Among the topics of discussion at the spring meeting of the Council of Institutional Investors, a three-day fest that ends today in Washington, was whether over-regulation was strangling US capital markets.
Al Gore, the former US vice-president, and Barney Frank, the chair of the US House financial services committee, joined the big fund managers at Washington’s Mandarin Oriental to ponder the question.
The attendee whose opinion Observer would most like to hear on the regulation matter would be Steve Schwarzman, the chairman and chief executive of Blackstone Group.
Schwarzman, private equity’s man of the moment, certainly has been free with his opinions about US regulations – in particular the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation – in the past. SarbOx, he once said, “is probably the best thing that’s happened to our business and one of the worst things that has happened to America”.
But, with the market buzzing about Blackstone possibly floating a piece of its partnership, Observer has to wonder whether Schwarzman has changed his view. Certainly something has changed: isn’t this the same man who not long ago said that the “public markets are over-rated”?
The revolving door revolves on at the editorial offices of the South China Morning Post, the Hong Kong newspaper controlled by tycoon Robert Kuok. It was announced yesterday that Mark Clifford, Post editor-in-chief, will step down after a tumultuous one-year tenure.
Constant revolution and regime change have become the norm at the territory’s best-selling English-language daily, which has cycled through eight editors in just 12 years.
Late last year an unprecedented revolt gripped the Post newsroom after two production staff were sacked for their role in laying out a typically off-colour mock leaving page done for a departing colleague. The actual contributors were ex-Post staff themselves and therefore untouchable.
In the ensuing furore, more than 100 Post employees signed a petition demanding their colleagues’ re-instatement. The rebellion garnered coverage in newspapers around the world and the leaving page in question was given a new lease of life when it was reprinted in the pages of The Guardian.
After the re-instatement demand was rebuffed, instructions went out that “leaving pages should in future be cleared with [senior editorial management]. We look forward to reading them.” No word yet on whether any staff members will be brave enough to organise a leaving page for Clifford. “Surprisingly, no one’s put their hand up for it,” one Post reporter told Observer yesterday.
A rare spat between the European Commission and its generous host, Belgium, this week, about the delicate subject of tax. Despite constant efforts to harmonise rates across Europe, the Commission does not pay any while its staff pay a reduced rate.
So imagine the horror when Brussels town council imposed a property tax on the owners of large buildings based on their occupants. In 1998, when the authorities first asked the landlords, SA Vita, to pay it, they in turn asked their tenants from the Commission to cough up. After all, the lease said it was responsible for paying taxes.
It refused and Vita went to the Belgian courts, which ordered the Commission to pay €500,000. The matter did not stop there, however.
Refused leave to appeal to the European Court of Justice, its own pet body, the Commission decided to take a case against Belgium there instead.
It accuses it of breaching the founding treaty of the EU, which says it will be exempt from tax. A court adviser ruled in the Commission’s favour last year and the judges are likely to follow suit on Thursday.
Voice of reason
To a hush-hush briefing at the Berlaymont, headquarters of the EU – that’s Environmental Union – executive arm.
Senior officials from the energy, environment, antitrust, research and external affairs directorates at the European Commission were outlining just how Europe would deliver on its lofty pledges this month to cut carbon emissions and triple renewable energy generation. However, there was an unexpected sixth man on the stage. This, it turned out, was the personal emissary of Gunther Verheugen, the gas-guzzling industry commissioner who fears his colleagues have gone down with a case of green “hysteria”. He didn’t want the voice of reason to go unheard.
After Mr Environment had said his piece about cutting car emissions Verheugen’s man was quick, as ever, to stress the merits of the “integrated approach” that takes some of the burden off the industry.
He unveiled exciting plans for tyre pressure monitors, new tougher tyres, more efficient air conditioning and hydrogen powered cars. No mention, alas, of where one might fill them up.
If Rijkman Groenink, ABN Amro’s embattled chief executive, is seeking tactical advice on how to handle activist investors, he does not have far to look. Rob van den Bergh, who was ousted as chief executive of business information group VNU in a shareholder revolt, sits on ABN’s supervisory board, while Jan Kalff, Groenink’s predecessor at ABN, is chairman of Stork, the industrial conglomerate that is also the target of break-up demands.
Earlier this month Royal Dutch Shell, the Anglo-Dutch energy company that unwound its governance structure a couple of years ago under shareholder pressure, announced its intention to appoint Groenink a non-executive director.
He will take the place of Aarnout Loudon, ABN’s former chairman, who is retiring.
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