• FREE TRADE TRIO: The U.S. is expected to announce today that it will begin negotiating separate bilateral free-trade agreements with Peru, Colombia and Panama. All three countries are beneficiaries of U.S. preferential programs, which give beneficiary countries special access to the U.S. for a defined set of products, but does not require them to open their markets to U.S. exports. A free-trade agreement, on the other hand, is a two-way deal, and ideally opens foreign markets to U.S. exports. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick is expected to make the announcement in Miami, where he is attending a meeting of trade ministers trying to advance a broader, more contentious Free Trade Area of the Americas. The U.S. is at loggerheads with Brazil over the scope of the FTAA, which aims to create a Western Hemispheric trade zone encompassing 34 countries. Since the collapse of global trade talks in Cancún, Mexico, in September, Zoellick said the U.S. would pursue bilateral trade deals.
  • TOMMY WATCH: Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services on Monday placed its “BBB-minus” corporate credit and senior unsecured debt ratings, as well as its preliminary “BBB-minus” shelf registration rating, for Tommy Hilfiger U.S.A. Inc. on CreditWatch with negative implications after the firm’s announcement it is discussing with Dillard’s the possibility of reducing shipments to the store, its largest customer. S&P pointed out that about $351 million in long-term debt was outstanding at the apparel firm as of September 2003 but “there are no immediate liquidity issues as the company continues to maintain significant cash balances on hand and there are no near-term debt maturities.” Dillard’s was responsible for about 13 percent of Tommy Hilfiger’s 2003 sales, or about $240 million in revenue.
  • OXFORD’S NEW SCHOLAR: Michael Setola has joined Oxford Industries Inc. as president with responsibility for the firm’s three men’s wear operations — Oxford Shirt Group, Lanier Clothes and Oxford Slacks. As president, he succeeds and reports to J. Hicks Lanier, who continues as chairman and chief executive, overseeing the Atlanta-based firm’s women’s wear and Tommy Bahama units as well as corporate and support functions. Setola, who will make his offices in New York, was most recently ceo of Salant Corp., engineering its 1999 exit from bankruptcy as well as its acquisition earlier this year by Perry Ellis International. During the fiscal year ended May 30, Oxford’s three men’s wear operations were responsible for $455.5 million in sales, or 59.6 percent of the company total, and $27.8 million in earnings before interest and taxes, or 78.7 percent of the total. Oxford acquired Tommy Bahama’s parent firm, Viewpoint International, in June.
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