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HPaQ timetables merger vote

The ides of March

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Hewlett-Packard has set March 19 as the day for shareholders to vote on the Compaq takeover. Their counterparts at Compaq make their marks the following day.

This gives the HP board a useful few weeks to get the Big Mo going, more time to mop up stragglers in its proxy toe-to-toe with Walter Hewlett, son of a founder, leader of the HP naysayers and dissident director who never listens to what's going on at the few board meetings he intends, any way.

For now, the mudslinging against Hewlett Jr, appears to have stopped. In the coming month we can expect a relentless flow of good news from HP: for instance this week, the company said that Q1 sales would be much better than analysts had expected, fuelled by an upturn in sales of PCs (Hewlett Jr is not a fan of low-margin PC commodity business you recall). But how do analysts expect - surely, they receive some guidance from the companies they follow?

Next up, we expect, a crop of HP's major shareholders and customers to announce their support for the deal - at judiciously-spaced intervals of course. A pro-merger user survey or three wouldn't come amiss either.

And all the while, cheerleader-in-chief Princess Fiorina will express relentless optimism. This is what's she's paid for, handsomely.

Fiorina's performance on the hustings has earned her a rebuke from her courteous opponent. Yesterday, Hewlett Jr. accused the HP CEO of making a "clearly false statement" for predicting the outcome of the Compaq vote.

"Ms. Fiorina's statement appears to be a clear violation of the Securities and Exchange Commission rules. Based upon information available to us, Fiorina's statement is clearly false. We are meeting with investors and what we are hearing is clearly contrary to her assertions. Given the significant volume of negative public statements from industry experts, the widespread unhappiness communicated to us by institutional investors, as well as the intention to vote in opposition by Walter B. Hewlett, Eleanor Hewlett Gimon, Mary Hewlett Jaffe, The William R. Hewlett Revocable Trust, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, we believe that HP's statement could only be motivated by an intention to mislead the market."

It's getting very interesting: when the Hewlett and Packard camps, holders of 18 per cent of HP, announced their opposition in January to the takeover, it seemed it was all over bar the fighting.

Slowly, perception is changing, although this is not so surprising, considering the massive disparity of resources at the disposal of the two camps. We can't call it - is anyone conducting a shareholder poll out there? ®

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