Prufrock: Rulers of the world prepare to expel Black

As befits somone fascinated by powerful historical figures, Black has long been a dedicated member of the secretive group of businessmen and diplomats. But his financial woes, including the small matter of a dispute over $300m of payments at Hollinger, have left the inner circle at Bilderberg increasingly uncomfortable.

The final straw came this month when Black said he would sue Henry Kissinger and Richard Perle, both directors of Hollinger and fellow Bilderbergers. Now he is going to be pressed to leave the group. Meetings of its steering committee have become awkward affairs since Black had his little spot of bother, said one insider. His exile from the rich and powerful will be particularly painful, but perhaps he will be comforted by the words of one of his heroes, Napoleon, who said it was “better to have a known enemy than a forced ally”.

The deadline for bids for the papers passed last week, but there is one outstanding bid still to come: from the Berrys, the aristocratic press barons from whom Black wrestled the Telegraph in 1985. Three weeks after Prufrock first revealed the Berrys’ determination to win back the papers, their bid is still alive. Watch this space.

The BBC is trying to wrest the rights to broadcast the show off ITV. Auntie had the awards for 15 years before it lost them 10 years ago. Now it wants them back. Mark Byford, wasting no time as the BBC’s acting director-general, has wangled a place at the top table with the organisers, the BPI. He hopes to be persuasive and we are sure he will be listened to. The competition for conversation comes from timid Labour MP Estelle Morris and Lib Dem bore Charles Kennedy.

Shareholders dig in at Shell

SHAREHOLDERS are preparing for a long battle to enforce a review of the board structure at Royal Dutch Shell, the Anglo-Dutch oil giant.

Last weekend the New York fund Knight Vinke Institutional Partners, which is backed by Calpers, the American institutional powerhouse, called for a unified board structure at Shell. It has appointed legal and other counsel to help with its campaign. This week Calpers will write to Sir Philip Watts, Shell’s chairman, and demand a meeting, which will be attended by KVIP.

Further pressure is expected from investors who are big holders of Royal Dutch ADRs. A number of big British institutions are also not letting the issue rest.

Many of them have been encouraged by the decision at Unilever, another Anglo-Dutch group, to review its corporate-governance standards. Watts, who is in the middle of an investor charm offensive, and his board are going to have to start listening.

For investors, any improvement in the group’s corporate structure will only be good news for the share price. This closed on Friday at 350p, valuing the company at 33.8 billion.

Symbian

IT’S only February and already my share tip for the year has gone down in flames. Psion’s decision to sell Nokia its 31.1% stake in Symbian, the mobile-phone-software company, removes the entire rationale for the recommendation.

Psion still has a perfectly decent business in Teklogix, a supplier of data-capture devices for the workplace, but this is growing only slowly.

The real interest, for Psion’s David Potter as much as for shareholders, lay in Symbian and its chance to supply the operating system that powers ever-smarter mobile phones. This looked like being a good year for Symbian, with the proliferation of camera-phones and other feature-packed handsets. A generously priced flotation on the back of sharply rising sales seemed a real possibility.

Unfortunately, Symbian’s position was much weaker than the market had realised. With Motorola at best lukewarm on the software and Sony Ericsson unwilling to buy more shares, Symbian was too dependent on Nokia, which provides about two-thirds of its revenues.

Symbian, and Psion too, ran the risk that Nokia would demand a cut in royalty rates, postponing profitability, perhaps indefinitely. Hence Potter’s decision to accept just 135m for Psion’s stake — much less than many investors had hoped.

David Levin, Symbian’s chief executive, was putting on a brave face last week, expressing delight at Nokia’s investment and its continued commitment to the independence of the firm’s management. In truth, the original concept of an industry-standard operating system looks increasingly shaky. Symbian’s future has changed dramatically, and it would be no surprise to see Levin depart.

Citywire reveals secret City deals

THE share price of cannabis-based medicine firm GW Pharmaceuticals looks heady, but shrewd investors are still dealing. Top contrarian investor Patrick Evershed, who has an AAA Citywire rating for his excellent risk-adjusted performance, topped up his holding in GW last month. The Mole spied him buying 50,000 shares to take the New Star Select Opportunities unit trust’s stake to 400,000 shares in the 230m company. (London Times, 2.15.2004) http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/article1020157.ece

0homefly.gif (8947 bytes)