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European Meeting on GE Merger Aborted

Antitrust: Postponement may signal trouble for the company's proposed purchase of Honeywell.

June 09, 2001|PAUL GEITNER | ASSOCIATED PRESS

BRUSSELS — A planned meeting between General Electric Co. Chief Executive Jack Welch and the European Union's antitrust chief was postponed Friday, a sign of possible trouble for GE's $41-billion purchase of Honeywell International.

"A Friday meeting that had been planned between Mr. Welch and Commissioner [Mario] Monti has been deferred," GE spokeswoman Louise Binns said, declining to elaborate.

The GE-Honeywell team, led by GE Vice Chairman Dennis Dammerman, "is in continuous meetings with the merger task force as they exchange views and work to narrow the issues," Binns said.

Welch flew to Brussels early Friday to try to persuade EU regulators to drop their objections to the deal. Binns declined to comment on whether he would stay for a possible later meeting or return to the United States.

EU Commission spokeswoman Amelia Torres declined to comment.

Sources close to GE, speaking on condition of anonymity, however, said the meeting has been rescheduled for Wednesday.

A source close to the negotiations, also speaking on condition of anonymity, played down the significance of the delay, saying it was "essentially just a timing issue."

But the postponement adds to the pressure on GE and Honeywell, which face a Thursday deadline for making their final offer of concessions. The EU's decision is due July 12.

Asked whether the deadline could be extended, Torres said only that the commission was obligated to follow a "strict legal timetable."

An EU decision to block the deal could spark a transatlantic trade war, as nearly happened in 1997 when the EU raised major objections to Boeing's proposed merger with McDonnell Douglas.

In trading on the New York Stock Exchange on Friday, shares of Honeywell dropped $2.24, or 4.6%, to $46.51, while GE fell 77 cents, or 1.57%, to $48.14.

Monti and Welch last met in late February, when Welch was still hoping to win easy clearance and have the deal wrapped up by April.

Instead, the EU Commission launched an in-depth probe, citing concerns about the deal's potential to reduce competition in areas such as regional-jet engines, a market that GE and Honeywell dominate.

Sources said this week that GE was prepared to offer to sell Honeywell's regional jet-engine business to satisfy those "direct overlap" concerns.

But analysts say GE also will have to satisfy EU worries about the effect on competition of "bundling" GE jet engines with Honeywell electronics and financing from GE Capital Aviation Services.

The Justice Department approved the deal May 2 with conditions that require Honeywell to divest its helicopter engine business and authorize new third-party maintenance and repair service for some of its aircraft engines.

In Europe, GE has argued that its aircraft financing and leasing arm is a separate business. Analysts say GE could agree to modify the financing unit's accounting structure to increase transparency and demonstrate it's not subsidizing loss-making enterprises to gain market share, but would balk at any demands to divest what it considers a core business.

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