Bershidsky on Europe: Google Bets on Artificial Intelligence
Here's today's look at some of the top stories on markets and politics in Europe.
ECB may buy securitized bank assets to fight off deflation.
European Central Bank President Mario Draghi said at the World Economic Forum in Davos that it would be a good idea to find a way to package bank loans so the ECB could buy them. "The issue for further thinking in the future is to have an asset that would capture and package bank loans in the proper way," was the way he put it. According to Draghi, the ECB can't buy sovereign bonds directly from governments, and the corporate bond market runs perfectly well without interference. Yet something had to be done to stimulate lending, particularly on Europe's periphery, where the threat of deflation is bigger. One way to revive lending is, indeed, to bring back securitization, a way of transferring risk that has fallen into disuse since the 2008 crash. The ECB could boost market interest in the practice by shopping for securitized loans to households and businesses. Banks should jump at Draghi's so-far unformed idea and start talking to the ECB about its packaging requirements: It is their chance to reopen a perfectly sane and lucrative business scheme that suffered undeservedly from the follies of subprime lending.
Ukrainian president offers opposition top cabinet posts.
As protests against his corrupt rule spread across Ukraine and government buildings were seized in the country's Western regions, President Viktor Yanukovych proposed his first significant concessions to the opposition. He offered Arseni Yatsenyuk, leader of the second biggest party in parliament, the post of prime minister and former heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko the job of "deputy prime minister for humanitarian matters." Protesters in Kiev and throughout the country widely see the offer as a trap, and the opposition leaders have not jumped at it. They have put forward more conditions, such as an amnesty for all protesters who took part in recent street violence and a constitutional reform that would strengthen the parliament. Even if Yatsenyuk and Klitschko accept, that may not end the protests. On Sunday night, protesters occupied the justice ministry building in Kiev despite Klitschko's attempts to convince them it was not necessary. Meanwhile, police counterattacked against protesters in several cities where local government buildings had been occupied or besieged. Chaos and anarchy reigned as no one could claim control over the situation. Yanukovych, who had seemed to have the upper hand, is now unlikely to hold on to power until the presidential election next year, at least without major concessions to the protesters.
U.K. opposition promises 50 percent tax for high earners.
The U.K. opposition Labour Party promises that if it wins the next general election in 2015, it will bring back a 50 percent income tax rate for those earning more than $247,000 a year. The Conservative-Liberal coalition lowered the top tax bracket to 45 percent in 2012 after conducting a review of the tax. The review concluded that the high tax, introduced in 2010, was not working and that it was only contributing about $165 million more each year than a 45 percent one would have done. Labour now insists that the conclusion was inaccurate and that the tax hike had brought an extra $16.5 billion to the U.K. budget while it was in effect. Statistical discrepancies of this size are unusual for a developed economy, but even if Labour is right, the tax hike is not a good idea. They ought to learn from the woeful example of French President Francois Hollande, who was equally vehement about taxing the rich and only succeeded in driving his country into stagnation maintaining a high unemployment rate. The U.K. does not need Hollande's medicine.
Google makes its biggest European acquisition.
Google acquired the London-based artificial intelligence start-up DeepMind, which worked on machine learning algorithms to be used in games and simulations. According to the Financial Times, DeepMind could have been acquired for about $500 million, and Google beat Facebook in a race to snap it up. The U.S. giant has never paid as much for a European company. DeepMind's products will probably never be released in their intended form: Google needs the firm's team and technology. Not much is known about the latter, since the company operated in stealth mode, but, according to some reports, it was trying to "build a system that thinks." The acquisition of DeepMind continues Google's strategy of buying teams in areas it believes have a string commercial future, such as robotics, the Internet of Things, and now artificial intelligence. The amounts Google is paying for the teams and technological groundwork are not huge relative to its size, and even if the bets do not pay off, Google will at least be on top of the hottest trends in tech.
Adidas loses ground to Nike in home market.
German sporting goods dealers say Adidas, the longtime industry leader in its home market, is losing share to top U.S. competitor Nike. In Sport 2000 stores, Nike soccer shoes have been outselling Adidas ones for the last 10 months. The manager of another major chain, Intersport, says Nike has "significantly shortened the distance" that separates it from the German market leader. Adidas has even agreed to take back excess inventory from dealers, a move that allows the brand to remain in the dealers' good graces but is undoubtedly painful. Worldwide, Nike is already well ahead of Adidas, the number two global sporting goods manufacturer, but Germans have traditionally preferred the local player. If Nike manages to wean them off Adidas, it will achieve true dominance, something for which Adidas shareholders will want to hold management accountable.
(Leonid Bershidsky can be reached at email@example.com).