Commentaries

Now raising intellectual capital

Retail no answer for bank capital dearth

How does a bank raise capital when institutional investors are steering clear of hybrid debt? The dilemma may be particularly acute for Deutsche Bank, which is still in bad odour with some fund managers for not repaying some subordinated debt at the first opportunity this year as expected.

Deutsche has come up with an answer — bypass the institutional investors and flog some of your capital to the rich man in the street instead. The bank is marketing more than 300 million euros in fixed rate perpetual notes, yielding nearly 10 percent, primarily to retail investors.

If that yield sounds like a lot, it isn’t enough to tempt many asset managers who previously bought tier 1 debt securities. They are still nervous of the asset class because the European Commission is starting to demand banks spread the pain of bailouts with creditors by forcing them to defer coupons and not call debt.

Investors have also twigged that banks won’t always repay the bonds at the earliest opportunity just to please bondholders, as Deutsche illustrated this year. Some fund managers are now so sick of subordinated bank debt they want to have the bonds excluded from investment-grade bond indexes, as Reuters reported yesterday.

Don’t underestimate the European Commission

Will RBS and Lloyds have to follow Northern Rock and defer coupons on their hybrid debt? There’s a nagging fear that any bank that has needed large amounts of state-aid may have to make subordinated bondholders take some of the pain.

Fitch Ratings has just added to the debate with a slew of downgrades of RBS, Lloyds, and six other banks’ subordinated debt, citing an “increased risk of deferral.” The chief threat here is the European Commission, which is getting very keen on the concept of “burden-sharing”, a euphemism for crucifying bondholders.

Latvia: let the lat go

Do as you would be done by. This excellent rule surely applies as much in monetary affairs as it does in other fields of human endeavour. Those who loudly urge Latvia not to devalue its currency should reflect upon it.

Since Latvia’s monetary crisis started in 2007, a host of non-Latvians — led by the European Commission — have urged the small Baltic state to cleave to its currency board system, which pegs the lat at the wildly uncompetitive rate of 0.702804 to the euro. Regardless of the cost in terms of spending cuts, higher taxes and lower wages, this is supposedly all for the Latvians’ own good.

GM dumps Chinese in Opel race, standoff looms

Two things Opel junkies need to know in today’s news.

1) General Motors has dumped Chinese state-owned carmaker BAIC’s long-shot bid to take over GM’s main European arm. That leaves a two-horse race between Canadian-Austrian car parts maker Magna and Belgium-based financial investor RHJ, loosely associated with U.S. private equity firm Ripplewood.

2) The two trustees appointed by the German authorities to a board overseeing Opel in its transition to new ownership are refusing to toe Berlin’s line that Magna’s bid is the only game in town (according to an intriguing Reuters sources story).

Kroes hits right note on EU bank aid

Neelie Kroes, the EU Competition Commissioner, is right to be taking a hard line on state aid to banks, which will distort competition if not repaid. However, she will have to fight member states like Britain and Germany, which are desperately encouraging banks to lend locally, nursing large losses on their capital injections or trying to avoid massive upheaval in their banking industries.

The reasons for her tough stance — laid out in guidelines she will unveil on Thursday, obtained by Reuters – are sensible. At their heart is the desire to maintain the imperfect European market in financial services that the Commission has done so much to foster. State aid risks distorting this market because of members’ differing ability and willingness to underwrite their banking sectors.

Polish EU vision breaks the mould

At last — a Polish vision of the future of the European Union that does not involve refighting
World War Two or dying in a ditch for outsized voting rights.

In a thoughtful report entitled “Europe can do better”, a group of eminent Poles, including two former foreign ministers and a former central banker, offer a blueprint for Poland to partner EU heavyweight Germany in advancing European integration.  Even if some of the proposals look unrealistic, Berlin would do well to grasp the outstretched hand from Warsaw and explore common ground.

Lufthansa milks EU drama for cost cuts

Lufthansa <LHAG.DE> is milking an antitrust standoff with the European competition regulators to extract maximum cost cuts from Austrian Airlines <AUAV.VI> as it seeks to cement its dominance of central Europe’s skies.
The German flag carrier has held back key concessions to the European Commission needed to secure approval for the takeover of the ailing airline while it squeezes further concessions from Austrian’s workforce and its biggest shareholder, the Austrian government. It won another 150 million euros in savings from job cuts agreed in a third round of AUA cost-cutting this week.
The EU regulator, which supports airline consolidation in principle, is right to insist that the creation of a central European mega-carrier should not be at the expense of consumer choice on key routes such as Vienna-Frankfurt.
Lufthansa, which has set its own deadline of July 31 to clinch the deal, has the Austrians in a tight spot because the cost to the Austrian taxpayer would be far higher if it walked away. The Austrian government holding company, OIAG, says this could cost about 1,400 jobs and imply total costs of 840 million euros. The state has promised to assume 500 million euros of AUA’s 1 billion euros of debt as part of a Lufthansa deal.
The German giant needs to reduce the cost of acquisitions it launched last year before the financial crisis hit air travel.
It has already beaten down Sir Michael Bishop to lower the cost of his majority stake in British carrier BMI [BMI.UL] and has snapped up Brussels Airlines, the successor to bankrupt Belgian flag carrier Sabena.
In the latter case, Lufthansa made concessions to the Commission on routes and take-off and landing slots to avoid restricting competition. But it has balked so far at the most important remedies for the Austrian deal, which concern what would be a monopoly on nine daily flights between Vienna and Geneva, operated jointly with another subsidiary, Swiss, and above all on feeder flights to its Frankfurt Airport hub to connect with its more lucrative transatlantic routes.
If the Commission does not stand firm on these issues, it risks being overturned by the EU’s Court of First Instance, to which rivals Air France-KLM <AIRF.PA> and former Formula 1 racing ace Niki Lauda’s latest venture, Fly Niki, would undoubtedly appeal.
Of course, Lufthansa could let the Austrian deal founder on EU competition concerns in hopes of picking up the pieces of a shrunken or bankrupt AUA later. But it might face competition were the airline’s assets to be sold out of bankruptcy. Both Air France and a consortium of Air Berlin and Fly Niki were interested last time.
So the betting must be that, as with the Belgian deal, it will yield to Brussels’ demands to clinch the deal in the end.

Politics, economics collide over Opel

Political and economic logic are set to collide in the byzantine decision-making over the future of German carmaker Opel, the main European arm of fallen U.S. auto giant General Motors.
If politics prevail, as seems likely, the cost to German taxpayers will be higher and the chances of commercial success lower.

The aim of the Berlin government and four federal states, which are sustaining Opel with bridging finance, is to save as many German jobs and production sites as possible. That makes political sense ahead of September’s general election. But the business logic is that only a greatly slimmed-down Opel can survive in an industry with chronic overcapacity.
In theory, it is up to GM’s board to choose among the three offers it expected to receive on Monday from Canadian-Austrian car parts maker Magna <MGa.TO>, Belgian financial investor RHJ <RJHI.BR>, and, less plausibly, Chinese state-owned auto maker BAIC. But there are several other powerful players with a say. They include the trustees responsible for the company since GM entered U.S. bankruptcy in June, the German federal and state governments, Opel’s works council and, last but not least, the European Commission, which must approve the restructuring plan as a condition for authorising the state aid.

IMF undermines EU fight for Lativa peg

 Just when it looked as if Latvia’s currency peg to the euro had weathered the storm, the International Monetary Fund has raised fresh doubts by withholding funds for the Baltic European Union newcomer. 

 The IMF is right to demand a credible medium-term strategy for budget reform, but it would be wrong to risk contagion in eastern Europe by questioning the currency board. If one thing
could undermine the EU’s bid to avoid a wave of devaluations around the Baltic states, with knock-on effects for Swedish banks and potentially for central and eastern Europe, it is conspicuous differences between the IMF and Brussels.
  

Neelie Kroes lays down the law on bank rescues

Neelie Kroes is laying down the law. The European Union’s competition chief may be lenient on timing, but she is sticking rock-hard to the principle that institutions which get public money during the financial crisis must be shrunk, broken up, sold off or wound up to avoid distorting competition. That is the main message of guidelines for restructuring state-aided banks drafted by EU regulators and obtained by Reuters on Thursday.

 

Governments, such as Britain’s, that are hoping to avoid drastic bank restructuring which could complicate efforts to return billions of pounds of public money poured into state rescues are likely to be disappointed.

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