Bershidsky on Europe: U.K. Goes Sukuk
Here's today's look at some of the top stories on markets and politics in Europe:
U.K. to sell Islamic bond
The U.K. government wants to be the first in the non-Islamic world to issue a sukuk, a bond complying with Sharia law. The issue is expected to raise $324 million. British companies such as HSBC and Tesco have already issued Islamic bonds, which pay no interest but give the investor a share of the profit from an underlying asset. For them, this was a way to tap into Middle Eastern investors' huge cash reserves. Given that the issue is so small, the U.K. government looks more interested in making a political point than raising money. One of the government's top priorities in finance is to solidify London's status as a global financial hub, fighting off the EU's encroachments and opening up the City to international players. The U.K. recently promised Chinese banks the long-sought opportunity to operate branches rather than subsidiaries in London. Now it is making an overture to Islamic financiers with what is basically a marketing campaign rather than a bond issue. Finance minister George Osborne even penned a column for the Financial Times about the potential of Islamic finance.
Deutsche Bank profit down 93 percent
Germany's biggest bank made a profit of $70 million in the third quarter of 2013, a 93 percent drop year-on-year. Part of the drop comes from a decline in fixed income revenues, a global phenomenon caused by the U.S. Federal Reserve's decision to continue rather than "taper" bond purchases. Mostly, however, Deutsche Bank's profits were hurt by a $1.65 billion litigation loss provision. Deutsche expects to pay a large fine in the Libor fixing affair, which has cost other European financial institutions billions of dollars. Similar litigation provisions weigh heavily on big European banks: Dutch Rabobank recently set aside more than $1 billion, and now Finma, the Swiss financial regulator, has told UBS to increase its litigation provision. If it's not one scandal it's another one: Lloyd's in the U.K. has had to add another $1.2 billion to its provision for penalties for mis-selling insurance. Banks are far from done paying for past sins and learning to live with tighter supervision.
Russia up, France and Spain down in business ease ranking
In the 2014 edition of the World Bank's Doing Business index, France, Spain and the Czech Republic posted serious losses, while Greece, Italy and Russia showed significant gains. The ranking, used by some countries as a policy benchmark, measures the ease of doing business: opening new firms, getting construction permits and access to electricity, paying taxes. Singapore and Hong Kong are in the top two spots. When a country moves up in the rankings, it is usually a good sign for future economic growth based on the progress of small and medium businesses. Spain and France, two countries that showed almost zero growth in the third quarter, ought to think about removing more bureaucratic restraints if they even want to speed up their recovery. And Russia's progress, achieved after President Vladimir Putin last year ordered the government to get the country from 120th to 20th place in the ranking, is still not enough to seriously increase business activity: The country has advanced from 111th place to 92nd among 189 countries.
Hollande the most unpopular French president ever
Francois Hollande's popularity has dropped to 26 percent in October, according to the BVA polling organization. This is the first time in the Fifth Republic – since 1958, when the current version of the Constitution was introduced – that a president's popularity has been below 30 percent. Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault's support level is 25 percent, still above the unpopularity record of 20 percent set by Alain Juppe in the 1990's. High taxes, high unemployment and waffling on immigration have combined to make the current Socialist government one of the least-liked in French history. Even though France is out of its recession, that is not enough to inspire confidence in voters who see no improvement in their daily lives. Hollande will be hard put to improve his standing in the remaining three years of his term, particularly since he does not seem to think he is doing anything wrong.
Brit charged for hacking US government
Lauri Love, a 28-year-old resident of the English village of Stradishall, was arrested by the U.K.'s National Crime Agency after being charged in the U.S. with hacking into computers owned by the U.S. army, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, the Environmental Protection Agency and NASA. Love and his accomplices, a Swede and two Australians, allegedly stole personal infomation about U.S. servicemen, government employees and contractors. The information they may have accessed could be sufficient for identity theft. Love faces five years in prison and a $400,000 fine. His case, coming just as European governments rail against U.S. electronic spying on their territories, is a reminder that the Internet is a big playground where individuals with the right skills can cause as much damage as a superpower's intelligence service.
(Leonid Bershidsky can be reached at email@example.com).