When a young lawyer by the name of Timothy Muris went to work as a senior staffer at the Federal Trade Commission in 1981, the commission had such a reputation for regulation that critics called it the "National Nanny." Muris' job was to take it down a notch.
Now, the 51-year-old Muris is again heading to the FTC in the wake of a Democratic Administration. This time, he's going as President Bush's selection for chairman. Expect some fairly dramatic changes. Although he's a regular lunch partner of current Chairman Robert Pitofsky, he'll put the brakes on a lot of what Pitofsky was up to. When it comes to trustbusting, Muris will be more focused on protecting consumers than on preventing monopolies' stifling of innovation. And he likely won't make as big a deal about Internet privacy as Pitofsky did. "Things aren't as out of control this time," says former FTC Chairman Jim Miller. "But he'll still want to get things straightened out." That should be no problem--he'll now be calling the shots. On Mar. 20, the Supreme Court sided with employers hoping to keep their disputes with employees out of court. By a 5-4 majority, the court ruled that companies can require their employees to take their disputes to arbitration instead of to the courtroom.
Arbitration is often used to resolve disputes more quickly and at less cost than a full-bore trial. But it does not provide anywhere near the range of options for redress. The ruling is a clear victory for business. It's also more evidence of the ideological divide on the High Court. The five in the majority on the arbitration ruling are the same who frequently strike down laws on the basis of states' rights--and halted the Florida recount in the Presidential race. Yahoo! (YHOO) is taking its first step toward rebuilding. On Mar. 20, 13 days after Chief Executive Timothy A. Koogle announced that he would resign and the company would badly miss first-quarter forecasts, the Internet megaportal hired Gregory Coleman as its new executive vice-president for North American operations. Coleman, most recently a senior vice-president at Reader's Digest Assn., brings 25 years of media experience to the struggling Net bellwether. Coleman will report directly to President and Chief Operating Officer Jeffrey Mallett, though it's not yet clear if Mallett will stay on at Yahoo past the search for a new CEO. Stung by criticism that it was too hasty in granting patents on so-called business methods, such as Amazon.com's (AMZN) one-click buying system, the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office put a new policy in place a year ago to ensure that such applications get more thorough reviews.
The result: The success rate of applications has dropped from 56% to about 50%. Some lawyers credit the PTO with doing a better job of weeding out dubious applications; others say the new guidelines are too onerous. Overall, however, the number of business-method applications is soaring, from 2,821 in 1999 to 7,800 in 2000--and the number of patents granted rose from 583 in 1999 to 899 in 2000. Kraft foods, with power brands like Velveeta cheese, Oscar Mayer, Philadelphia Cream Cheese, Maxwell House, and Jell-O, said it expects to raise as much as $5 billion in an initial public offering. Philip Morris, Kraft's parent, plans to sell 10% to 15% of the company in what analysts view as a precursor to a full spin-off. The partial sale will help Kraft, the largest U.S. food company, pay down a portion of the $11 billion debt it owes Philip Morris for funding Kraft's acquisition of Nabisco Group Holdings in December. General Electric (GE) should have closed its $45 billion buyout of Honeywell International by now, but the merger may not happen at all. If the European Commission presses for big divestitures in Honeywell's aerospace division, GE will bail, top management says. The first hint of trouble came on Feb. 26, when the EC said it would extend its antitrust review up to four months. The EC is concerned that GE could grab market share by bundling aerospace products. Both companies say they're confident the deal will be approved, but investors have knocked GE stock from $60 last September to $39. -- AT&T (T) named Betsy Bernard president and CEO of its consumer services unit.
-- Dell Computer (DELL) and Samsung signed a technology and R&D deal worth $16 billion.
-- GM (GM) and autobytel.com (ABTL) will build a Web site to sell Chevy vehicles from Washington area dealerships. Fortune Brands (FO) has mixed a powerful new cocktail that lifted spirits on an otherwise glum Wall Street. The producer of Jim Beam whiskey announced on Mar. 20 that it will team with Sweden's Vin & Sprit, which makes Absolut vodka, to jointly distribute their No. 1 brands in the U.S. Their partnership, Future Brands LLC, will be the second-largest booze distributor in the U.S., behind only Diageo. By Mar. 21, Fortune shares logged a two-day rise of 8%, to $32.77.