Mystery man helps keep M&S in the headlines

AN INTERNATIONAL man of mystery is apparently stalking Marks & Spencer - "the name’s Jumper, Lambswool Jumper".

The City has been stirred rather than shaken by the development, but it feels like a summer silly season story that took a wrong turn and ended up in snowy February.

The renewed frisson around M&S, with the shares rising nearly 2 per cent yesterday, was prompted by reports that South African venture capitalist Mark Paulsmeier, a legend in his own website, was planning a 10.5 billion swoop on the British retailer.

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Virtually nothing is known in the City - or anywhere, actually - about the shadowy "predator" other than that one of his companies, Oakwood Associates, reportedly bought a very large uncut diamond (stick with it) a few months back.

Leaked documents purporting to come from Oakwood say Paulsmeier is now preparing a bid for M&S. It has the internal backing of a senior M&S executive - called Andrew, apparently.

The name is shared by M&S’s menswear and merchandising directors, who may have been asked to have a word with the company’s chief executive, Stuart Rose.

Paulsmeier’s website claims he has access to 60bn and that he is a founder of the International Venture Capital Association.

This claim is somewhat undermined, however, by the British Venture Capitalism Association saying they have never heard of the financier. Or indeed the organisation.

Evidence of deals Paulsmeier has been involved with is also thin.

So far, so farcical. Then Philip Green, who is definitely an international businessman but not in the least mysterious, certainly not to Rose, re-entered the fray.

Green’s takeover approach to M&S was rebuffed amid acrimony last summer. Yesterday the retail magnate, owner of clothing chains from Bhs to Burton, issued a Stock Exchange statement saying that, contrary to rumours, he was not preparing a renewed bid for the retailer.

However, gratifyingly for journalists trying to tie the tattered streamers of this float-away story to terra firma, Green said he reserved the right to make an offer for M&S if a third party did.

Bingo. Green keeps powder dry while shadowy venture capitalist stalks M&S: here’s a headline we prepared earlier.

It is not surprising that takeover speculation continues to surround the retailer given its continued tough trading - its next trading update is 12 April and few company-watchers are holding their breath for good news this early in Rose’s planned turnaround.

But the idea of M&S rebuffing a known and proven business quantity like the expletive-enriched Green and welcoming a mystery man from the southern hemisphere looks uncompelling.

The idea of Paulsmeier going hostile on M&S, with or without Andrew on the inside, given all the trading problems still facing the target, looks even less plausible.

Double dose of optimism

THE string of interest rate rises by the Bank of England monetary policy committee last year was partly meant to address concerns about the red-hot house price market.

But anyone who thought the policy of monetary tightening might trigger a housing market crash would have been reassured from two quarters yesterday.

Homebuilder George Wimpey and mortgage bank Bradford & Bingley both came through with profits towards the top of the expected City range. And both had reasonably positive things to say about the cooling housing market, suggesting the slowdown was far from a rout.

Wimpey said it saw some encouraging signs for 2005, with new home reservations in the UK at the top of its expectations.

Crucially, the group says it is having to use fewer cut-price promotions for its homes - a useful indicator of the underlying strength of demand.

Wimpey’s confidence looks well reflected in a dividend increase of nearly a third - hardly the action of a company in a sector in crisis.

Bradford & Bingley also produced a useful 6 per cent profits increase and said tales of the demise of the buy-to-let market were premature.

This is good news for B&B, which has a very large chunk of that sector.

Like other mortgage lenders and homebuilders, it also says previous demand levels were unsustainable, but that we are far from a slump.

The housing "crisis" doomsters still look short of bricks.