Bershidsky on Europe: Ukraine Protests Revive
Here's today's look at some of the top stories on markets and politics in Europe:
HSBC may list U.K. retail bank
HSBC became the U.K.'s fourth biggest high street bank after buying Midland Bank more than 20 years ago. Now, it is considering a partial reversal of that deal: The bank has asked investors whether they would welcome the sale of a 30 percent stake in its U.K. retail and commercial operation to the public. It is increasingly difficult for HSBC to cope with ever tougher government regulation. British banks will soon be required to build a wall between their retail and investment banking operations, and though they will not be required to split them into separate entities, many are thinking of doing just that. This is one instance of increasing regulatory pressure pushing banks in the right direction. Apart from the fact that commercial and investment banks are, and should be, run by people with different risk perceptions, there's a healthy appetite in the stock market for U.K. high street banks, some of which, such as Santander's British division and One Savings Bank, may be taken public in the coming months. Lloyds, a bank a lot like HSBC's commercial and retail division, has seen its stock rise almost 60 percent in the past year.
Ukrainian protesters take down Lenin statue
The Ukrainian protests against President Viktor Yanukovych's regime and refusal to sign an association deal with the EU are entering their fourth week. On Dec. 8, up to half a million people flooded the capital's center again, this time throwing up barricades to block access to government buildings. An angry mob toppled a granite statue of the Soviet Union's founder Vladimir Lenin and broke it up for souvenirs. The country's secret police, the SBU, announced it was investigating "an attempted overthrow of the government" by the protesters, which could be a prelude to Yanukovych declaring a state of emergency. The threat rang hollow, however: The protesters are too many to be intimidated. They show no sign of dispersing, while the government has no intention to resign and not enough courage to crack down. There is no resolution to the stalemate in sight, and the country's fate hinges on the loyalties of the military and police, which seem to be undecided so far.
Italian center left gets new leader
Florence Mayor Matteo Renzi won a primary election to head Italy's biggest political force, the center-left Democratic Party. His election does not threaten the job of Prime Minister Enrico Letta, representing the same party, but Renzi is likely to be the PD's candidate for the top government job in the next election. Renzi, a 38-year-old, media-savvy populist, is often compared to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair for a program that is a bit too rightist for his party's traditional supporters. The Florentine, for example, calls for lower taxes. That could be an advantage now that center-right leader Sylvio Berlusconi has been driven out of electoral politics and his party has split. If Renzi unites the PD political machine behind him – which will take some time – he may lead it to a more convincing victory than the one it enjoyed early this year, forcing it to form a shaky coalition that included Berlusconi's supporters.
German top managers selling shares in their companies
The Insider Barometer, a measure of German managers' confidence in their businesses calculated by the Aachen Research Institute of Asset Management and Commerzbank, now stands at 70 points, well below the 90 "buy" level. Managers have been selling more shares in their own companies than they've been buying. The net sellers include top executives at such big companies as SAP, Henkel and Siemens. Investors in German stock should consider their alternatives: Despite the country's strong economic performance in recent months, political prospects are less promising with a new coalition government that will include Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats and their traditional rivals, the Social Democrats. The business climate isn't great, either: some top German companies have recently announced layoffs and other cost cuts. Germany looks like a safe bet compared to other European countries, but it, too, has its problems, reflected in the pessimism of insiders.
Khodorkovsky faces new charges
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man, who has been in prison since 2003 as a result of President Vladimir Putin's personal vendetta against him, faces new charges that may stop him going free in October, 2014. The Prosecutor General's office intends to accuse Khodorkovsky of using laundered funds to finance a lobbying effort to soften Russia's criminal law while he was already in jail. Prosecutors have been building the case for months, interrogating legal experts and economists who supposedly received the funds, and now they are close to formulating the charges. Putin does not intend to let Khodorkovsky go, even if, after 10 years behind bars, the former billionaire oil man is no longer the prominent public figure he once was. Under the current regime, new cases against Khodorkovsky will pop up every time his prison term is due to end.
(Leonid Bershidsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org).