Bershidsky's View From Europe
Here's today's look at some of the top stories on markets and politics in Europe:
Activist hedge fund tests EADS restructuring
Immediately after announcing a major restructuring at European Aeronautic, Defence & Space Co., the European aerospace group that will soon be known as Airbus, after its best known brand, Chief Executive Officer Tom Enders received a letter from Christopher Cooper-Hohn's feared activist hedge fund, TCI. The fund claimed to own more than 1 percent of EADS and urged Enders him to sell off the group's 46 percent stake in Dassault, which makes France's Rafale fighter jet.
Enders has been repeating that his group is now run as a business and that European governments that hold stakes in EADS do not interfere with decision-making. Now TCI is putting these assertions to the test. The minority stake in Dassault does not fit the group's streamlined new structure, with a new Munich-based defense division that will exploit synergies among its holdings. At the same time, the French government, which owns 12 percent of EADS, will want to vet any potential buyers of strategically important Dassault.
The sale has probably occurred to Enders, too: He is not convinced that EADS needs minority shareholdings in any assets. TCI, then, is its ally in helping turn EADS into an efficient, market-oriented entity.
Spain threatens to tax traffic to and from Gibraltar
Gibraltar, a British overseas territory abutting Spain, recently decided to put an end to Spanish fishing in what it considers its waters and started dumping concrete blocks in the sea to build an aftif reef. In response, Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo has threatened to slap a $66 tax on all cars entering or leaving Gibraltar and to force Gibraltarians living in Spain to pay the much higher local taxes.
The Gibraltarean government likened Garcia-Margallo's threats to the mini cold war waged against the peninsula by dictator Francisco Franco in the 1950s and 1960s.
The spat adds ammunition to the growing number of eurosceptics in the U.K., who hope that a referendum, to be held before 2017, will end the country's European Union membership. EU members should be able to resolve such relatively minor disputes without resorting to threats and media wars.
EasyJet founder to enter U.K. food retail
Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou, the founder of the iconic discount airline EasyJet, is planning a foray into food retail with a concept called Easy Foodstore. The idea is to undercut even the deepest discounters such as Germany's Aldi and Lidl by concentrating on no-name products and canned food. Haji-Ioannou plans to open the first store in South London and then, if the market test proves successful, roll out a network of stores starting in 2014.
Haji-Ioannou has been ceaselessly looking for business opportunities since the success of EasyJet, but not all of his ventures have been as golden. A virtual mobile operator, a cinema using an airline-like yield-management model and a car-rental company started under the Easy brand have all folded. Food retail looks like yet another highly specialized business in which Haji-Ioannou has no expertise, yet if he does succeed, the retail market will benefit from a new cost-cutting model as the airline industry has since EasyJet took off.
EU drops import duties on Chinese solar panels
As of Aug. 6, the EU is dropping its 47 percent anti-dumping duties on Chinese-made solar panels after two-thirds of the producers accepted a minimum price of 75 cents per watt of energy produced.
The duties, introduced in June, nearly killed off the entire solar energy market in Europe, which was 80 percent controlled by Chinese manufacturers. China threatened to retaliate by imposing high duties on the import of European wine, for which it is the biggest growth market. The minimum price compromise helped avoid a major trade war. Yet a shakeout in the Chinese solar panel industry is inevitable: It already has plenty of excess capacity and, with the new deal, it is predicted that it will only retain 60 percent of the EU market.
Liquefied gas giant says shale boom is a U.S. phenomenon
A top executive at the U.K. company BG Group Plc, a world leader in liquefied natural gas supplies, said the company did not believe that the U.S. shale revolution would spread quickly to other parts of the world. According to Executive Vice President Matt Schatzman, China would probably achieve significant shale-gas production by the beginning of the next decade, but "beyond that we see developments being slower in some of the other places, South America, Argentina, Europe, etc. That's to do with both the fundamentals of the rocks and the development environment, the investment environment, constraints like water."
While as an LNG trader BG Group has a vested interest in slower shale development, it was the U.K. company that, two years ago, was the first to strike an export deal for shale gas from the Gulf Coast, so it has plenty of relevant expertise. If Shatzman's predictions are correct, Middle Eastern LNG exporters and Russia are unlikely to ease their grip on the European energy market anytime soon, and governments from Poland to the U.K. that are pinning high hopes on a shale revolution of their own are just dreaming.
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