City gets jitters over merger clamp-down

City law firms are hoping that the merger gravy train will trundle on despite the Government's recent U-turn on competition policy which analysts fear could jeopardise a number of large corporate deals.

Concern follows a speech by Ian Lang, president of the Board of Trade, in which he indicated that domestic competition issues will weigh more heavily when decisions are made on whether to allow proposed takeovers to go ahead.

But any reduction in merger and acquisition activity will be relatively small, with overall deal flow continuing at high levels, say senior City partners.

Nick Spearing, head of competition at Freshfields, said: “I think the changes may be more apparent than real. We are only talking about a change in emphasis.”

Lang's predecessor, the current Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine, had trumpeted the creation of national champions, able to compete in world markets. He appeared less worried by issues of domestic competition than with how deals would affect UK plc on the world stage.

But Lang's stance has frightened some in the City who fear more referrals to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. They point to his recent blocking of attempts by generators National Power and PowerGen to acquire regional electricity companies.

Spearing argued it was never taken for granted the national champions argument would always override issues of domestic competition. But a handful of deals may be affected under the Lang regime, he concedes.

Mark Friend at Allen & Overy said: “It is too early to say what the impact of Lang's speech will be but there is bound to be more sensitivity on the part of clients contemplating mergers or acquisitions.”

Bill Allan of Linklaters & Paines said: “The critical issue was how any new principles will be applied on a case-by-case basis. But I suspect the impact will be marginal.”

That said, Lang's approach may scupper deals in areas as diverse as brewing and engineering. Questions are already being asked about whether the £6 billion merger of Sun Alliance and Royal Insurance will receive official approval.

Last year, the MMC opposed a bid from GEC for warships group VSEL but Heseltine waved it through.

Some observers ask if Lang would have been as cavalier had he been in the driving seat.