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GM In The Garage


March may not have been the cruelest month for General Motors, (GMAC) but it's up there. The dented auto maker on Mar. 16 restated 2005 earnings to the tune of $2 billion in red ink, which means it lost $10.7 billion. About $1.6 billion of that has to do with costs to bail out its former parts unit, Delphi (DPHIQ.PK), and give buyouts to some of its own workers. The rest stems from rejiggered earnings at its finance arm, GMAC. Couple the gargantuan loss with aggressive noises coming from new board member Jerome York, and it's clear that CEO Richard Wagoner's driver's seat is mighty hot.

At least Wagoner has a pact with the United Auto Workers to help retool. GM said on Mar. 22 that it has agreed to a deal that will retire as many as 30,000 of its workers and more than 10,000 at Delphi. That could speed up plans to shutter or cut production at a dozen plants.

See "A Gleam of Hope for GM"

"On the one hand, on the other" is the economist's stock-in-trade, as Harry Truman noted when he demanded a "one-handed economist." Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke didn't disappoint the two-handed gang in a Mar. 20 speech. Addressing puzzlingly low long-term U.S. interest rates, Bernanke came to no conclusion on whether the Fed needs to tighten or loosen in response. But he did explain the low rates as the gift of a global savings glut.

This is starting to resemble Waiting for Godot. Microsoft (MSFT) on Mar. 21 revealed that the release of its much-delayed new operating system, Windows Vista, would be bumped back yet again, from November until January, for the consumer version. The move ultimately may not hurt sales much, but it sure makes the Redmond (Wash.) giant look clumsy.

See "Microsoft's Slo-Mo Scramble" and "Microsoft's Receding Vista"

Citigroup (C) made it official on Mar. 21: CEO Charles Prince will add the post of chairman at the annual meeting on Apr. 18 as billionaire dealmeister Sanford Weill steps down. Weill was chairman at Citi and predecessor companies for nearly 20 years. Under Weill, Citi and its predecessor ranked No. 1 in total shareholder return in the Dow 30 for the 10- and 15-year periods ended Dec. 31, 2005. Over to you, Chuck.

Google (GOOG) built its fortune by sending surfers elsewhere. But these days it's trying to keep folks glued to its sites, giving it more chances to sell ads. On Mar. 21 it unveiled Google Finance, a searchable site packed with news, charts, company profiles, and stock quotes. That moves Google into a dog-eat-dog arena, with everyone from Yahoo! (YHOO)to Microsoft's MSN to Dow Jones's MarketWatch drawing tens of millions of users. The search king hopes to win with gee-whiz features such as historic stock charts that can be dragged with a click of a mouse.

See "Google Shows Surfers The Money"

Criminality is a state of mind. That's the message from a federal appeals court, which on Mar. 20 tossed out the obstruction of justice conviction of Frank Quattrone, a once high-flying investment banker. Prosecutors charged Quattrone for telling colleagues in an e-mail to "clean up" files at a time when the Justice Dept. was investigating his firm, then known as Credit Suisse First Boston. The appeals panel said the judge's instructions wrongly allowed jurors to convict Quattrone even if he didn't know his e-mail would affect the probe. No knowledge, no crime, the court said. Prosecutors are pondering whether to retry the case.

When was the last time a company racked up a win in a shareholder lawsuit? On Mar. 21, when a unanimous Supreme Court banished investor class actions from state courts. Merrill Lynch v. Dabit centered on a 1998 reform that sought to rein in shareholder suits by pushing claims related to "the purchase or sale" of stock into federal court. In 2002 a broker sued Merrill in Oklahoma, claiming that the firm misled him and others into holding on to overvalued shares. Because there was no buying or selling, the broker said, the case could be heard in a state court. The high court skewered that notion. Big losers in the case: savvy lawyers seeking to have claims heard by sympathetic state judges.

In one fell swoop, Internet tycoon Masayoshi Son became a cell-phone heavyweight. Son's Softbank on Mar. 17 ponied up $15.5 billion to buy Vodafone's (VOD) Japanese mobile unit. The deal, one of the largest ever in Japan, gives Softbank 15.1 million customers and a nationwide cellular network to add to its portfolio of Net, broadband, and fixed-line services. It also relieves Vodafone executives of the headache of fixing a business with shrinking profits.

See "Softbank-Vodafone Deal Rings True"

Merger mania is shaking up the sleepy world of insurance. Deal-hungry Aviva, Britain's largest life insurer, on Mar. 16 aimed a nearly $30 billion bid at crosstown British outfit Prudential PLC, which shrugged it off. The next day, The Wall Street Journal reported that St. Paul Travelers, (STA) of St. Paul, Minn., is talking with Zurich Financial Services of Switzerland about teaming up. (St. Paul denied it.) Meanwhile, MetLife (MET) is sniffing around the world for deals. Such combos could give AIG, (AIG) a U.S. giant with major overseas operations, more muscular rivals to fret about.

For the first time ever, Dell (DELL) is buying another PC maker -- and moving upscale in the process. On Mar. 22 the maker of plain-Jane computers said it plans to acquire Miami-based Alienware, a privately held purveyor of high-end machines favored by gameheads and other affluent types. Terms weren't disclosed. Dell is searching for ways to revive sales growth, projecting it will reach 6% to 9% this quarter, far below the 16% posted only a year ago. Alienware boxes average $3,200, far more than Dell's.

It's the GE of sports leagues, but its Jack Welch is about to leave the game. On Mar. 20, Paul Tagliabue said he would step down in July after quarterbacking the NFL for the past 16 years and turning it into a money machine that's the envy of every sports operation. So who'll fill his cleats? Tagliabue's longtime No. 2 is Roger Goodell, and the job is essentially his to lose, say sports industry sources. The 47-year-old Goodell, son of former Senator Charles Goodell (D-N.Y.), has spent nearly his entire career at the NFL, playing major roles in negotiating TV and labor deals. Also on the depth chart is Rich McKay, 47, president of the Atlanta Falcons and son of legendary University of Southern California and Tampa Bay Bucs Coach John McKay, who serves on the league's powerful competition committee. A longer shot is Eric Grubman, 48, ex-Goldman Sachs banker who for two years has headed up finance and strategic transactions at the NFL. And two Hail Mary contenders: Bill Clinton and Condi Rice.


Tim Cook's Reboot
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