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Push comes to shove in EU-Dutch bank spat

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EU-INTEL/Push is coming to shove in a stand-off between the European Commission and the Dutch government over the future of state-rescued banks. The outcome has implications for the whole of Europe.

Markets should watch Brussels’ actions on ING, ABN AMRO and Fortis Bank Nederland carefully because they will set a precedent for forthcoming decisions about British, German or Irish banks that could reshape the European banking landscape. They may also determine whether, and when, taxpayers can expect to recover their investments in the banking sector.

EU competition czar Neelie Kroes this week withheld approval of a government guarantee for the bulk of a 28 billion euro portfolio of ING bad loans. The European regulator, whose job is to ensure state aid does not distort competition, said the guarantee required further investigation because the Dutch
government may have illegally subsidised the bank by overvaluing the assets.

Compounding the Dutch problems, Deutsche Bank has pulled out of a deal to buy some of the operations of ABN AMRO, the Dutch lender. Brussels had originally ordered the sale when it allowed Fortis to buy ABN AMRO’s Dutch retail banking operations in 2007. Though Fortis has since been broken up, the Dutch government still wants to merge the two retail banks, both of which are now under state control.

German Opel aid tests EU rules

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opel-logosThe credibility of the European Union’s single market and state aid rules is at stake over Germany’s selective offer of taxpayers’ money to preserve Opel factories and jobs on its soil.

On the face of things, it looks like an open-and-shut breach of state aid rules. General Motors agreed last week to sell 55 percent of its European arm to a consortium of Magna and Russia’s Sberbank under massive pressure from Berlin.

Steinmeier’s recipe deceptively seductive

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merkel-steinmeierIt was about as scintillating as a discussion among accountants, but Social Democratic challenger Frank-Walter Steinmeier outshone conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany’s only general election television debate.

True, Steinmeier failed to land the knockout punch he needed to overcome a 12-point deficit in opinion polls two weeks before the Sept. 27 vote. But he did score a points win that makes Merkel’s preferred option of a centre-right pact with the pro-business Free Democrats slightly less likely, and another glacial Grand Coalition of the two major parties more likely.  And that is concerning.

Germany wants GM answer on Opel

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OPEL-RHJ/Germany’s Economy Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg is boldly telling the German public that he expects a “fundamental decision” from the board of General Motors on the future of Opel next week.

He goes further, saying in a television interview that with offers from Canadian car parts manufacturer Magna and Belgian-based investor RHJ International on the table, it is tme for GM to “give in”.

Trichet points to possible double-dip recession in Europe

In his cautious Franglais central-bank speak, Jean-Claude Trichet has pointed to the strong possibility that the euro zone may face a double-dip or W-shaped recession.

Of course, that’s not exactly what the European Central Bank president said. But how else are we to interpret his repeated references to a “bumpy road” ahead, and his comment that we are likely to see quarters with positive growth and other quarters with “less flattering” figures? All this was illustrated with a hand gesture that drew a W (or a corrugated iron washboard) rather than a V or a U.

Hapag-Lloyd unity needed to nail loans

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GERMANYGermany showed with retailer Arcandor that the government won’t write blank cheques. This lesson is not being lost on the owners of Hapag-Lloyd who are seeking 1.2 billion euros in state loan guarantees for the German container shipping firm.

There is no time to waste. Some estimate that the shipper will run out of cash in October and needs almost 2.0 billion euros ($2.9 billion) in financial support. Rainer Feuerhake, chief executive of TUI, the travel company that is among Hapag-Lloyd’s shareholders, is banking on Berlin granting the guarantees this month.

Germany should call GM’s bluff

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Recently bankrupted companies seeking billions in taxpayer handouts do not generally have the strongest hand at the negotiating table. Yet General Motors seems determined to drive a hard bargain over the bailout of Opel, its European car arm.

After months of tortured negotiations with the German authorities, GM is now threatening to reverse away from the deal. However, it appears to have few alternatives.

Schaeffler/Conti feud puts Schroeder back on stage

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schroeder1Gerhard Schroeder is back at centre-stage, seven weeks before Germany’s general election. A corporate feud between industrial holding group Schaeffler and car parts maker Continental AG has given the former chancellor the chance for a comeback as the workers’ champion, although he no longer holds public office.

When Schaeffler, the biggest family-owned industrial company in Germany, bought control of Conti last August, the two sides appointed Schroeder as guarantor of the interests of Continental and its workforce, shareholders and other stakeholders under an investors’ agreement.

GM negotiator slams Opel bidder’s Russian connection

The GM blogger is at it again. John Smith, General Motors’ group vice-president and chief negotiator for the sale of its stake in Opel/Vauxhall, lays into the bid by Canadian-Austrian car parts maker Magna – especially the Russian Connection – in his latest update on the state of the talks.

He also pours cold water on happy talk from German politicians of an early decision in favour of Magna, backed by the German authorities, rather than rival Belgium-based financial investor RHJ International, which clearly still has GM’s preference.

GM and Germany in Opel chicken run

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USA   By Alexander Smith and Paul Taylor

General Motors and the German government are playing out the Chicken Run scene from the 1950s James Dean classic film “Rebel Without a Cause”.
    Neither has leapt from their car yet, but there are growing signals from Germany that GM has its hand on the door handle and is preparing to drop its preference for financial investor RHJ in favour of handing control of Opel to Canadian auto parts maker Magna.
    GM has so far been in no hurry — although the U.S. car group has been doing its best to keep up appearances with a statement following this week’s board meeting saying it hoped to make a recommendation to the Opel Trust Board “shortly”. But German pressure has been rising as a Sept. 27 general election approaches.
    Germany’s eagerness to seal a deal with Magna — which has teamed up with Russian bidding partner Sberbank and automaker GAZ — is palpable.
    Berlin is ready to get its cheque book out to provide state aid for a deal with Magna. But has made clear this would be reconsidered if GM opted for Belgian-based RHJ, which Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government fears would cut more jobs. RHJ would be an unpopular choice in Germany, where a leading politician famously branded private equity buyers “locusts”.
    Berlin wants a deal closed in September and has set up an Opel Task Force to oil the wheels. Yet Opel workers are concerned that GM has been playing for time so that a decision is delayed until after the election.
    They fear that stalling until after polling day would make it easier for GM to put Opel through insolvency proceedings and shed some of its factories and staff at a lower cost.
    For Merkel, a deal on Opel’s future now would deprive her Social Democratic junior partners and rivals, who back Magna, of a potentially damaging campaign issue (“Merkel dithers while Opel burns”). But while it may yield short-term benefits, Berlin’s rush to hand Opel to Magna could yet backfire.
    GM’s chief negotiator John Smith has been vocal in his criticism of Magna’s bid, specifically citing concerns about the use of GM patents and Russian expansion plans.
    Magna’s Kremlin-backed partners operate in an opaque business environment where foreign players can suddenly lose control of a joint venture or face tax or regulatory obstacles.
    It may well be GM that blinks in the run-in with Berlin over Opel, but Merkel shouldn’t forget that whoever bails out first, the Chicken Run inevitably ends in a car wreck.

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