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Closing Bell: La-Z-Boy


The pressure is ratcheting up on General Motors (GM) Chairman Richard Wagoner Jr. Billionaire Kirk Kerkorian has raised his stake in the auto maker to nearly 10% and wants a board seat, most likely for deputy Jerry York. At the same time, Wagoner is coming down to the wire in talks with the United Auto Workers about cutting GM's $5.6 billion annual tab for health-care costs. In exchange, the union wants GM to help bail out Delphi (DPH) and save the jobs of UAW members who work for the parts maker.

If a deal isn't struck before Oct. 17, Delphi could file Chapter 11. That means GM would have to absorb some of its former subsidiary's pension and retiree costs. There are signs a deal may be in the works: On Oct. 4, GM said it will sell its 20% stake in Japanese Fuji Heavy Industries (FUJHY), Subaru's parent. That should raise around $725 million, which could help GM fund Delphi's fix-it plan and buy out some of the auto maker's own excess workers.

Oct. 6. brought some much-needed good news for Merck (MRK). The embattled drugmaker released data on a new vaccine called Gardasil aimed at preventing infection by the human papilloma virus, a cause of cervical cancer. In the study, which followed more than 12,000 women between 16 and 26, Gardasil prevented precancerous lesions and cervical cancer in 100% of vaccinated women. The vaccine, which could hit the market in 2006, is expected by many analysts to become a $1 billion-plus product. The drugmaker, which is fending off thousands of lawsuits over its withdrawn painkiller Vioxx, desperately needs a hit.

Succession planning doesn't have to leave home if you're Sumner Redstone. The 82-year-old Viacom (VIA) chairman and majority shareholder will make daughter Shari vice-chairman of both Viacom and CBS when the two split sometime next year. The elder Redstone, who will continue to own 71.2% of the companies upon their split, will be chairman. Leslie Moonves will be CEO of the CBS unit, which will include the Infinity Broadcasting radio chain, while longtime MTV boss Tom Freston will be CEO of the remaining Viacom, which will include its cable channels and Paramount Pictures studio. Shari, 51, who runs the family-owned National Amusements theater chain, has long been viewed as her father's heir apparent despite his statements to the contrary.

Eighteen months after ruling that Microsoft (MSFT) violated antitrust laws, the European Commission has finally appointed a computer scientist to help determine if the company is complying with ordered remedies. Neil Barrett is a visiting professor at Britain's Cranfield University and serves as technical director for London consultancy Information Risk Management. He will advise, not decide, if Microsoft is meeting the terms of the antitrust finding, which required the company to release a version of Windows without Media Player and reveal secret communication protocols between Windows servers and PCs. Some critics are unhappy with Microsoft's compliance, despite a deal it reached with the EC last June to obey the decision.

Headquarters for Procter & Gamble (PG) is some 800 miles from New Orleans, but the back-to-back hurricanes in the Gulf Coast are being felt in Cincinnati. On Oct. 4, Citigroup (C) downgraded P&G stock to "hold" from "buy" in part because raw material costs soared after Katrina and then Rita shut down energy and chemical production. Bear Stearns (BSC) in September trimmed its forecast for P&G's fiscal first quarter for similar reasons. P&G, which uses oil and natural gas derivatives to make its products, concedes that earnings will be reduced by the hurricanes, but says that higher sales and cost-cutting will help it make up the difference.

-- Freddie Mac (FRE) said it will buy back $2 billion common and $2 billion preferred shares.

-- Yum! Brands (YUM) reported a 16% third-quarter earnings gain and raised its yearly forecast.

-- FedEx (FDX) will raise its overnight delivery rates by 3.5% beginning next year.

The recent hurricanes have taken some of the comfort out of La-Z-Boy's (LZB) growth. The furniture maker's shares reclined 7% on Oct. 5, to $12.37, on the news that it would miss quarterly earnings targets. La-Z-Boy is dealing with a foam padding shortage and plant damage.


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