Bershidsky on Europe: Welcome Back Ireland
Here's today's look at some of the top stories on markets and politics in Europe.
Irish bond sale lowers Southern Europe yields.
Just a couple of years ago, Irish sovereign bonds yielded 14 percent, but now investors can't get enough of Ireland. They snapped up the nation's first post-bailout bond issue. The country planned to sell less than $1 billion worth, but received orders for $19 billion and ended up selling $5.1 billion with a 3.543 percent yield. The rest of Europe's periphery should be grateful to the Irish for the public relations coup: Spanish yields dropped to 3.8 percent, the lowest since 2010, and Portuguese yields went down to 5.4 percent, a level not seen since last May. Even Greek bonds yielded just 7.8 percent, a record low since 2010. Ireland does not even need the money: The bond issue is meant to fund it in 2015. But if it keeps borrowing, and the demand keeps up, it will give Portugal a chance for a clean exit from its own EU-led bailout. U.S. and U.K. yields are only about half a percentage point lower than Ireland's now, and the high demand for Irish paper is not much more than psychological overcompensation for earlier mistrust. It is, however, useful for the eurozone as a whole.
Nestle in biotech partnership to sell nutritionally enhanced food.
The Swiss food giant Nestle made a deal to obtain liver and brain cells from U.S.-based Cellular Dynamics International to study the effect of various nutrients on them. The research is meant to allow Nestle to advertise some foods as having medical benefits. The Swiss company and its rivals, such as the French Danone, believe their future lies at the crossroads between food and pharma, investing billions of dollars in what is called "phood" in the business. Yogurts with probiotic bacteria, milk proteins that fight cavities, chocolates that inhibit cholesterol intake and other such products are increasingly attractive to consumers who are growing obsessive-compulsive about their health: Witness the rise of electronic devices tracking one's physical activity and condition. The products' efficiency may only exist on a laboratory level, but that's good enough for marketing purposes.
Russia steps up Sochi security.
Thousands of troops and police in the Olympic Games host city of Sochi have been placed on combat alert and began limiting entry to the city and the movements of its residents. Russian airports have been ordered to stop passengers from bringing any amount of liquid, no matter how small, on board planes. Last month's terrorist attacks in Volgograd, which killed 34 people, have prompted the Russian authorities to enhance already tight security for the winter Olympics. Sochi is now a city under siege. While no major incidents are likely, this is hardly conducive to a festive mood, especially among locals and Russian visitors to the games. Many people in Russia will be relieved when the Olympics are over.
Spanish princess named in corruption probe.
Christina, the younger daughter of Spanish King Juan Carlos, was named as a suspect in a money laundering and tax evasion case. Infanta Christina is being accused as an associate of her husband, former Olympic handball player Inaki Urdangarin, who is charged with massive embezzlement from a non-profit foundation he ran, consulting for Spanish regional authorities. The investigation into Urdangarin's doings has damaged the image of the Spanish monarchy, whose continued existence is now supported by less than 50 percent of Spaniards. Most royalists would like 76-year-old Juan Carlos to abdicate in favor of his son Felipe. Europe's decorative monarchies work only while the royals behave themselves, offering both harmless entertainment and an example of rectitude to the nation. That is clearly no longer the case in Spain.
European excess liquidity falls by 50 percent.
Excess liquidity in the euro area money markets is down to $204 billion from $377 billion last week. This is pushing up money market rates, and, coupled with unexpectedly weak inflation – 0.8 percent for the whole euro area in December, down from 0.9 percent in November – this tells the European Central Bank it will soon have to inject more cash into the banking system. The injection may come in a number of forms, such as a negative deposit rate, a new long-term facility for banks or even a cut to the already rock-bottom interest rate. Europe's recovery still needs to be propped up by artificial means such as these. The ECB, meanwhile, has to think of ways of preventing banks from using extra liquidity to buy more government debt, as they tended to do before.
(Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View contributor. He can be reached at email@example.com).