February 7: Boots merger given the green light

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February 7: The Office of Fair Trading has decided not to refer Boots’ planned merger with Alliance Unichem to the Competition Commission. The enlarged company will have to sell about 100 stores and Boots shareholders seem pleased with that: even though the chances of a private equity bidder intervening is now diminished, the stock is up a touch.

BP has produced less good results than the market expected, sending the shares down 18½p to 647p. It says it will return about $50bn to shareholders in dividends and buybacks over the next three years if the oil price is at around $41 a barrel. This is an impressive figure but in line with its previous practice: it has given $40bn back over the last three years. At $60 a barrel, shareholders would get about $65bn.

Vodafone is in talks with Telecom Egypt about buying that company’s 25.5 per cent stake in Vodafone Egypt, reckoned to be worth about $1bn. Last week it emerged that Vodafone could double its stake in Poland’s Polkomtel at an estimated cost of €860m after one of its fellow shareholders in the Polish mobile operator put its holding on the market. Meanwhile, new figures today show Vodafone is losing market share in Germany to O2. The issue for Vodafone chief executive Arun Sarin is an interesting one: some of his shareholders clearly see Vodafone as a utility; others see it as a growth stock. But Sarin has not been clear which he wants to be: a super-utility throwing off cash or a growth stock making significant long-term bets on emerging markets. Each strategy has merit but can he really juggle both?

In the same industry, the Guardian market report this morning suggested that Orascom, another Egyptian group which owns a telecoms business, is having a look at Cable and Wireless. C&W shares haven’t reacted much, however. Probably because Orascom is denying any interest.

Following this morning’s story that a US congressional committee is reserving judgement on Compass’s internal investigation into its UN contracts, we feel there is more to do. Above all, with the annual meeting on Friday, it might be useful to put these difficulties into some sort of group context to see how significant – or not – they really are.

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