Here's today's look at some of the top stories on markets and politics in Europe.
Intesa Sanpaolo repays ECB loan.
Despite the recent nasty surprises from Deutsche Bank and RBS, it's not all gloom in big European banks. Intesa Sanpaolo, Italy's second biggest bank, reported it had fully repaid the $49 billion emergency loan it took from the European Central Bank in 2011 and 2012. The loan was only due at the end of this year, but Intesa chief executive Carlo Messina was eager to make a strong statement to the markets: Intesa is strong enough to stand on its own. The Italian bank was one of the biggest recipients of the ECB loans known as the Long-Term Refinancing Operation. The ECB disbursed about $1.3 trillion under LTRO, acting as a lender of last resort. Now, European banks have cleaner balance sheets and are able to raise money in the open market: Witness the success of the capital-raising efforts of Raiffeisen, Credit Agricole and Bank of Ireland. It is important for regulators now to ease pressure on the sector so that its recovery can continue, or more fines and stringent requirements might force banks to beg for help again.
Vodafone and Liberty battle for Spanish cable operator.
After the successful $9.4 billion bid for the Dutch cable operator Ziggo, U.S.-based Liberty International is engaged in a bidding war for Ono, the Spanish cable company valued at about $10 billion. Liberty's rival in the war is U.K. cellular carrier Vodafone. Both companies have approached Ono's shareholders, many of them U.S. private equity funds, with offers, but so far all the discussions are private and inconclusive. Ono's owners, as financial investors, have no reason to hold on to the company long-term. All such European telecom assets may now be considered to be in play: It is largely understood that the map of this industry is being redrawn in expectation of the EU's moves to create a united telecom market. Cash-rich Vodafone, whose shareholders have just approved the $130 billion sale of the company's 45 percent stake in Verizon Wireless, and aggressive Liberty are the two obvious centers of this year's mergers and acquisitions activity, but other players will undoubtedly emerge.
In Ukraine, repressive laws repealed, Yanukovych crony appointed interim prime minister.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has kept his end of the bargain he made with the parliamentary opposition. His Regions Party, which together with Communists controls a majority in parliament, voted to repeal repressive laws passed on Jan. 16. Yanukovych himself approved the resignation of Prime Minister Nikolai Azarov's cabinet. Opposition politicians, however, have refused to form a government, most likely fearing responsibility for the rapidly deteriorating economic situation. Despite massive aid from Russia, Ukraine is again finding it difficult to repay debts. A $2 billion payout to the International Monetary Fund is imminent and impossible without more Russian funds. The opposition prefers Yanukovych to deal with the economic mess as best he can while it concentrates on political demands such as an amnesty for protesters, likely to be passed today. They also continue calling for an early presidential election. So long the barricades still stand in Kiev and elsewhere, no bargain can be considered final.
France to choose operator for national car recharging network.
The utility EDF and innovative holding Bollore are jostling for position as France prepares to pick an operator to develop a national recharging network for electric cars. The decision is expected by the end of spring, and it will deal with building recharging stations in 2015-2017. EDF, which supplies electricity to French homes and industries, may build 1,000 to 5,000 stations in partnership with carmaker Renault and electrical equipment manufacturer Schneider. Bollore's plan is to put in a charging station per 100 kilometers on roads connecting major French cities. Both companies' terminals will be able to recharge a car in two to three hours. That is a long wait for an intercity traveler, and most electric car owners will "refuel" them at night while they sleep. Still, the network is needed to reassure drivers they will not be stranded even if they forget to recharge at home. Once the national network comes online, electric car sales are expected to pick up, which explains the major players' interest. Bollore already operates 4,000 charging points in Paris where it rents out electric cars, and while the project is only expected to turn a profit in 2018, the company is willing to make an even bigger bet on the new market.
Two suspected banker suicides in London.
Gabriel Magee, a vice president in J.P. Morgan's technology department in London, fell to his death from the company's skyscraper in Canary Wharf on Tuesday. Police are treating the death as a suicide. The same day, William Broeksmit, until last year a top executive at Deutsche Bank, died at his London home, apparently also by his own hand. Though the reasons are not clear in either case, the coincident deaths will feed the discussion of excessive stress levels in the financial industry, not just for the young interns working 100-hour weeks but also for accomplished executives. Stress-related resignations, heart attacks and suicides may be par for the course in a high-octane, risky businesses, but the public does not really want finance to be one of these: Its money is at stake.
(Leonid Bershidsky writes on Russia, Europe and technology for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter.)
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