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Opinion

Front End

Japan's bacteria-free banking; Dresdner swoops to conquer; Y2K cost; Josef Ackermann; Boris Yeltsin; Winter dancer; Cavallo controversy

Edited by Steven Irvine


Japan's bacteria-free banking

Japan is money-launderering.

Sanwa Bank's latest automatic teller machines (ATM) in Japan not only count the yen notes they dispense, they also press and sanitize them to eliminate germs. Just like the crisp, clean sheets one expects from a laundry.

"It may not be crucial to public health, but our customers are definitely more comfortable using clean ATMs," says Sanwa spokesman Hidehito Mori.

Personal hygiene has long been esteemed in Japan. The long ritual soak in the piping hot o-furo (honourable bath) is an obvious manifestation of this.

But this year's mysterious food-poisoning epidemic caused by a strain of colonic bacteria has turned it into a national obsession. Demand for sanitary saxophones, bicycle grips, and karaoke equipment made from antiseptic plastic has skyrocketed. The deadly dangers lurking in public lavatories prompted bathroom accessories maker Toto to market a battery-powered, refillable portable bidet called Travel Washlet that is about the size of a paperback book and retails for about ¥18,000 ($160). It has already sold more than 130,000.

Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi has aptly caught the public mood with a Total Anti-Germ Branch in an affluent suburb of Tokyo.

Every interior surface with which customers may come into physical contact has been indelibly saturated with chemicals that resist bacteria and fungi.

Spokesman Kazutaka Umegaki says it is especially popular with "young female customers, many of whom say they don't want to touch things handled by middle-aged men". Peter McGill

Dresdner swoops to conquer

"There goes the share price," said a voice out of the darkness as the green crescent of laser light which had been drawing sweeping curves over the facade of Dresdner Bank's tower took a sudden plunge to earth.

A group of journalists watching the show loudly enjoyed the joke, but even in the anonymous darkness there was mirthless silence from the Deutsche Telekom contingent ­ led by chief executive Ron Sommer, finance director Joachim Kröske and some of their favourite bankers including Hansgeorg Hofmann of Dresdner and Ronaldo Schmitz of Deutsche Morgan Grenfell.

To commemorate the Dm14 billion flotation of Deutsche Telekom, Dresdner Bank was making its mark with a laser show "which transformed the bank's tower into an enthralling beacon of light". Projected from the European Monetary Institute building onto Dresdner's
31-storey headquarters, the laser performed imaginative variations on the green Dresdner crescent and Telekom's pink dots-and-T-sign logo. No expense was spared: the bank said that 20 technicians took six days and used more than a mile of cabling to set up the 30 specially constructed spotlights.

Effort and expense were rewarded the next day, when the Dresdner Bank tower featured in every Frankfurt newspaper. Dresdner, while coming from behind, had nevertheless triumphed in a new form of rivalry between the three global coordinators of the Telekom deal ­ Goldman, Deutsche and Dresdner.

Two days earlier almost all Frankfurt's tallest buildings had been opened to the public in a Skyscraper-Fest, giving ordinary Frankfurters an aerial view of their city for the first time. Demand from the grass roots was strongest for the 240-metre Messeturm, home of Goldman Sachs, followed by Deutsche Bank's twin towers. Laura Covill

Vaporware and the year 2000

Computer software analysts reckon that it will cost around 75 cents per line of code to change banks' and business' computers to cope with the year 2000. That implies a total worldwide cost of $500 billion. What's worse, in many jurisdictions, such as the UK, updating computer programmes is not accounted for as capital expenditure. It has to be taken as a hit to profits.

Software consultants have come up with some bizarre suggestions to cope with the simultaneous challenges of 2000 and the European single currency. Consultants have pondered ways to con computers into thinking that they have been switched back to 1900 or 1949.

But you have to be careful with computer consultants. One admits: "There's a lot of vaporware out there." (This is computer geek-speak for bullshit.) Some have even suggested that the whole European monetary union project should be postponed because it will compete for information technology resources with the 2000 crisis. Peter Lee

Deutsche's dark horse

Josef Ackermann is the unknown quantity catapulted into Deutsche Bank's executive boardroom on October 30. The 48-year-old resigned from Credit Suisse at the end of June when he found himself passed over as chief executive. Now the rumour mills suggest that the one-time crown prince of Credit Suisse hasn't lost his royal touch.

Veteran board member Rolf Breuer was named to succeed speaker Hilmar Kopper next May. Kopper himself, with Ulrich Cartellieri, leaves the executive board for the supervisory board. One forecast is that the 58-year-old Breuer won't be there more than two years before Ackermann takes over.

While the 126-year-old German bank might not yet have the stomach for an Anglo-Saxon chief executive, a Swiss-German global banker might be an acceptable halfway house.

Twin tower-watchers don't see the departure of Kopper and Cartellieri from the executive board as a sign of displeasure. But there were foul-ups ­ Eurasbank for Cartellieri, Metallgesellschaft, Schneider, Klöckner and Morgan Grenfell Asset Management for Kopper.

The moves were triggered by the ill-health of supervisory board chairman Wilhelm Christians. Traditionally the speaker succeeds the chairman. Kopper is likely to be no exception.

There are high hopes that Breuer can build bridges between the footsoldiers in Frankfurt and the high-rolling mercenaries at Deutsche Morgan Grenfell. He knows about investment banking, but his mind is firmly shackled to Finanzplatz Frankfurt.

Breuer's hectic schedule is legendary. So much so that when one supplicant finally cornered him at an IMF meeting and said "Ah, Mr Breuer, it seems you have some time for conversation," the great man studied his watch and said as he moved away: "Unfortunately you have just missed your opportunity." David Shirreff

How much if he dies?

They say every man's life has a price. But Boris Yeltsin's could be particularly expensive.

This was the verdict during a conference in Moscow last month in which the subject of the president's death came up.

Speakers from the major industrial banks studiously avoided the coronary issue.

But a panel of investors bit the bullet on how much everyone stood to lose should the president become "incapacitated".

The Cassandra of the bunch was William Browder of Hermitage Capital Management, who predicted a 35% sell-off on definitive bad news from the Kremlin hospital. Particularly ravaged, he said, would be the five blue chips which account for half the trades in the Moscow market: Lukoil, United Energy System, Rostelekom, Mosenergo and Irkutskenergo. Lucky thing, then, that Browder's own firm specializes in not yet listed companies.

Mark Cooke of Brunswick Capital Management, the Swedish-Russian brokerage which is a market-maker in the blue chip trade, shot back that Yeltsin dying in office would be a "buying opportunity". The Russian market is controlled by a small group of veteran investors, "who are not here because they're scared to death of risk," he argued.

CS First Boston Russian equities chief Peter Halloran, who watched the debate from the audience, saw wisdom in both views. His own analysis puts the postmortem drop at 30%, he said. "But then there are a lot of buyers out there waiting for that weakness to get in."

James Fenkner, head researcher at CentreInvest Securities, suggested: "A lot depends on how Yeltsin dies." The market would recover within three weeks from a death by natural causes, he predicted. "But if he is assassinated, then it depends on which minister was behind it." Craig Mellow

Cavallo controversy

How are the mighty fallen. Domingo Cavallo, only months ago hailed as Argentina's economic Messiah, was sacked in July and is now being vilified by former cabinet colleagues. One suggested he was mad, another that he should be locked up (for three years, no less), and yet another that he was a traitor. President Carlos Menem, while praising Cavallo as one of Argentina's most outstanding economy ministers, accused him of having moved to the opposition ranks.

What had begun in July as the orderly passing of the economic baton from Cavallo to Roque Fernandez, his successor, had degenerated by October.

Cavallo alleged that interior minister, Carlos Corach, had boasted to him that he regularly manipulated the judicial system. Corach had even written the names of judges he controlled on the back of a table napkin, he added. Then came the turn of Alberto Kohan, general-secretary to the presidency, whom Cavallo testified may have known about bribes paid to secure the award of a $250 million contract to IBM. "There is no justice and no security in Argentina," Cavallo told a New York audience.

The former minister may be acting partly in self-defence. He faces a number of pending lawsuits and may see mileage in discrediting the legal system.

But Cavallo says that, should Argentina need him, he would run for president in 1999 ­ though he jokes he may be in jail before then. His running-mate would be Ramon "Palito" Ortega, a former shoeshine boy who rose to enormous fame throughout the region as a crooner of ballads. Cavallo says Ortega has the charisma he lacks, and knows how to talk (or sing) to the people.

There may be a pattern here. After his sacking, Cavallo became an adviser to Abdala Bucaram, Ecuador's newly elected president. Like Menem and Ortega, Bucaram is highly charismatic. And one of his first acts after winning the presidential election, to boost his popularity still further, was to cut a record. David Pilling

The dancing dealer

"It was a gamble," says Mike Winter, a contemporary dancer, "but I've been unbelievably lucky. The gamble paid off."

Winter, a former Barclays foreign exchange dealer, resigned his job to become a dancer on the same day he was promoted. "I've been in more or less permanent work for the past three-and-a-half years," he says, "which is unheard of in the dance world."

Winter has toured internationally with Transitions Dance Company, Man Act, and Mind the Gap Tanztheater among others. He is now touring Britain with Tenement, "an eccentric excursion into bedsit land" inspired by Edward Hopper. "I may not be earning very much," he says, "but I'm a lot happier." Felix Salmon


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