Bershidsky on Europe: Paulson Bets on Greece

Here's today's look at some of the top stories on markets and politics in Europe:

Here's today's look at some of the top stories on markets and politics in Europe:

Airbus breaks through to Japanese market

Airbus announced that the Japanese flag carrier, Japan Airlines, has ordered 31 A350s for $9.5 billion and optioned another 25 - a landmark contract for the European aircraft producer, which has been the eternal underdog in the Japanese market. JAL's fleet was almost exclusively built by Boeing until 2010, when a restructuring drive opened it to other producers. It is still, however, 70 percent U.S.-built. A number of recent incidents involving the new Boeing 787, of which JAL is the biggest operator, angered Japanese executives. Airbus chief executive Fabrice Bregier, who lived in Japan in the 1980's, seized the opportunity and moved in for the kill. The A350 is the direct competitor of the Boeing Dreamliner 787, and the European company's victory is certain to give rise to anxiety in Chicago. The U.S. producer is unlikely to give up a key Asian market without a fight.

U.S. funds target Greek banks

John Paulson, the hedge fund guru who won big during the recent financial crisis by betting against the U.S. subprime mortgage industry, is investing in Greek banks such as Piraeus and Alpha. In rare public comments, Paulson said the Greek economy was improving, the government was pro-business and the banks were well-capitalized following a massive bailout. Other U.S. funds, including large ones such as Fidelity and Wellington Capital Group, share Paulson's vision to such an extent that the Greek banks are now pushing for faster privatization to make use of the high investor demand. The funds' interest is justified, if not for the reasons Paulson named: Greek government debt was the local banks' biggest toxic asset, and now that it is restructured on generous terms, the banks look attractive. Unlike in other European countries, the banking sector in Greece was always better managed than the national economy.

German foreign policy experts irritated by U.S. shutdown

German politicians are watching with growing dismay as the U.S. puts off global engagements to concentrate on its domestic political crisis. Because of the government shutdown, U.S. President Barack Obama canceled his Asian trip, including an important meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Syria. The next round of free trade talks between the U.S. and the EU has also been scratched, which could mean the deal, known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, would not be signed by the end of 2014 as planned. "The American self-blockade is shocking," said Karl Georg Wellmann, a foreign policy expert with Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union party. "It undermines their position as a Western power." The Social Democrats, now in talks with CDU about forming a coalition government, are similarly dismayed. "The influence of the U.S. in the world could continue to decrease," said Rolf Muetzenich, foreign policy spokesman for the party's parliamentary faction. Default worries, of course, outweigh all these concerns for Obama, yet damage to the international position of the U.S. may prove tougher to overcome in the medium term than making a last-minute deal with the Republicans to avert a debt crisis.

Jailed Ukrainian ex-PM Timoshenko to go to Germany for treatment

Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko, jailed in 2011 on questionable abuse of power charges, is likely to leave Ukraine in the next few days. In a public statement, she agreed to an offer from EU officials to go to Germany for treatment of medical conditions that developed while she was in prison. The offer represents a compromise between the EU and Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich. Both want to sign a major trade deal that would tie the country's future to the European Union, but Brussels insists on having Timoshenko freed as a condition of further progress. In Germany, the former prime minister will be under Ukrainian guard, but she is likely to have relative freedom: She will be allowed to use the internet and make calls on a mobile phone. Ukraine, for its part, will have to change its laws to allow a medical break from serving a prison sentence. Timoshenko hesitated to accept the deal, hoping Yanukovich's desire to work with the EU would force a full pardon. She decided, however, not to risk staying in prison in case EU leaders approve the trade agreement anyway. The undignified haggling shows that Europe is willing to compromise its human rights principles for economic gain, which should gladden the hearts of cynical politicians everywhere, not just in Ukraine.

Switzerland investigatesforex manipulation

Finma, the Swiss markets regulator, said it was working with other countries' authorities to determine whether a number of banks manipulated the daily "fixes," or snaphots of currency exchange rates that are used mainly in accounting, but also to make currency deals outside of spot forex markets. Finma's interest in the "fixes" is a direct consequence of the Libor scandal, in which bankers and brokers were revealed to fix the widely-used London interbank rate for kickbacks and brokerage fees. The scandal cost Thomson Reuters the Libor franchise, and some European financial institutions have paid heavy fines to regulators. Swiss vigilance is understandable: London's reputation as a major financial center suffered greatly in the aftermath of the Libor shenanigans, and Finma wants to prevent similar repercussions for Zurich by being proactive.

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    Leonid Bershidsky at

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