Executive Business Briefing

Jan. 23, 2003 at 6:27 AM
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Here is a look at some of Thursday's top business stories:

Coca-Cola 'starts trend on earnings guidance'

LOS ANGELES, Jan. 23 (UPI) -- When Coca-Cola said in December that it would stop offering quarterly and yearly earnings guidance, the move was meant to push investors to the long view.

Investor's Business Daily says the company might have "uncapped a trend." In its Thursday editions, IBD notes that last week, McDonald's became the first major company to follow Coke's lead. The fast-food chain said it would provide an outlook for key components of earnings, such as same-store sales.

The move, the newspaper notes, came after the company reported its first quarterly loss since going public 38 years ago.

"Bad news may also have played a role in Sun Microsystems' decision last week to end mid-quarter updates." it adds. The computer company reported a record net loss, $2 billion, in its second quarter.

IBD adds: "The shift from managing quarterly estimates may also decrease the need for companies to hit certain numbers to please Wall Street. That pressure played a role in the accounting scandals that ripped through corporate America in the last two years."

Canadian bank mergers unlikely soon

TORONTO, Jan. 23 (UPI) -- Although Canada's bank industry is edging toward a more merger-friendly climate, it's unlikely that any mergers will be approved before the next federal election. That could be next spring, after Prime Minister Jean Chretien retires, the Toronto Star says Thursday.

The head of the Royal Bank of Canada, Gord Nixon, told an meeting of banking executives Wednesday that until then, there was "less than a 25 percent chance" mergers would be approved.

Mergers were a "hotly debated issue" when two deals were turned down by former finance minister Paul Martin in 1998. The Star says the topic returned to the news last October, when Martin's replacement, John Manley, asked two parliamentary panels to clarify under what terms mergers would be considered in the public interest.

Public interest concerns include job losses and service levels.

But that move was followed by a report that Chretien's office vetoed a merger between the Bank of Nova Scotia and the Bank of Montreal, the Star says.

Next month, the issue is set for consideration by the House of Commons finance committee. Bankers hope the committee will follow the lead of the Senate banking committee, which in December said Canada would benefit from one or two mergers -- if they created jobs, made banks stronger and kept them under Canadian control.

Mergers would also make Canadian banks more competitive in the faster-growing U.S. market, the newspaper notes.

Japan leaves monetary policy unchanged

TOKYO, Jan. 23 (UPI) -- The Bank of Japan has left its monetary policy unchanged, despite calls for a tougher stance on deflation.

The British Broadcasting Corp. says Wednesday's decision didn't surprise analysts, who considered it unlikely BoJ Gov. Masaru Hayami would make any radical changes during his final days.

His 5-year term ends in March, but Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi hasn't disclosed his choice for a new governor.

The BoJ said board members voted unanimously to target reserves in the BoJ current account at $127 billion to $169.5 billion. In its statement on the decision, the bank said: "Should there be a risk of financial market instability, such as a surge in liquidity demand, the bank will provide more liquidity irrespective of the above target."

The BBC notes that the bank has provided the market with excess funds and kept interest rates at virtually zero for the past 22 months. It's been criticized for not doing enough to end deflation.

IBM reportedly plans genetic-data venture

SAN FRANCISCO, Jan. 23 (UPI) -- IBM plans a new partnership to offer technology and services for applying genetic information to the hunt for new drugs.

It's expected to announce on Thursday that it will team up with deCode, an Icelandic bioinformatics company, to sell the latter's system for analyzing genetic, genealogical and clinical data. The system will run on IBM software and hardware, technology Web site C/NET reports.

The 3-year agreement will start about mid-2003 and target pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, government-sponsored research organizations, research hospitals and medical care facilities.

The site says IBM "sees the partnership as a step toward the goal of more personalized health care. With so-called information-based medicine, doctors would assess and treat patients based on their particular genetic makeup."

The partnership focuses on deCode's Clinical Genome Miner Discovery system, a statistics-based application to isolate and analyze genes and gene variations associated with particular diseases. C/NET notes that the company used its technology in studies in Iceland, saying it has pinpointed genes and drug targets in nine common diseases.

The venture "also might help identify patients for clinical trials more effectively," especially in so-called "drug rescue" cases. That's when a drug has failed U.S. Food and Drug Administration tests but might be appropriate for a smaller group of people with a similar genetic makeup.

The life sciences market is a bright spot for technology firms in the current slump. IBM had $1.36 billion in life sciences sales in 2001, the site said.

Family-owned firms thrive in tough economy

ATLANTA, Jan. 23 (UPI) -- Even as the economy has weakened, family-owned businesses have grown robustly, a survey finds.

The study -- the American Family Business Survey -- indicates that revenue at family-owned firms has risen more than 50 percent since 1997, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports Thursday.

More than half of the survey's 1,000 respondents said they hadn't cut jobs in the past few years and plan to increase staff by up to 5 percent in 2003. The survey also found that 39 percent of family businesses will shift leadership within five years.

The national study was released Wednesday by the Cox Family Enterprise Center at Kennesaw State University and sponsored by the George and Robin Raymond Family Business Institute and MassMutual Financial Group, the newspaper says.

U.K. industry survey paints bleak picture

LONDON, Jan. 23 (UPI) -- Roughly three-quarters of British manufacturing companies are working below capacity, a 20-year low.

The Confederation of British Industry, in reporting the figure, also said that 42,000 manufacturing jobs will be lost in the first quarter. The statistics appear in Thursday's editions of the Financial Times, which adds that the CBI's survey of 904 companies found that 31 percent had experienced falling orders, against rises for just 22 percent.

"The CBI survey also found that a net 19 percent of firms felt less optimistic about their general business situation than they did four months ago. Manufacturers also reported that they planned to cut investment in buildings, plant and machinery at a significant rate over the next year.

"Overseas markets had continued to deteriorate, with orders falling at the fastest rate for a year and the decline in export prices accelerating at the fastest rate since July 2000," the newspaper notes.

Nokia sales down 4 percent for 2002

HELSINKI, Finland, Jan. 23 (UPI) -- Phone maker Nokia reported Thursday that fourth-quarter sales rose about 1 percent from a year earlier, to about $8.8 billion.

It said net profit jumped 132 percent to $1.05 billion, with earnings per share at 22 cents vs. 9 cents.

For the full year, sales fell 4 percent to $30 billion, but net profit rose 54 percent to $3.38 billion. Full-year earnings per share were 71 cents vs. 46 cents.

In a statement to the Helsinki Stock Exchange, chairman Jorma Ollila said that while the world economy had an "inevitable impact" on the company, Nokia had achieved record mobile-phone sales of 46 million units in the fourth quarter.

However, full-year mobile phone sales had been flat, he said, because growth in Europe and Asia had been offset by a sales decline in the Americas. Second-half sales were high in volume but "tended toward the mass-market end" of Nokia's products.

Referring to the 4-percent sales fall for 2002, he said that this "mainly reflected continued difficult operating conditions in the company's network infrastructure business."

The current quarter was likely to be "challenging," he said, but sales growth should pick up in the second quarter.

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