Finding a mobile niche in an overcrowded market

Faced with a saturated market, a shrinking population and declining average revenue per user, mobile phone operators these days are forced to pull out all the stops when they launch new models jam-packed with every feature imaginable.

Masayoshi Son, the chief executive of Softbank, went as far as to don a tuxedo at yesterday’s frothy launch, surrounded by a gaggle of ballgown-clad models clutching the company’s new “The Premium” phone.

This slim phone can transmit digital television broadcasts, take pictures, be used as an electronic wallet (which allows users to swipe their phone at a convenience store to buy goods) and a digital music player.

The company also revealed a digital watch, made by Citizen, embedded with Bluetooth, so a user can read his or her mobile texts on their wrist, without the hassle of glancing at their mobile. Other mobile phones featured Hello Kitty, the Japanese cartoon feline, and one especially tailored for those with long fingernails.

Although Softbank’s market share has climbed to a respectable 17 per cent, especially as it launched its mobile service last year, analysts say it will take more to get Japan’s jaded consumers truly excited about mobile phones again. As one put it, there was nothing “revolutionary” about yesterday’s launches. But the company has so far managed to lure consumers by its rock-bottom calling plans. Now it aims to attract buyers with high-end mobile phones.

Pre-empting McCreevy

Charlie McCreevy’s assault on shareholder democracy seemingly continues. This month, Europe’s internal market commissioner dropped plans to enshrine the principle of one-share, one-vote in European company law. Investors are now fretting about his proposal to abolish shareholders’ pre-emption rights.

Pre-emption rights enshrine a vital principle of share ownership by giving investors the right of first refusal over any sizeable new equity issuance. This is partly an economic protection, given that new stock is typically sold at a discount. But it also preserves investors’ voting power and makes it harder for company management to obtain new shareholders who support plans that existing investors oppose.

Mr McCreevy is proposing to simplify, abolish or scale back a raft of European company law directives. The snag is the directive including pre-emption rights is among those for the chop. The British government recently said it favoured repeal over simplification of the directive in question. That is in spite of it accepting the recommendations of a recent report by Paul Myners, Land Securities’ chairman, that upheld the principle of pre-emption rights.

The Association of British Insurers is calling on the UK government to change tack and demand that pre-emption rights remain in European company law. Its appeal stands to benefit not just UK investors in European companies, but the European equity market as a whole.

Fortunately, the UK already seems to be shifting its stance in favour of partial rather than full repeal of the relevant directive. Now it is up to Mr McCreevy to ensure that whatever else gets chopped in the crusade against red tape, pre-emption rights survive the cull.

Stopped in his tracks

Cesare Geronzi's march appears to have been stopped by the Bank of Italy. The controversial chairman of Mediobanca’s new supervisory board might soon have been expecting to take up the deputy chairman’s jobs at insurer Generali and RCS Mediagroup, two important Italian companies in which investment bank Mediobanca is the largest shareholder.

The posts have traditionally been reserved for Mediobanca's nominees and are currently both held by Gabriele Galateri, the previous chairman who was ousted this year to make way for Mr Geronzi. Indeed, Vincent Bolloré, the French financier who is also a large Mediobanca shareholder, recently endorsed Mr Geronzi's chances of becoming Generali deputy chairman.

Mr Geronzi, who is being investigated in numerous criminal proceedings stemming from decades at the top of Italian finance, has already staged a great powerplay to become supervisory board chairman at Mediobanca this year after Capitalia, his old bank, was swallowed by UniCredit. But that appears to be it for now.

In governance proposals published by the Bank of Italy just before the weekend, the regulator said that supervisory board members could not participate in the management boards of the same institutions or sit on the boards of companies to which they were strongly linked.

Mr Geronzi has denied any wrongdoing relating to the numerous criminal investigations, but it is almost as if the Bank of Italy rules were written with his spreading influence in mind.

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