Bershidsky on Europe: Euro Crisis Nations Turn Tax Havens

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website
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Here's today's look at some of the top stories on markets and politics in Europe:

ExxonMobil used Spanish shell company to cut taxes

A Spanish company with a single employee made $13.4 billion in profits between 2009 and 2011. This would have been hard to believe had not the company been called ExxonMobil Spain SL. It was a holding company of a type known as ETVE, operating under a set of rules written to encourage foreign investment in Spain. Foreign dividends transferred to an ETVE are not taxed in Spain if their recipient paid corporate tax in the country of the dividends' origin, and the money can then be moved to the U.S. and many other countries without incurring withholding tax. ExxonMobil used its ETVE to receive dividends from its Luxembourg profit center and then transfer them tax-free to the U.S. Other major companies, such as the brewer Anheuser Busch InBev, also use such vehicles. Just as a battle rages to close down traditional offshore tax havens, crisis-hit European nations are copying their practices, in some cases without much benefit to their own economies.

Euro bailout fund chief opposes Greek debt forgiveness

Klaus Regling, managing director of the European Stability Mechanism, a $675 billion bailout fund set up last year to rescue ailing euro-area economies, said writing off Greece's government debt to bring down its ratio to the nation's gross domestic product would make no sense. The International Monetary Fund, an active participant in the Greek bailouts, expects a partial debt write-off: European finance ministers agreed that Greece's debt should be brought down to 120 percent GDP from the current 170 percent by 2022, and that is unlikely to happen without the EU lenders taking a haircut. Regling, however, said it was "meaningless" to discuss Greek debt in these terms: Despite its high nominal value, he argued, much of the debt was low-interest, long-term and therefore sustainable for Greece. German Chancellor Angela Merkel's government has said it would back another bailout for Greece but without a debt writeoff. Now Regling has provided a theoretical foundation for the German stand. Merkel, whose party just won parliamentary elections, will do her best not to renege on a key promise to voters.

Russian potash hostage released from jail

Vladislav Baumgertner, chief executive of Uralkali, a Russian company that produces 20 percent of the world's potash, has been released from jail and placed under house arrest in Minsk, Belarus. The Belarussian authorities had arrested him on abuse of power charges after Uralkali ended a cartel agreement with Belariskali, a local state-owned potash producer, threatening to unleash a global price war. Russian authorities have worked to engineer Baumgertner's release while businessmen close to Russian President Vladimir Putin have attempted to buy Uralkali shares from its bigger shareholder, billionaire Suleiman Kerimov. If he sells out, Russia may make a deal with Belarus to re-establish the potash cartel, restoring balance to the global market at the high prices seen in recent years. Kerimov, however, is a stubborn negotiator, and some of his conditions for the deal are reportedly political: he is seeking to augment his influence in his home region, Dagestan in the mountains of Russia's North Caucasus region. In the former Soviet Union, business is politics and politics is business - much more openly than in countries like Canada and Germany, where big potash producers watch the saga with bated breath.

Alitalia boardvotes for capital call despite Air France KLM's opposition

The board of directors of Alitalia voted for a $135 million capital call to be made at a general meeting on October 14. Air France KLM, which owns 25 percent of the struggling Italian airline, voted against the proposal. Alitalia's current management wants $615 million to stave off bankruptcy and restore the company to profitability by 2016, but so far it has presided over widening losses. The airline announced that it lost $397 million in the first half of 2013, up from $271 million in the same period of 2012. The Franco-Dutch airline's reluctance to pour more money down Alitalia's black hole is understandable: If it decides to take a bigger share in the airline, as the Italian government seems to expect it to do, it will restructure the Italian flag carrier on its own terms, which will include stringent cost-cutting along the lines of Air France's own program.

French biotech company offers to grow stem cells from skin and store them

The French biotechnology company Cellectis has marketed an innovative service: It takes a small bit of skin from a client, grows stem cells from it and freezes and stores the cells at three different locations for security. The cells can then be used to combat the owner's old age diseases. Cellectis charges $60,000 for this "life insurance," which it advertises in publications such as the UAE-based Gulf News and Khaleej Times. The company, however, cannot store the cells in France: Local legislation allows the use of biological samples only for the treatment of specific diseases. In the modern world, laws such as these are blatantly hypocritical: Putting aside any questions over the medical value of the Cellectis program, restrictions on the use of stem cells ensure that advanced treatments are only available to wealthy people who can afford using overseas jurisdictions.

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