Bershidsky's View From Europe
Here's today's look at some of the top stories on markets and politics in Europe:
British parliament votes down Syria strike.
The U.K. parliament narrowly rejected Prime Minister David Cameron's motion which, if passed, would have allowed Great Britain to take part in military action against Syria alongside the U.S. Cameron lost the vote 272-285 because about 30 of his fellow Conservatives joined forces with the Labor opposition. Cameron could have asked the Queen to use the royal prerogative and launch British missiles anyway, but he said he would not do so because the Parliament's will was clear to him. The vote sends a clear message to U.S. President Barack Obama and his French counterpart Francois Hollande: a strike against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in the absence of conclusive proof that his forces used chemical weapons in his nation's civil conflict would look too much like the 2003 intervention in Iraq, based on shaky intelligence.
U.S. publishes details of tax accord with Swiss banks.
After the Swiss government agreed to sign a joint program with U.S. authorities to resolve a long-running dispute about Americans evading taxes with the help of Swiss bankers, the U.S. Department of Justice published specifics of the accord. While large banks like Credit Suisse and Julius Baer, already under investigation in the U.S., will not be part of the program, another 300 banks will be able to avoid prosecution if they confess their misdeeds and pay heavy fines: 20 to 50 percent of the dollar value of any undeclared accounts over $50,000. The fact that the Swiss agreed to these harsh terms probably means they do not expect too many banks to come forward. The purpose of the deal is, rather, to bury the hatchet and let life go on.
KPN Foundation blocks Carlos Slim's bid.
KPN Foundation, an independent group of five respected Dutch executives charged by the government with protecting the formerly state-owned telecom group KPN after it was privatized, moved to block a bid by Mexico's America Movil to purchase KPN for $9.6 billion. The foundation exercised its option to issue preferred stock giving it a stake of almost 50 percent in the company, saying America Movil's "hostile approach" endangered the interests of "shareholders, employees, customers, trade unions and Dutch society more generally." This, however, is not the end of the road for America Movil owner Carlos Slim. The world's richest man can still increase his 30 percent stake in KPN if he negotiates with the foundation, the management and minority shareholders. Slim is only beginning his European expansion and he may yet succeed if he learns to respect local rules, which may not always seem logical to a tycoon from an emerging economy, used to swift and decisive action.
German potash producer to cut costs as market war rages.
The potash war unleashed when Russian fertilizer producer Uralkali tore up a cartel agreement with Belaruskali, the neighboring country's state-owned enterprise, is raging on more and more fronts. After Belarus detained Uralkali CEO Vladislav Baumgertner, the Russian sanitary service moved to limit imports of Belarussian dairy products and pork, and the pipeline monopoly Transneft cut oil supplies to Belarus. The neighbors are as far as they have ever been from restoring the cartel that helped keep global potash prices above $400 per ton, and that means prices are about to go down. The German potash producer K+S, burdened with some of the highest production costs in the world, has warned its staff that tough times are ahead. In a letter to employees, CEO Norbert Steiner urged "restraint in making purchasing decisions" and warned of impending layoffs. K+S, Canada's Potash Corp and other producers will heave a collective sign of relief if Russia and Belarus return to constructive negotiations, but the conflict may have gone too far for that.
L'Oreal prepared to buy out Nestle.
In April 2014, the two major shareholders in L'Oreal, the leading French health and beauty product maker, will no longer have first refusal on each other's stakes. While the founding family Bettencourt has said it has no intention of selling its 30.5 percent stake, Nestle is keeping all options open on its 29.3 percent holding. So L'Oreal CEO Jean-Paul Agon announced that the company would be willing and able to buy Nestle out. According to Agon, it can raise the required $29 billion in part by selling off its stake in pharma company Sanofi. The repurchase, however, seems a waste of resources. It might make more sense for Nestle to increase its stake so it could compete with Procter & Gamble in all of its markets rather than just the food business.
(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is a Bloomberg View contributor. He can be reached at email@example.com).