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Big Six

Merger probe extended - Phillip Inman reports.

The European Commission will press ahead with a full investigation of the merger plans proposed by Coopers & Lybrand and Price Waterhouse, despite a concerted effort by both firms to win the regulator’s approval.

Competition commissioner Karel Van Miert confirmed this week that his inquiries would move to a second stage following a month-long preliminary consultation period.

Both firms will be disappointed that Van Miert has referred their plan to the watchdog’s crack team of mergers & acquisition specialists for further scrutiny.

They had hoped to get the green light, but a deluge of complaints by interested parties, including finance directors, lawyers and regulators, has forced the EU to carry out a further probe before making a decision.

Van Miert is expected to consider the proposed merger of Ernst & Young and KPMG alongside the Coopers/PW deal.

His staff will have four months to decide if a move to a Big Four will breach EU competition rules. A senior executive at one of the firms admitted the merger plans had proved controversial.

Accountancy Age understands the firms met EU officials this week to map out how the inquiry will go forward. There are likely to be oral hearings involving the firms and many of the groups that have submitted reports.

Most UK regulators have expressed reservations at the mergers, including the Bank of England and Office of Fair Trading.

But the Irish ICA has told Van Miert it saw no reason to block the mergers.

Chief executive Sean Dorgan stated in a secret submission seen by Accountancy Age that clients would have plenty of choice.

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