Bershidsky on Europe: U.K. to Sell Eurostar
Here's today's look at some of the top stories on markets and politics in Europe:
EU fines five major banks for rate-fixing
The EU antitrust authorities fined six banks a total of $2.32 billion for their roles in the Libor interest rate fixing scandal. This is the record total EU penalty for a cartel. Deutsche Bank, Society General, Royal Bank of Scotland, J.P. Morgan and Citigroup were penalized as part of a settlement that included admissions of their guilt – a first for the two U.S. investment banks, which were not punished financially in the Libor scandal before. J.P. Morgan and Citigroup paid relatively small fines, $109 million and $95 million respectively. Deutsche Bank takes the biggest hit, to the tune of $985 million. The penalties bring global financial institutions' total payout in the Libor debacle to more than $8 billion, a painful loss which has already led some banks to undertake paranoid measures like a ban on chat rooms for traders. Colluding to fix rates is wrong, but if the regulatory pressure keeps increasing, a point will soon be reached when bankers start thinking about how to defeat the regulators rather than about cleaning house. Some already are: Credit Agricola and HSBC are not part of the settlement, and both intend to fight the EU to the bitter end.
French unemployment highest since 1997
French government statistics body Insee reported that unemployment rose 0.1 percent to 10.5 percent in the third quarter of 2013, the highest level France has seen since 1997. Unemployment among people aged 15 to 24 stands at 24.5 percent. There are more than 3 million jobless people in France, a mark of failure for the Socialist government whose declared primary goal was to strive for greater equality. The slowing economic growth and a lack of improvement in living standards, coupled with the government's continued desire to extract more taxes from an already-stifled economy, explain the rock-bottom popularity of President Francois Hollander and Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault. If they go on like this for much longer, radicals like the National Front will make political gains that will be hard to scale back.
UK reveals plan to sell Eurostar stake
The U.K. government revealed its plan for infrastructure development over the next 20 years. It envisions $614 billion of investment in highways, railroads, other forms of transport, wired and wireless communications. Much of the money is to be raised through privatization, including the sale of the country's 40 percent stake in Eurostar, the operator of high-speed trains that use the Eurotunnel beneath the English Channel. The profitable, growing company is still the only operator using the tunnel, but the German railroad company, Deutsche Bahn, should get access to it by 2016, and Eurostar's numbers may start worsening. That means the U.K. government has a rather narrow window of opportunity for the sale. The deal would make both economic and political sense: The U.K. needs infrastructure investment more than it needs a minority stake in a railroad operator controlled by the French Sncf, which owns 55 percent of Eurostar.
Tim Berners-Lee launches a campaign for Web freedom
In a letter to Financial Times, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, widely credited with the invention of the World Wide Web, outlined the message of his new campaign, called "The Web We Want," to promote internet privacy and lobby for users' rights. "We are at a crossroads," wrote Berners-Lee and a number of like-minded activists whop co-signed the letter. "The web as an open platform for economic and political progress could soon disappear and we have a limited time to turn back the rising tide of surveillance and censorship and to rebuild users’ confidence in the web." It is probably too late, however, to try to put the toothpaste back in the tube. Fighting both commercial and government spying on the internet is as futile as trying to exterminate it in the real world. The Web cannot be more pure than the world it connects.
Nestle fights back in coffee war with Mondelez
When U.S.-based Mondelez last summer jumped into competition with Swiss-based Nestle, launching coffee capsules compatible with Nespresso machines, the Swiss tried to shrug it off, saying rivalry was nothing new to them. Behind the scenes, however, Nestle was working to retain its profit margins (up to 30 percent, some analysts say) in the multi-billion dollar market it created. Apparently, in June. just as Mondelez launched its pods, Nestle subsidiary Nespresso changed the piercing mechanism in its machines. A recent test found that the machines tend to crush Mondelez capsules. Nespresso denies that it changed the mechanisms specifically to thwart competition, but competitors will inevitably threaten Nestle's dominance in time: more and more companies are developing capsule systems that bypass Nestle's patents.
(Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View contributor. He can be reached at email@example.com).