DealZone

When life gives you lemons, make limoncello

FRANCEIt may be a raucous bit of speculation gone awry, but reports in Italy that Fiat is angling to pick up General Motors’ Opel operations in Europe if the Chrysler deal falls through are too good to dismiss out of hand.

The denial from Fiat’s Chairman, Luca Cordero de Montezemolo, left a little room for intrigue in its dramatic flair. “They’ve written about it in the newspapers? No, no,” he told reporters. Fiat shares raced higher in relief. “Opel is linked to GM and Fiat has already got out of that,” said a Milan dealer, referring to a previous partnership. “Plus, it (Opel) is a clunker. Heaven forbid!”

Meanwhile, over at Chrysler, Chief Executive Bob Nardelli has been telling it like it will be. In an internal memo to staff, he said the company would cede control of its board, and ultimately senior leadership, if it completes the planned Fiat alliance. Given the Fiat deal is for only a fifth of Chrysler initially, rising eventually to 35 percent, that might seem odd. Then again, it’s the U.S. auto sector we’re talking about.

Deals of the day:

* Shares in Zurich Financial Services AG were lower after the company agreed to buy the U.S. auto insurance business of American International Group.

* Communications equipment maker Harris Corp said it agreed to buy Tyco Electronics Ltd’s wireless systems business for $675 million in cash, expanding its presence in the $9 billion market for land mobile radio systems.

Fiat steals union playbook

Of all the shotgun weddings out there, Fiat’s proposed partnership with Chrysler is the one looking most likely to end in a gory mess. Adding to the drama — and rolling out another irresistible cliché — the whole thing is turning into a game of chicken.

With two weeks to go before Uncle Sam pulls the plug on Detroit’s third wheel, Fiat’s chief warned Chrysler’s unions that he would walk away unless they agreed to cut labor costs.

Sergio Marchionne told the Globe and Mail newspaper a deal on a partnership had only a 50-50 chance of success because of lack of progress in talks with unions. Canadian unions are especially resistant, he said.

Fiat a compli

GENERAL-MOTORS/In retrospect, GM CEO Rick Wagoner’s demise was perhaps the most inevitable twist in the autos overhaul saga to date. The chance that he would present a radical plan to Obama this week, one dramatic enough to save his job, was slim at best. A more shocking result, one clearly less viable for Obama, would have been to make a few more threatening noises and hand out the cash that the company so desperately needs without demanding a very public pound of flesh – a head, in this case.

With only another 60 days to effect a U-turn in defiance of a skidding market, former GM COO Fritz Henderson doesn’t have a lot of room to maneuver. It’s hardly enough time for Washington to have installed a new crash-test chief executive.

The Chrysler bailout story is more intriguing. The private-equity owned car maker has been given 30 days to do a deal with Fiat, which has in deal talks to date pledged somewhere around zero in financial support. If that price was too much for the Italian auto maker, they may think that the ticking of the clock could give them some leverage to squeeze a few billion out of either Chrysler’s private-equity owners or U.S. taxpayers.

Racing to the Rescue

FRANCE/Who in the world doesn’t believe in supporting the auto business? As the U.S. Treasury contemplates the extent to which it will pump funds into the Detroit Three, European leaders are revving up measures to keep their car companies chugging along.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said France would consider making consumer auto loans more attractive as a way to help car makers hit by the global credit crunch and slowing economy. As if his country were plagued with a reckless, cut-throat sort of capitalism, the French president declared: “We cannot be the only country in the world that does not support our builders and manufacturers. We have to help industrial infrastructure.” He’s already offered 1,000 euros to every driver who trades in an old vehicle for a less-polluting one, so softening up auto loans would seem to be right up a Parisian alley.

In Italy, Fiat’s admission last week that its car business needs a partner to survive is seen as a way to put pressure on the Italian government for a solution. While media reports cite France’s PSA Peugeot-Citroen and Germany’s BMW as potential partners, industry watchers do not see a deal any time soon. Volkswagen says its finance arm has no capital problems, but is applying for state loan guarantees nonetheless. Sweden and Canada wasted no time pledging support for their auto sectors.

With a pit crew like this…

As GM’s resident guru, Bob Lutz, was telling CNBC he was guardedly optimistic that a short-term loan will be made available to the auto industry, the global picture clouded considerably. The chief of Italian carmaker Fiat told a magazine the company was too small to survive alone, Sweden was reported mulling a rescue package for Volvo and Saab, and Toyota, the world’s biggest car maker, was said to be eyeing spending cuts of up to 40 percent.
 
Fiat’s chief, Sergio Marchionne, went a little further, prognosticating that Chrysler will disappear and that only six big players will be left around the world when the dust settles. 
 
White House and congressional negotiators are working on an emergency rescue for the struggling industry, but passage of even a slimmed-down lifeline is far from certain. Sen. Richard Shelby, the top Republican on the Senate Banking Committee, has threatened a filibuster to block any bailout, according to Politico.com. The Senate is due back in session today.
 
Shelby, an Alabama Republican who has spoken out against the proposed “bridge loan” emergency package, indicated he was ready for battle. “This is a bridge loan to nowhere,” said Shelby, appearing on “Fox News Sunday” with Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, a Democrat. Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd, who is leading efforts to craft bailout legislation, told CBS that GM Chairman Rick Wagoner should resign. Levin, whose state is home to the major automakers, said he was confident there would be a deal but was less certain a filibuster could be avoided.
 
Deals of the day:
* San Miguel will buy a majority stake in Petron from the Ashmore Group for about 32.8 billion pesos ($675 million) after the British investment company completes a deal with the Philippine government, San Miguel’s president said.
* U.S. energy producer Arch Coal expects production in 2009 to be flat or slightly lower while overall output for the U.S. coal industry will slow, and also sees plenty of opportunity for acquisitions amid the economic downturn.
* Hedge Fund firm Centaurus is likely to sell its minority stake in French IT services group Atos Origin, but not in the immediate future, sources close to the matter said.
* Belgian-Dutch financial services group Fortis has upped the selling price of its Belgian insurance unit, which French peer BNP Paribas agreed to buy, a Dutch newspaper said. * One potential investor has already cast its eye over Latvian bank Parex, which the state has had to rescue, an official at the country’s bank supervisory body was quoted on as saying.
* Investment group Evolve Capital said it had offered 10.7625 pence a share to buy niche investment bank Blue Oar in a deal that would value the company at 17.9 million pounds ($26.3 million).
* British mid-sized broking firms Ambrian Capital and Panmure Gordon & Co said they have held talks regarding a possible merger between the companies.
* Qantas Airways warned investors its proposed $5.6 billion merger with British Airways faced major obstacles over the terms of the deal and stressed there was a reasonable chance talks would fail.
* French healthcare diagnostics group BioMerieux said it had acquired privately held PML Microbiologicals, a U.S-based provider of culture media and microbiological products.
* Peabody Energy, the most valuable U.S. coal miner, said it is eyeing potential investments in the western regions of China, the country that is expected to drive much of the global growth in demand for coal.
* Swiss drugmaker Roche Holding is still committed to its $43.7 billion bid to buy out U.S. biotech group Genentech, its chief executive was quoted as saying in an interview. * Santos, Australia’s third-largest oil and gas firm, was considering potential initiatives but talk of a possible bid from China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) was pure speculation, the company said.

(Photo: Reuters/Joachim Hermann)