Bershidsky on Europe: Krupps Give Up on Krupp
Here's today's look at some of the top stories on markets and politics in Europe:
Ukrainian no-confidence vote fails
Mass protests in Ukraine entered their 14th day, with protester numbers dwindling and opposition to President Viktor Yanukovych failing to achieve anything in parliament. The three main opposition parties hoped they could form a new parliamentary majority with defectors from Yanukovych's Party of Regions and vote no-confidence in Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, but the motion failed after legislators voted strictly along party lines. Only about 5,000 people demonstrated in front of the parliament building, a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands who had taken to the streets on Dec. 1. Despite the opposition's vows that protests will go on, it now appears likely that Yanukovych and his government will stay, having reached a behind-the-scenes deal with the Ukrainian oligarchs. The opposition could have forced a new parliamentary election, but does not seem ready for it. Ukraine is on its way to restoring fragile political balance for now.
European court looking into CIA 'black sites'
The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, the court of last resort for Europeans who feel they are not getting justice from national judicial systems, has begun hearings on two ground-breaking cases involving the Central Intelligence Agency's secret foreign detention centers. The lawsuits were filed by activist lawyers on behalf of two Guantanamo Bay prisoners, one suspected of helping to mastermind the 9/11 attacks and the other accused of blowing up the USS Cole in 2000. Both passed through an alleged CIA detention center in Poland on their way to Cuba, and both claim to have been tortured there. If the court rules in favor of the prisoners, Poland will be held responsible for helping CIA operatives break its laws and similar rulings against other European countries, such as Lithuania and Romania, may follow. After the electronic spying scandals inspired by the revelations of Edward Snowden, the U.S. does not need any more attention to its intelligence activities in Europe, but that's what it will get in the coming weeks.
Krupp family loses blocking stake in Thyssen Krupp
An era ended for Thyssen Krupp, one of Germany's oldest and biggest industrial conglomerates, when the Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach Foundation, the founding family's holding structure, failed to answer a capital call and saw its blocking stake diluted from 25.3 percent to 23 percent. Thyssen Krupp raised $1.2 billion from other shareholders, allowing it to cut debt. The company, however, is still facing difficulties stemming from its failed venture in the Americas. The idea was to make steel slab in Brazil, then ship it to the U.S. for finishing, but the appreciation of the Brazilian currency made the scheme unprofitable. Thyssen Krupp tried to sell both its plants in the Western hemisphere, but only managed to unload the U.S. one, to Arcelor Mittal and Japan's Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metals. The Krupp family holds shares in Thyssen Krupp for dividends, not to fund its business projects, and the company cut dividend payments last year. The founding family's decision to skip the capital call is a resounding expression of its view of the company's management.
Portuguese debt rollover a success
Portugal exceeded analysts' expectations as it swapped $8.95 billion of debt coming due in 2014 and 2015 for bonds maturing three years later. Even half the take-up rate would have been considered a success. The deal is a sign that Portugal could successfully exit its $106 billion rescue program in June. Some analysts have feared a second bailout would be necessary, since the country's constitutional court vetoed a number of austerity measures. Now, it appears markets are willing to trust Portugal, though it still has to offer yields of between 4.7 and 5 percent on the three-year debt. Ireland, which is exiting its bailout at the end of this year, is able to borrow for 10 years at 3.5 percent. Portugal's exit won't be as clean as Ireland's, but at least the country is out of a three-year recession and limping toward recovery.
Spotify reveals royalty payment scheme
The Swedish streaming music service Spotify said it will have paid $500 million in royalties to artists in 2013, as much as it paid in its previous five years of operation combined. The service, called by Radiohead's Thom Yorke "the last desperate fart of a dying corpse," launched a special site for artists, explaining its payment model and claiming that its U.S. listener, whether paid or unpaid, brought the music industry $41 a year compared to $25 for the average adult American. Spotify figures out an artist's share of revenue by dividing the number of his or her streams by the company's total streams, then pays 70 percent of that share to rights holders. The Swedish company insists artists can make a lot of money by being represented in its vast catalogue. In the end it boils down to faith: Artists are told to believe in the service's growth projections if they are to make real money from it. Yorke, for one, things some other model will come along, after the old music industry goes broke -- despite the efforts of Spotify and its competitors to keep the corpse alive.
(Leonid Bershidsky can be reached at email@example.com).
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