Bershidsky's View From Europe
Here's today's look at some of the top stories on markets and politics in Europe:
IMF tells Germany not to be a tightwad.
In its annual report on the state of the German economy, the International Monetary Fund confirmed its forecast of 0.3 percent growth this year and warned that if growth falters, "fiscal overperformance should be firmly avoided." According to the IMF, Germany, with its pronounced export orientation is heavily dependent on other European economies. The message to austerity champion Angela Merkel is not to be so tough on aid to crisis-hit EU neighbors. The IMF is likely preaching to the choir. Merkel understands that problems anywhere in the EU are bad for Germany, and despite her tough rhetoric her government has shelled out plenty of bailout money. Now, however, Merkel faces a close election in which her prospects depend on her determination to keep German money at home. Come October, there may be less disagreement between Germany and the IMF than there seems to be now.
Brussels calls for EU mobile tariff equalization.
The European Commission issued a statement saying that the EU needed to "act quickly" to create a more uniform telecommunications market. This time EC vice-president Nellie Kroes is not talking about roaming charges: She has already pushed successfully for their unification across the continent at a maximum of 38 U.S. cents per minute. The EC high-tech chief is now targeting home network fees. According to the 2011 data made public by the commission, Kroes's home country, the Netherlands, has the highest mobile fees in the EU at 19.5 U.S. cents per minute, while Lithuania has the lowest at 2.5 U.S. cents. This is too broad a range as far as the EC is concerned. Milk prices across Europe, for example, only vary between 92 cents and $1.3 per liter. Given Kroes' success in equalizing roaming charges, she will probably be able to push through uniform mobile tariff regulation. This may result in falling revenues for major mobile operators and rising phone bills in Europe's poorer countries -- all for the pretty dream of a true single market.
France's trade deficit falls.
The half-year French trade deficit (excluding energy) dropped below the $40 billion mark for the first time since 2010. At $39.8 billion, it is 40 percent lower than a year ago. While France's trade with the other EU nations has shrunk in the first half of 2013, airplane and pharmaceuticals exports to other parts of the world have helped improve the trade balance. The deficit reduction is good news for the French government and an early sign of economic recovery, but, like Germany, France is heavily dependent on its EU partners for economic growth. The weaker links in the EU chain such as Greece, Spain and Italy will need to start recovering before France can ruturn to healthy growth.
German solar energy leader's shareholders face haircut.
SolarWorld, the long-time leader of the German solar energy market, will survive if its shareholders agree on Aug. 8 to hand over a 55 percent stake in the company to creditors. The company's chief executive officer Franck Asbeck and the company's biggest investor, Quatar Solar, then plan to pay a total of $60 million to increase their diminished stakes. SolarWorld's problems followed a string of bankruptcy filings by solar companies. The market has been torn up by a price war with Chinese producers, which has hurt the Chinese just as much: The industry's former leader, Suntech Power of Wuxi in Southern China, is in bankruptcy, too. Germany is the world's biggest market for solar panels, but sales have stalled here in recent months after the EU imposed punitive import tariffs on Chinese producers. The trade war ended last week after the Chinese companies agreed to a minimum price. If that revives the market, SolarWorld has a chance to rise again. The fact that its shareholders have agreed to recapitalize it is testament to their faith in a revival of the battered market.
Club Med buyout likely to fail.
A bid by Chinese and French investors to take private the family resort company Club Med has run into a wall. After minority shareholders protested, the French stock market authority extended the takeover period indefinitely. The investors, China's Fosun and Paris-based AXA Private Equity, had hoped to close the deal by Aug. 30, but instead are facing a long wait as the minority owners fight the buyout in the courts. The investors are offering $739 million for the struggling company, which pioneered the all-inclusive family vacation as a market offering. The minority shareholders' objections are bad news for the management, led by CEO Henri Giscard d’Estaing, son of a former French president. It would have profited from the deal and received relative freedom to pursue major changes in the company, such as a move upmarket and an expansion into China. The shareholders will not give up, though: The buyout plans have raised the share price to record levels.
(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is a Bloomberg View contributor. He can be reached at email@example.com.)