Bershidsky's View From Europe
Here's today's look at some of the top stories on markets and politics in Europe:
Norway's oil fund gets active
The Norwegian Government Pension Fund, the largest sovereign investment fund in the world with $760 billion under management, has appointed three British corporate governance experts to its board as part of an effort to take a more active part in running the companies in which it invests. It is already seeking a nomination to Volvo's board, and more such bids will follow.
The oil fund lost about $90 billion in the 2008 stock-market crash, almost all the money it had made since its inception. The fund has since ventured back into stocks at the expense of bonds and has done quite well: It delivered a 14.4 percent return in U.S. dollars in 2012. As a long-term investor, the fund can do little to prevent global calamities like the 2008 crisis, but getting board seats can help limit its risk by providing access to more information about its assets.
Google takes on European music services
Google is aiming to compete with European music-streaming services such as Sweden's Spotify and France's Deezer -- by charging more. The European version of Google's unlimited streaming service, known as Google Play All Access in the U.S., will cost $10.67 per month if the user signs up before Sept. 15. That compares to only $3.99 a month for Deezer.
Apparently, Google is betting that its broad user base will prefer the convenience of staying within its product universe, which includes various web-based applications such as mail and the Google Plus social network. Such, it hopes, are the advantages of getting people hooked on free services.
Sanofi accusedof bribing Chinese officials
The Chinese daily 21st Century Business Herald alleged on Aug. 8 that the French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi had paid $276,000 in bribes to 80 Chinese hospitals and 550 doctors. Sanofi is the second European company in as many months to face such accusations: In July, four GlaxoSmithKline executives were arrested in China on charges of corrupting local doctors and bureaucrats.
Sanofi said it was taking the allegations "very seriously." It should be grateful that, in its case, there's just the media report: The company has advance warning of possible police action, which GlaxoSmithKline did not have.
Big pharmaceutical companies have long used gifts, fully-paid trips and research grants for doctors to push prescription drugs in emerging markets. In India and Russia, the thinly veiled bribery is accepted as a fact of life. China, however, shows signs of breaking with the trend, which may provoke other countries to take an interest in the multinational pharma companies' practices.
Carlos Slim bids for Dutch telecom group
Mexican telecom tycoon Carlos Slim, the world's wealthiest man, is showing a greater interest in the economic basketcase that is Europe. His company America Movil announced a takeover bid for the Dutch group KPN, in which it already owns a 30 percent stake. Slim's offer includes a 35 percent premium compared with KPN's average share price over the last 30 days.
KPN, a mobile Internet pioneer, owns the E-Plus operator in Germany. Its Netherlands operator charges the highest rate per minute in the EU. In all, the group has more than 30 million customers in five European countries. If its shareholders accept Slim's offer, KPN will be the first European asset to come under the control of America Movil, the world's Number 5 telecom corporation by revenue.
Slim also owns a minority stake in Telekom Austria. There, too, he might make a move for control. European telecoms come cheap these days because of the recession, fierce competition and regulators' increasing interest in mobile-phone charges. Apparently, investors like Slim see this as an opportunity to diversify geographically.
British warships head for Gibraltar
In international politics, context is everything. Nobody might have noticed a report that three Royal Navy frigates will call at Gibraltar at the end of August had it not been for a U.K.-Spanish diplomatic spat over the British territory's attempt to stop Spanish fishing in its waters. Given the tension between the two countries, the warships' voyage looks almost like a throwback to the days of Elizabeth I and the Spanish Armada.
Both Spain and the U.K. said the voyage had been agreed upon well in advance, before the tensions flared. The two EU nations are not going to war or threatening each other with the use of force. Yet the paranoid press reaction to the ship movements highlights the fragility of Britain's current relationship with the EU.
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To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at firstname.lastname@example.org