=Unemployment is falling, growth has returned, economic forecasts are rosier. And Mark Carney , governor of the Bank of England , is reassuring everybody that interest rates are staying down, despite the rapidly improving jobs data. Expect Janet Yellen , new head of the US Federal Reserve, to be similarly dovish. Big business must be feeling bullish, right? Not exactly. It has been hard to spot the arrival of warmer weather in 2014's first batch of reports from major FTSE 100 companies. We've had Shell's first profits warning for a decade. Unilever said "developed markets remained weak with little sign of any overall improvement." Pearson, the education group, issued a mild profits warning this week and said its US market is "still challenging." Or note a line in Terry Smith's report to investors in his Fundsmith fund, which is skewed towards international companies in the field of consumer staples. In Fundsmith's "investable universe" of 64 stocks, Smith said there is "no doubt" that the rate of underlying revenue growth "has slowed by a couple of percentage points over the past year". On a similar track, Andrew Lapthorne at Societe Generale pointed out recently that in the US there is a large gap between "pro forma" earnings - which allow certain items to be excluded - and the harder measure of reported earnings. The former shows growth of 6%-7% in 2013; the latter almost zero. It would also be wrong, Lapthorne suggests, to trust the idea that companies have been under-investing while sitting on large piles of cash they will soon unleash to fuel growth. In fact, says Lapthorne, companies' accounts show capital expenditure in the US already running at almost 7% of sales, high by historical standards. And the cash piles must be set against the debts, some of which have been accumulated to fund share buybacks. Levels of net debt among US non-financial companies, he calculates, are actually 15% higher than before the financial crisis. The UK picture is similar. Arresting stuff. So, too, is Lapthorne's chart (below) showing how long it has been since the market suffered a correction, defined as a 10% fall. In the case of the broad MSCI World index, we're at 410 days and counting - evidence, perhaps, of complacency among investors. The magic ingredient driving last year's buoyancy in stock markets was, of course, quantitative easing. The policy has encouraged investors into shares and, by lowering corporate bond yields, has allowed finance directors to play the share buyback game with cheaper debt. More monetary medicine, notwithstanding the Fed's softly-softly "taper" on QE, could keep the stock market party swinging. But 2014 has brought disappointing profit and revenue news from the frontline of international business. That is a new development. If a currency crisis in emerging markets is also brewing, the global recovery could start to look very weak. Stock markets, priced for growth, are fragile. =Still, there's nothing like a few flotations to keep spirits high, eh? They are the life-blood of equity markets, we're always told, and one fund manager at a major house confides that he's seeing half a dozen companies a week wanting to gauge investors' appetites. That should be a cue to study closely the quality of some of these hopefuls. Just Eat, reports the FT, is hoping to list at a value of pounds 700m-pounds 900m, or 70 to 90 times its profits before interest, tax and depreciation, on the basis that it is a "technology" company. What? Just Eat allows punters to order a takeaway pizza, curry, or whatever, over the internet and via a mobile phone. That might have been cutting-edge innovation circa 1999 but, come on, this is still a delivery service. At 70-90 times earnings, skip this meal and start worrying about what else the pipeline of flotations will offer. =It seems like only yesterday that Royal Mail chief executive Moya Greene , doing her bit to help business secretary Vince Cable , was arguing that the privatisation was executed well and that a long-term view should be taken of the share price. Follow this line to its conclusion and Royal Mail's status as a FTSE 100 company shouldn't be taken for granted. At the current share price of 575p, or pounds 5.75bn in market value, the group is easily within the blue-chip pack. But at the float price of 330p, or even 400p, it would be a borderline candidate. It was jarring, therefore, to hear chairman Donald Brydon argue this week that, now Royal Mail is a member of the FTSE 100 index, Greene ought to be paid more. She is the "lowest paid chief executive in the FTSE 100," he told the Daily Telegraph , and he wants to "right-size her a bit" as "a necessary part of making sure we keep her". What sort of right-sizing, if we must call it that, does he have in mind? Brydon didn't say. But the most Greene can earn under the "reward scenarios" set out in the annual report is pounds 1.72m. The boss of a typical pounds 6bn FTSE 100 firm might expect a carrot twice that size. So does Brydon's "a bit" imply a doubling of Greene's package? That might a tricky pitch. On the other hand, Adam Crozier , Greene's predecessor, collected pounds 2.4m in his final year. Cable will find himself at the centre of this tale. The state still owns 30% of Royal Mail and the staff have 10%. That could amount to a blocking stake since, under Cable's own reforms, pay proposals must be put to a shareholder vote. It's a delicious tangle. Let's hope Cable doesn't avoid it by flogging the state's shares before Royal Mail's annual meeting, set for the summer. The government is free to sell from mid-April.
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