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A merger of two of the world's leading precious metals companies appeared probable after the board of Ashanti Goldfields Ltd. unanimously recommended acceptance of a $1.4 billion all-stock offer from rival AngloGold Ltd. If regulators and shareholders approve the deal, it would make the combined company the industry's largest. However, a second bidder, Randgold Resources, said it was not necessarily ready to stop competing for Ashanti. Ashanti is based in Accra, Ghana; AngloGold in Johannesburg, South Africa; and Randgold on Jersey in the Channel Islands.

In a new round of layoff developments:

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• Textron Fastening Systems said it will close two plants in Rockford, Ill., by the end of 2004, cutting 700 jobs. The company, a unit of manufacturer Textron Inc., announced the shutdown of two other plants earlier this year.

• Sony Pictures Entertainment plans to lay off at least 300 workers in the next 18 months, The Los Angeles Times reported. They're expected to come from key units such as TV operations and Columbia Pictures, following an order from parent Sony Corp. to slash costs. Sony posted a 98 percent drop in first-quarter profits in July.

• Europe's largest producer of chipmaking equipment, ASML Holding of the Netherlands, plans further job cuts on top of the 5,600 completed last month, the financial news service Bloomberg.com reported. The company said the layoffs helped to narrow its third-quarter net loss to $36 million, compared with a $69.6 million loss for the same period in 2002.


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