Bershidsky on Europe: Crimea Votes for Russia
Here's today's look at some of the top stories on markets and politics in Europe.
Crimea votes to join Russia.
According to preliminary results, 96.6 percent of Crimea's population voted in a hastily arranged referendum on Sunday for their territory's secession from Ukraine and inclusion in Russia. The plebiscite was, predictably, a farce, with the votes counted behind closed doors in the absence of observers or the press, and with almost the entire indigenous population of Crimean tatars failing to turn out. There were, however, fireworks on Sunday night, and locals celebrated in the streets. Most of them do want Crimea to be part of Russia, and it's anybody's guess why Russia and the pro-Russian authorities on the peninsula decided against arranging a real, honest, transparent vote. For some reason, Russia appears to be full of resolve to become an international pariah or expose the cynicism of Western politicians if they do not confer that status on Moscow. The Russian parliament is promising to act quickly to make Crimea part of Russia. The die is cast, and the Kremlin is now waiting to see what the costs will be, pretending as best it can that it does not care one way or another.
Vodafone buys Spanish cable operator for almost $10 billion.
Vodafone agreed to pay $9.73 billion for Spanish cable operator Ono in its first big acquisition since the U.K.-based telecom operator's $120 billion sale of a U.S. joint venture stake. In Spain, Vodafone will now be able to package fixed and mobile offerings as it does with Germany, after last year's purchase of Kabel Deutschland. Vodafone's rivals in the Spanish market, particularly Telefonica, were doing that too, and the U.K. company's bottom line was suffering because it did not have its own fixed infrastructure. If France's Numericable buys mobile operator SFR, European mobile-cable combinations will be the trend of the year. It's the most painless path toward the consolidation of the telecom market: There are clear synergies and few antitrust concerns.
Russian billionaire acquires German energy company.
LetterOne, an investment vehicle of Russian billionaire Mikhail Fridman, is acquiring German energy giant RWE's oil and gas subsidiary, RWE Dea, for $7.1 billion. The company extracts oil and gas in Germany, the U.K., Norway, Egypt and Denmark and is planning to start extraction in Algeria and Libya. Fridman has overshot the next best offer, from U.S. investment funds KKR and Kufpec, by $4 billion. For the Russian, the deal is a powerful hedge. Last year, he sold the Russian state-owned company Rosneft his stake in TNK BP, showing that he doesn't believe in the future of the private oil business in his country. Now that Russia faces international sanctions for the invasion of Ukraine, Fridman clearly wants no part of that punishment. When the deal goes through later this year, he will be the respectable owner of a pedigreed European energy company and the envy of his Russian colleagues who did not have the money or the foresight to act likewise.
UniCredit to divest Pioneer Investments.
Italy's biggest bank, UniCredit, which has just announced a startling $20 billion loss for the fourth quarter of 2013, is making public its first divestment plans. First on the list is Pioneer Investments, the bank's investment management business, valued at between $2.8 billion and $4.2 billion. It will be either floated or sold. UniCredit also wants to float a minority stake in online consumer bank Fineco and sell its debt collection business. Later, the Italian bank plans to list a minority stake in Germany's HypoVereinsbank, acquired in 2005. Just as the Italian government under Matteo Renzi is following the lead of the Spanish one in trying to restart economic growth, so UniCredit is apparently imitating Spain's Santander bank in unloading its asset management arm and looking for minority interests it could float. Santander is now in relatively good shape, and if UniCredit has the determination to go through with all the asset sell-offs, it won't have taken the recent big bath for nothing.
Big banks freeze forex bonuses.
Barclays, Citigroup and Royal Bank of Scotland have frozen bonuses for their foreign exchange traders because of ongoing investigations into market manipulation. This is the latest blow to a business that has already seen many traders depart because of the rate fixing scandal that broke out last year. The forex trading desks have to operate under a magnifying glass, and the nervous atmosphere is not conducive even to healthy risk-taking. What with the firings, suspensions, voluntary departures and bonus freezes, automated trading will soon be the best option left for banks. Besides, computers do not collude.
(Leonid Bershidsky writes on Russia, Europe and technology for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter at @Bershidsky.)
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.
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