Charles Pretzlik: Coup at SMG and disaster at Jessops

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This afternoon has seen some dramatic corporate news with SMG terminating its merger talks with UTV and Jessops issuing a dreadful profit warning.

Not only have the endlessly on-off talks between SMG and UTV ceased but a large part of SMG’s board has been cleared out. The chairman, former Aggreko boss Chris Masters, has agreed to step down as have five non execs. This follows pressure from Hanover Investors, which has built a 12.6 per cent stake in the owner of Virgin Radio and Pearl & Dean. They have put their own team in, led by Richard Findlay, former chief executive of Scottish Radio Holdings, as chairman, and ex-Channel 4 director Rob Woodward as chief exec.

Jessops, meanwhile, has issued its second profit warning in nine weeks and says it is in talks with its bankers, never a good sign. It blames a collapse in the digital camera market. The shares fell 29 per cent.

The other significant news since this morning’s blog is that Lord Forte died this morning. He died in his sleep at his home in London, aged 98.

In the markets, the FTSE 100 continued its sell-off, falling another 1.3 per cent despite New York opening higher. There is lots of detail elsewhere on this site but I particularly recommend a visit to FT Alphaville for an excellent round-up of what the bloggers are saying about it, especially on whether this week’s wobble really is all China’s fault.

Since this morning, we have also established that, although Lord Sainsbury has had a meeting with J Sainsbury chairman Philip Hampton, as this morning’s Daily Telegraph, reported, we believe he retains pen mind about whether or not to accept any bid that may come.

Elsewhere, HBOS reported stronger than expected annual profits (up 19 per cent) but there are worries about growth, margins and costs. The signals on bad debts are a little more cautious than from some of the other banks.

A dose of reality has been injected into all the rhetoric between BSkyB and Virgin Media with some pretty grim figures today from Virgin Media. It looks like they’re losing telephony and mobile customers to tough competition, and losing share in broadband. Virgin Media has also offered to take its dispute with BSkyB over the amount charged for Sky’s basic channels to arbitration but BSkyB has said no.

More evidence of a booming professional recruitment sector. Michael Page has followed Robert Walters with a strong set of results, even though Hays said yesterday it was finding life tougher in the public sector. We’ll have some good details on this tomorrow.

We have yet more good figures also from Serco, the support services group which continues to benefit from government outsourcing.

LogicaCMG, the Anglo-Dutch IT services company that some regard as uncomfortably acquisitive, reassured investors this morning that it was expecting growth in 2007. It reported a 23 per cent increase in annual pre-tax profits thanks to a series of purchases. Last month the group warned that organic revenue growth in 2006 had been slower than expected, due to staff shortages.

Barratt Developments said it would accelerate its land bank acquisition, arguing that the fundamentals of the UK housing market remain sound despite rising interest rates. The group, which earlier this month won the takeover battle for Wilson Bowden, said it increased first-half pre-tax profits by 10 per cent to £180.2m on a 2 per cent rise in turnover to £1.19bn.

We have a strong trading update from Whitbread but the chief executive, Alan Parker, played down rumours of a takeover approach.

And there is a mixed picture from the online gaming sector. On the one hand, the French authorities are “interviewing” online gaming executives (including from 888 Holdings). On the other, Sportingbet reported a 54 per cent rise in second quarter operating profits off a base made very small by last year’s US problems. And Playtech, which provides software for gaming sites, reported a 90 per cent jump in underlying net profits despite the US problems after expanding in Asia.

Rumours of the day: Vague rumours being picked up by FT Alphaville that EMI will receive a bid at 300p a share. The stock closed unchanged though. Resolution was also supported by takeover rumours (AIG) but also ended little changed.

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