce its reliance on debt finance by raising 45 million pounds. It also said the company’s founder, Mark Jackson, was resigning as chief executive but will stay with the firm until a successor is found. HelpHire’s shares have plummeted 64 percent since the end of February when it fell below annual profit forecasts. On Wednesday the shares closed up 2.5 percent at 103 pence.
The trade union Unite announced on Wednesday workers at four Argos distribution centres are to hold two 24-hour strikes in a row over pay. The walk-outs, on July 17 and 24, will be followed by a four-day stoppage at the end of the month. Workers voted in favour of strike action after rejecting a four percent pay offer. Argos faced “severe disruption” to its distribution network, said Unite regional officer Jennie Formby.