General Motors and Ford said Monday they would cut North American vehicle production in response to weakening demand, especially for big sport-utility vehicles and pick-up trucks. Five of the six biggest carmakers reported a drop in February car and light truck sales in spite of more generous discounts and other incentives. Even demand for Toyota's Prius petrol-electric hybrid hatchback slipped 10 per cent. General Motors announced a 12.9 per cent fall in light vehicle sales compared with February 2007. Toyota, which overtook Ford last year as the number-two carmaker in the US, saw a 2.7 per cent drop. Ford's sales were 6.9 per cent lower. Chrysler and Nissan also reported declines. The exception was Honda, which gained 4.9 per cent. There were was one more selling day last month than in February 2007. According to Autodata, a market research firm, total light vehicle sales fell to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 15.4 million units in February from 16.6 million a year earlier. Mark LaNeve, GM's vice-president for North American sales, said: "Traffic was soft, business was tough all month.' He added that tightening credit conditions were affecting sales "on the margin'. Sales of the Chevrolet Silverado pick-up, GM's top-selling vehicle, slumped 28 per cent. The pick-up market has been especially vulnerable to the slump in housebuilding., an online pricing service, estimated that carmakers raised incentives by an average 8.4 per cent last month compared to a year earlier. Toyota raised its incentives 40 per cent to more than $1,000 a vehicle. The company shrugged off the drop in Prius sales, ascribing it to record demand last February at the start of a special promotion. GM's incentives, totalling $3,315, were almost a quarter higher, diluting its drive over the past two years to wean itself from these promotions. Jim Farley, Ford's marketing chief, said: "The industry as a whole will be under more pricing pressure.' GM said it planned to cut second-quarter production 5 per cent. Ford announced a 10 per cent reduction. Honda's performance underlined a move towards small cars and crossover vehicles, which look like SUVs but are built on car platforms., said Honda spent more on incentives than Toyota last month, a rare event. Separately, GM announced the promotion of Fritz Henderson, chief financial officer, to president and chief operating officer. Ray Young, vice-president of finance and head of GM Brazil, succeeds Henderson as chief financial officer.

Rice prices have surged to a 20-year high in the latest sign of global food inflation, creating policy headaches in Asia, where more than 2.5 billion people depend on cheap and abundant supplies of the grain. Thai rice prices, a global benchmark, surged last week above the level of $500 a tonne for the first time since at least 1989, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, prompting importing countries to seek assurances on supplies. Robert Zeigler, director at the International Rice Research Institute in Manila, said policymakers should be concerned. "If history is any indicator, we should be worried because rice shortages have in the past led to civil unrest,' he said. US rice in Chicago, the benchmark for the world's fourth-largest exporter of the grain, jumped on Monday to a record $18.10 per hundredweight ($400 per tonne)

Ratan Tata, chairman, Tata Motors, today said he would consider the option of giving out the Nano design to other carmakers for licensed manufacturing, though there are no such plans as of now. If his company couldn't meet the demand on its own, he was willing to consider allowing others for a licence fee, Tata said during an interaction with the Indian media in Geneva at the 78th annual international motor show. Nano, along with other new products from Tata Motors, including the new Indica, is on display at the motor show. Tata's comment on the subject of licensed manufacturing comes at a time when other global manufacturers such as Renault are keen to make low-priced cars to address markets like India. India's largest automobile company, Tata Motors, had unveiled the world's cheapest car, Nano, in January at the Auto Expo in New Delhi. Managing Director Ravi Kant added that consumers could expect innovations in the area of financing for Nano buyers, given the shortage of funds for the two-wheeler finance market in India. He, however, refused to divulge the details. Due to rising defaults in the two-wheeler finance market, large retail bankers such as ICICI Bank and HDFC Bank have in recent months shrunk their exposure by as much as 20 per cent. Rising interest cost has also been a cause of concern for buyers. Tata further said Nano would be made available in developed markets like Europe later. The positioning in Europe would be that of a totally compliant vehicle (emission and safety) at a price that had not been arrived at, he said. Without fixing any deadline, Tata said his company would play a very significant role for vehicles run on alternative fuels such as electric and hybrid versions. This, he said, could be done by buying technology and systems, suggesting that there would not be any attempt at reinventing existing technologies. He also added that the company was pursuing the idea of distributed manufacturing for Nano, where kits could be sold to entrepreneurs for assembling and sale. This, he said, would not be in lieu of existing distribution system, but over and above that. (The correspondent's trip to Geneva was sponsored by Tata Motors.) Tata misses his morning coffee...well, almost! Without intending any pun, Ratan Tata said he could not drink his morning coffee after seeing the reports of a double-digit fall in sales in the US market. "It was so depressing that I almost could not drink my coffee,' he said. The fall in sales in the US market, which is the world's largest car market with nearly 25 per cent share, comes at a time when Indian vehicle makers such as Mahindra & Mahindra have serious plans to enter the US. Starting 2009, M&M's popular utility vehicle, Scorpio, will be sold in the US.

'Unauthorised' laying of new pipelines cannot be allowed, says gas regulator. The Petroleum and Natural Gas Regulatory Board (PNGRB) seems to be heading for a collision with the gas distribution companies that it is supposed to regulate. According to the gas regulator, no company can build or expand a gas distribution network without the permission of the PNGRB. However, leading gas distribtion companies are laying new pipelines every day without its permission. "Permissions are not needed for each locality separately. We have the permission to operate in Delhi and the city is one geographical area,' said Om Narayan, managing director of Indraprastha Gas Ltd (IGL), which retails gas to households and vehicles in Delhi. The regulator, in October last year, had pulled up IGL for expanding its pipeline network to the city's Vasant Vihar area without seeking its permission. The company, however, continues to expand, with it now laying pipelines in Vasant Kunj. A host of other companies already in the business are also expanding their network "in order to meet consumer demand'. Maharashtra Natural Gas Ltd, for instance, which distributes gas in Pune, is also on an expansion spree, without an express "permission' from the regulator. "The ruling does not apply to us,' says TK Majumder, managing director of the company. All of these companies started operations before the regulator formally came into being on October 1, 2007. Their city of operation was chosen for them by the petroleum ministry after directions came from the Supreme Court. The regulator is planning strict action against these companies. "We have issued notices to all of these companies. Strict action will be taken against these companies which are expanding their network without our permission,' said a member of the regulatory board. According to the regulator, existing city gas distributors will have to reapply to the regulator for "authorisation' to operate and expand in their cities. The deadline for reapplying is March 31. "It appears that almost all entities which are in business are without authorisation,' said PNGRB chairman, L Mansingh. The companies say they are expanding despite the regulator's directive as the demand for gas in cities is continuously growing. "Even the state government officials keep urging to speed up our expansion,' said SP Selvam, managing director of Central UP Gas Ltd, which distributes gas in cities such as Kanpur and Bareilli, and is planning to spread to Allahabad and Varanasi. "We cannot wait for permission,' IGL's Narayan said. THE MISSING SECTION 16 The crux of the problem lies in interpretation of the powers of the regulatory board, which was notified on October 1, 2007, after the Petroleum and Natural Gas Regulatory Board Act was passed in Parliament in 2006. The government, however, has not yet notified Section 16 of the Act, which deals with companies which already have city gas distribution operations. "Since Section 16 is not notified, the regulator has no way to deal with existing companies,' the chief of another existing city gas distribution company said. A regulatory board member however reads the issue differently. "In the absence of the Section, there is no directive on the working of the existing companies. So, all incremental works by the companies will need approvals,' the official said. Some companies are keen to eschew a fight with the regulator. A Vishwanadha Sarma, managing director of Bhayanagar Gas Ltd, which distributes gas in Vijaywada and Hyderabad, is one of them. "We are not expanding at all till there are directives from the regulator, which are likely to come once the final city gas regulations are notified (by mid-March 2008),' he said. "It is no point locking horns with the regulator.'

The Rs 60,000-crore loan waiver for small farmers has not exactly sent farming communities in the country into transports of joy, a dipstick survey by Business Standard correspondents, each of whom interviewed 25 to 30 farmers across India, shows. Some farmers, notably in Orissa, are moderately happy to have debts of Rs 5,000 written off. Others who benefit from a write-off of as much as Rs 77,000 are worried about how much they'll have to bribe to access the waiver. And there is bitterness among farmers who have been left out of the bounty owing to the size of their land-holdings

RETAIL: The toy industry is changing as more people are asking for environment-friendly products. Laurie Hyman had a busy time in the New York Toy Show, the US industry's biggest annual event, with more than 1,200 exhibitors. Her start-up company, Green Toys, sells toy teacups, bowls and gardening tools that are made in California from recycled plastic milk containers, and sold in boxes made from recycled cardboard. "We're getting a lot of interest

Two-wheeler maker Honda Motorcycle & Scooter India (HMSI), a wholly-owned subsidiary of Honda Motor Company, Japan, plans to launch a new motorcycle during the first half of FY09. The new motorcycle would be launched to suit the conditions in cities, N K Rattan, divisional head, HMSI, said while unveiling its new scooter Aviator. He declined to elaborate on the new model. During 2007-08, the launch of revamped versions of Shine and Unicorn boosted motorcycle sales. HMSI is targeting sales volumes of 8.8 lakh units. Of this, motorcycles will account for about 2.7 lakh units while the scooter segment will contribute the rest. The company sold 7.15 lakh units in 2006-07. Rattan said access to credit was not difficult for HMSI customers. ICICI Bank, HDFC Bank, Centurion Bank, Cholamandalam and SBI were willing to provide credit for purchasing HMSI vehicles, he added. He said 2008-09 would be a significant year for HMSI as the company would target to sell 10 lakh units during the year. With the launch of Aviator, the company hopes to strengthen its leadership position in the automatic scooter segment. The model, expected to sell 1 lakh units during FY09, could take the total sales volumes of HMSI's scooter segment to 7 lakh units by the end of March 2009. He said the automatic scooter segment was the second largest after the motorcycle segment in the two-wheeler industry, which is expected to reach 82 lakh units by March-end. The automatic scooter segment has grown from 3 per cent in 1998 to 13 per cent in 2007. HMSI was the market leader in India with 54 per cent share in the automatic scooter segment, which was expected to reach 16 lakh units by 2010-11 from 10 lakh units on the back of changing customer preferences, Rattan said.

Budget allocations for rural employment schemes have steadily decreased ever since the government introduced the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme (NREGP), one of the government's flagship programmes to benefit the common man, in 2006-07. The declining trend of allocations for wage employment has been highlighted in data compiled by by N C Saxena, a member of the National Advisory Council, which advises the government on developmental issues, in a critique of social spending in the Budget. In 2005-06

Eni, the Italian oil and gas group, plans to invest $4 billion in Venezuela, the biggest commitment to the country by a western oil company since President Hugo Ch

Dabur, which launched its milk beverage mix brand Chyawan Junior four months ago, is planning a national-level rollout for it by September. According to the company, Chyawan Junior received good response in Maharashtra and West Bengal, where it is being test-marketed. It has already gained 1 per cent market share in these states. Another company to foray into this market is fast-moving consumer goods heavyweight Hindustan Unilever with its Kissan Amaze brainfood range, which is a milk beverage mix product, biscuits and snacks. The company is test-marketing its product in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. The Rs 1,500-crore milk beverage mix market is dominated by GlaxoSmith Consumer's Horlicks and Boost, Cadbury's Bournvita and Heinz' Complan. The two new entrants