Man Without Qualities

Thursday, July 04, 2002

Never Give a Sucker an Even Break! VI

The New York Times reports today that:

In an interview published Thursday in the weekly Le Point but conducted June 5, the boyish-looking former chairman [of Vivendi, Jean-Marie Messier] said Charles Bronfman, uncle of Vivendi board member Edgar Bronfman Jr., used ``bootlegger methods'' to take revenge. ``His dream is to replace me by an American and regain control of the group.''

Which is interesting, since Mr. Messier seems to express his beliefs that the Bronfmans:

(1) had the power to "take revenge" on him, where they now own only 5.2% of Vivendi (they have sold some of their stake),

(2) want an American to run Vivendi, where Mr. Messier seems to be using the term "American" in its broadest sense, to include Canadians; and

(3) want to "regain" control of the Vivendi group, where the Bronfmans never controlled Vivendi.

Perhaps this example of Mr. Messier's thought processes gives some indication as to why his strategic plans went so awry.

Jean-René Fourtou, the newly appointed Vivendi interim chairman and chief executive, is not an American and his appointment does not seem to reflect the desires of the Bronfman family or any shift toward their control of the group. So an investor might wonder whether there is more "revenge" in store.

Mr. Messier's crack about the Bronfmans and "bootleggers" is interesting. It is true that the Bronfman fortune got a big boost selling liquor during prohibition. But the family is Canadian, and liquor was not illegal in Canada during prohibition. So I'm not really sure if it's right to suggest that the Bronfman family were bootleggers or that Charles Bronfman retains bootlegger characteristics.

But, since Mr. Messier brings it up, Charles may want at least to consider having Edgar Bronfman, Jr.'s legs broken - just for getting the family into this mess and, of course, for old times sake. I would.

The Times also reports that:

The appointment of Jean-Rene Fourtou as chairman prompted an optimistic initial reaction of the Paris exchange: Vivendi shares opened 15 percent higher. But they slipped back as investors realized how much work needs to be done to turn the company around, and closed 5.5 percent higher.

Dow Jones reports that the Vivendi share price uptick was attributed to sign that Vivendi's banks would extend additional credit, notwithstanding the internal chaos of their borrower. The appointment of some French bank officers to the Vivendi board was seen as good news: "Although the directors are appointed in an independent capacity, bankers in Paris said their presence on the board should 'help grease the wheels' between the troubled media group and its creditors."

Of course, in the United States such appointments might be thought to create a horrifying conflict of interest for these directors who, after all, are apparently going to be greasing the wheels with government-insured bank funds. And bank shareholders might be forgiven a certain queasiness at the prospect that these bank officers have been given Vivendi board appointment with the express intent to "help grease the wheels" between the troubled media group and the bank to which the directors supposedly owe a fiduciary responsibility.

And then there is the interesting report that the banks' support comes with analysts' expectations that "bankers are now likely to give credit on condition of asset sales." Apparently political considerations will prohibit substantial sales of Vivendi's French assets, including Vivendi's loss-making pay-TV unit Canal Plus. Although some people have suggested that part or all of Canal Plus could be sold, its chief executive, Xavier Couture, said in an interview published Thursday that ``whatever happens, the Canal Plus group is there to stay as an entity.'' Further, it's hard to see how Canal Plus can be sold because it pays half the funding for movies made in France. So it seems that for "cultural considerations" Vivendi is going to have to sell off its best performing (American) assets, and retain the dud French assets - all the while absorbing more credit from French banks.

Maybe that shareholder queasiness and those 'cultural considerations" help to explain why Dow Jones is also reporting that "Despite the assurances, shares in Societe Generale and BNP Paribas SA - Vivendi's two largest lenders - have dropped sharply this week."

Yes, indeed. As well they might. The Wall Street Journal says that "[b]ased on a detailed liquidity statement Vivendi released late Wednesday, credit analysts estimate that Vivendi could face a cash shortfall of €2.7 billion ($2.65 billion) by the end of the year, expanding to as much as €5.5 billion by the middle of 2003, unless it can quickly secure a new multibillion-euro credit line from its lenders." And the banks are now expected to provide those funds.

And if the Bronfmans and Mr. Diller can patch up their differences and wait out the lunatics in Paris, maybe the Canadians and Americans will have a good shot at picking up the American assets at a bargain, firesale price after all - with French taxpayers paying the difference.

Got to love those European “cultural considerations.”

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