News Archive

French finance minister expects improved GE offer for Alstom unit

PARIS (Reuters) – France expects General Electric (GE.N) to boost its bid for Alstom’s (ALSO.PA) power unit in response to a potential joint offer from Siemens (SIEGn.DE) and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (7011.T), Finance Minister Michel Sapin said on Sunday.

Siemens and Mitsubishi are putting the finishing touches on an offer for Alstom’s turbine businesses, including a cash element of roughly 9 billion euros ($12.3 billion), according to sources close to the bidders.

That compares with the U.S. conglomerate’s existing offer of 12.4 billion euros ($16.9 billion) for all of Alstom’s energy assets. [ID:L5N0OV09R]

“Mitsubishi forming an alliance with Siemens improves Siemens’ offer,” Sapin said in an interview broadcast simultaneously on Europe 1 radio and iTele. “I think that GE is also going to improve its offer.”

Siemens, which has declined to comment on any discussions with Mitsubishi, has said it plans to disclose a bid for Alstom by Monday. Its supervisory board will meet on Sunday evening, according to a source close to the German group.

GE, meanwhile, has made a pledge to the French government to create 1,000 new jobs in France within three years of a deal, according to sources close to the discussions. [ID:nL6N0OE1VJ]


Sapin said he did not have “any preference” for a bidder, but France would defend jobs and investment through a new decree extending the government’s powers to block foreign takeovers in sectors deemed strategic. [ID:nL1N0O02AC]

“We will not decide for (Alstom) but we will use our weight,” he said.

Alstom, which is famous for making France’s iconic TGV high-speed trains, is a big private-sector employer in the country and was bailed out by the state a decade ago.

In the joint move being considered by Siemens and Mitsubishi, the German company would acquire Alstom’s gas turbines business while the Japanese group would inject cash and industrial assets into a joint venture in steam turbines, sources said.

As part of the deal, Mitsubishi and the French government would take equal stakes in Alstom, union representatives said after meeting with Economy Minister Arnaud Montebourg.

Sapin was not asked about a potential government stake in Alstom, but said he did not see a French-only solution for Alstom given the global nature of train and power markets.

“It is natural to develop alternatives, alliances that are international,” he said.

($1 = 0.7345 Euros)

(Reporting by Gus Trompiz; Editing by Sophie Hares)

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French finance minister sees progress towards ‘more equitable’ U.S. fine for BNP Paribas

PARIS (Reuters) – France’s finance minister said on Sunday that talks between BNP Paribas (BNPP.PA) and U.S. authorities over a potential fine for the bank for breaching U.S. sanctions had progressed towards a “more equitable” level.

U.S. authorities – five of them in all, including the New York financial regulator – are investigating whether BNP evaded U.S. sanctions against Iran and other countries between 2002 and 2009.

BNP may have to pay a fine of about $10 billion and face other penalties such as being suspended from clearing clients’ dollar transactions, sources close to the situation have said.

The French government has said such a fine would be “disproportionate.”

“I think we have made progress towards more equitable penalties that do not impede in a strong way the future and the future of funding in particular,” finance minister Michel Sapin said in an interview on Europe 1 radio and news channel iTele, asked if the fine was going to be less than $10 billion.

Sources familiar with the matter said on Thursday that negotiations had gathered pace recently.

BNP Paribas declined to comment.

A $10 billion fine would wipe out BNP’s projected 2014 earnings and put the bank’s dividend under pressure, SocGen analysts estimated last month. It would also hit BNP’s core equity tier one ratio, a measure of a bank’s ability to endure stress and market shocks, forcing it down around 100 basis points from the current 10.6 percent, the analysts added.

Sources familiar with the matter say the U.S. authorities are trying to establish whether the bank stripped out identifying information from wire transfers so they could pass through the U.S. financial system without raising red flags.

“What is being criticized by the U.S. authorities is the violation of a strictly American law. The same acts committed in France in euros would not have been reprehensible,” Sapin said.

“That said, it is the American law, it should have been respected”.

(Reporting by Gus Trompiz, Matthias Blamont and Maya Nikolaeva; Editing by Catherine Evans and Mark Potter)

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Ukraine expects gas talks with Russia as deadline looms

KIEV (Reuters) – Ukraine said it expected to resume talks with Russia on a gas pricing dispute on Sunday evening, with a deadline looming for Kiev to pay a $1.95 billion debt by Monday or have its gas supplies cut off.

Halting Russian deliveries to Kiev could disrupt the gas flow to the EU, which gets some of its imports via Ukraine, but prospects for a breakthrough have been hit by clashes between government forces and pro-Russian separatists in east Ukraine.

Ukraine’s energy minister had said after talks in Kiev on Saturday that discussions would continue on Sunday morning, but no meeting took place.

Ukraine’s Energy Ministry later said it hoped the talks, being mediated by the European Union’s energy commissioner, would resume in Kiev on Sunday evening and Ukrainian state gas company Naftogaz said it expected talks at 8 p.m. (1700 GMT).

Russian officials did not immediately confirm this.

Ukrainian and Russian officials failed to end the long-running dispute at talks in Kiev on Saturday but Ukrainian Energy Minister Yuri Prodan said after leaving the meeting that the discussions would continue on Sunday.

Russia and Ukraine disagree how much Kiev should pay for the natural gas it receives from Russia and Russian state-owned natural gas producer Gazprom (GAZP.MM) plans to switch to an advance payment system if Kiev does not start paying its bills.

Ukraine has accepted a European Commission compromise proposal of $326 per 1,000 cubic metres of gas for an interim period. Moscow has offered Kiev a $100 reduction to $385, around the average amount paid by Russia’s European clients.

Resolving the dispute and averting supply cuts could help ease tension over the separatist rising in east Ukraine, which Kiev blames on Moscow despite Russian denials that it is arming the rebellion.

Tensions are also high following Russia’s annexation of Crimea after Ukraine’s Moscow-leaning president was ousted and pro-Western leaders took over power.

(Reporting by Natalia Zinets and Pavel Polityuk, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

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Short sellers enjoy revival as European stocks lose steam

LONDON/PARIS (Reuters) – Hedge fund bets against selected European stocks are making a comeback, as investors pick apart a multi-year stock rally and question the market’s scope to gain from the ECB’s campaign to prevent deflation.

Short sellers – who borrow a security and sell it, betting they will be able to buy it back at a lower price before returning it to the lender – have in recent years burnt their fingers on the upward trajectory of European markets, helped by the ECB’s pledge to keep the euro zone together.

But the bears are now wading back in, with some success: short bets on specific companies like French telecom company Alcatel Lucent or German printing machine maker Heidelberger Druckmaschinen have paid off, as markets pause for breath after hitting multi-year highs.

Overall, in April and May, Europe’s most heavily shorted stocks – those with the highest proportion of shares out on loan relative to their total share count – underperformed the overall market by about 8 percent on average, according to Markit data, for the first time since the European Central Bank pledged to save the euro in 2012.

“The relief rally that lifted stocks across the board in Europe is behind us now, and stock picking is set to play a much bigger role in performance,” said Bertrand Lamielle, head of asset management at B*Capital, a Paris-based brokerage and wealth management firm.

“The focus is back on relative performances, which makes fertile ground for short selling and long/short plays.”

Long/short strategies allow investors to bet on the performance gap between two investments, offering an alternative to simply betting on a straight fall.


For the time being, the overall level of investors’ negative bets on European shares remains muted, suggesting accommodative monetary policies from global central banks and signs of an economic recovery in the euro zone are supporting sentiment.

Last week, the ECB cut interest rates to record lows and launched measures to pump extra money into the sluggish economy.

But despite the expected positive impact for the economy, investors are betting that there remains enough divergence within individual company fortunes to be able to roll out selective short bets without worrying about another market boom.

“The environment is quite favorable for long/short strategies at the moment,” said Delphine Arnaud, fund manager, hedge funds and structured products, at Lazard Freres Gestion.

“There’s been a big sector rotation on the market, and typically at the end of these rotations, there are plenty of long/short ideas because there’s more dispersion,” she said.

Some of the most successful short trades feature negative bets on telecom gear maker Alcatel-Lucent – one of the most shorted stocks across Europe with about 12 percent of its shares out on loan, according to data from Markit.

Its stock is down 11 percent since the start of the year, while France’s CAC 40 index is up 6 percent. The paper gain from combined short positions on the stock since the start of the year represents about 120 million euros ($162 million), according to Reuters calculations.

Hedge funds Susquehanna International Holdings, Aristeia Capital, CQS UK and Capstone Volatility Master are among the funds with the biggest short positions on the shares of Alcatel, tangled in an ambitious overhaul of its business.

Susquehanna has recently increased its short position on the stock, to 0.9 percent from 0.6 percent in late May, according to filings with the French market regulator. Susquehanna officials were not immediately available for comment.

Heidelberger Druckmaschinen, another of Europe’s most shorted stocks with 10.4 percent shares out on loan, fell 6 percent between early April and late May.

“The fact that correlation is low and dispersion is high should tell that it’s positive for long/short strategies. When correlation is low, hedge funds tend to make more money,” said Antonin Jullier, global head of equity trading strategy, at Citi.

(Editing by Lionel Laurent and Ruth Pitchford)

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Dubai faces moment of truth over looming property bubble

DUBAI (Reuters) – “Keep calm. There’s no bubble”, proclaimed a giant poster on a 40-storey building overlooking a Dubai highway, advertising a property finding portal late last year. That may have been true at the time, but the risks are rising.

A leap in bank lending to the construction industry indicates financial institutions have resumed pouring money into real estate projects in the last few months, after cutting back sharply in the wake of Dubai’s 2008 crash.

At the same time, property prices have been soaring on the back of Dubai’s economic boom, increasing the chance of the market rising to unsustainable levels.

Surging supply and unsustainable demand are a risky mix – the same combination that got Dubai into trouble six years ago, forcing state firms to reschedule tens of billions of dollars of debt and jolting financial markets around the world.

This time, authorities say they are aware of the dangers, and they have taken regulatory steps to slow demand growth. But the steps are still modest compared to those by other global cities facing the same problem, such as Hong Kong and Singapore.

“It’s too early to be calling top, but credit growth of that pace tells you that the cycle is accelerating rapidly,” said Simon Williams, HSBC’s chief economist for the region.

“Such a huge increase in lending is simply not consistent with economic order and stable asset prices. The time for policy action is now, before bubbles really get going, not when they are already in place.”


Dubai house prices posted the fastest year-on-year rise of any of the world’s major markets in January-March for the fourth straight quarter, soaring 27.7 percent, consultants Knight Frank said. Rents rose about 30 percent on average in the same period.

The value of real estate deals in Dubai, with a population of 2.3 million, jumped 38 percent in the first quarter to some 61 billion dirhams ($16.6 billion), the Land Department said.

There are good reasons for property prices to rise, including annual economic growth around 5 percent and inflows of money from Arab investors seeking safety in a turbulent region.

While some prices have almost returned to their pre-crash peaks, they are well below some other global business cities. Prime real estate in Dubai costs between $6,200 and $7,500 per square meter ($580-700 per square foot), against $27,600-33,700 in Singapore, according to Knight Frank.

The volume of real estate deals has not reached its pre-crash peak but demand is showing signs of slowing. Propsquare Real Estate said sales volumes so far this year were down about 25 percent year-on-year as prices become less affordable.

“The gap between what the seller is asking for a property and what the buyer is willing to pay is huge at the moment,” said Parvees Gafur, Propsquare’s chief executive.

Yet the Land Department described the first-quarter surge in real estate deals as “impressive” and looked forward to more.

“We expect the next three quarters to be similarly active, especially as this period follows the launch of a number of stimulating economic projects in Dubai and the disclosure of some of the preparations for the city’s hosting of Expo 2020,” said the department’s Director General Sultan Butti Bin Merjen.

The government fueled the current property boom when it announced plans, in November 2012, for a huge development including the world’s largest shopping mall, over 100 hotels and a park almost a third larger than London’s Hyde Park.

Meanwhile, most of the more than 200 man-made islands off Dubai laid out in the shape of a world map that symbolized the 2008 property market crash remain empty after state-owned developer Nakheel’s near debt default in 2009.

Authorities have taken some steps against price speculation and “flipping”, in which investors buy and sell properties – many of them unbuilt – in quick succession. Late last year, Dubai doubled the fee charged on property deals to 4 percent, while the UAE central bank imposed caps on mortgage lending.

Some real estate developers have taken their own action; partly state-owned Emaar Properties allows resale only after about 40 percent of payment for a property has been made.

But these steps are minor compared, for example, to a 15 percent fee imposed on the quick resale of property by Hong Kong and a 30 percent fee introduced by Singapore. Last month, the International Monetary Fund warned that Dubai might need to consider such tools as well.

For now, it does not seem that the growth-hungry emirate has the will to act more aggressively. The history of the mortgage loan caps suggests it may not; the central bank watered down stricter curbs after complaints by commercial banks.

In a statement on June 9, the Land Department insisted that the property market was broadly healthy, and that rising prices were simply due to a strong economy.

In an annual stability report a week ago, the UAE central bank warned that the real estate market might be overheating. But it is unclear what further action it could take; with U.S. interest rates still ultra-low, any rate hike in the UAE is unlikely given the UAE dirham’s peg to the U.S. dollar.


The supply side of the equation looks equally uncertain. Plans for real estate projects worth well over $50 billion have been announced in Dubai over the past 18 months – but it is unclear how many will actually get built and how fast.

Major work is starting on some of them. After shrinking for 16 months in a row, construction loans in the UAE jumped 40.1 percent from a year earlier in December to 181 billion dirhams, the fastest rate since June 2009, latest central bank data show.

That far outpaced growth in total bank loans, which rose just 8.8 percent in December to 1.1 trillion dirhams. And the lending boom is probably just beginning.

“We foresee an acceleration of real estate lending as developers launch new projects, and more local and expatriate customers seek to enter the mortgage market,” credit rating agency Standard Poor’s said in a report last month.

A Dubai banker, declining to be named under briefing rules, noted increased risk-taking in funding to developers by local banks: “Some banks are offering 100 percent financing deals to firms on a selective basis. That’s not very sustainable.”

A return to the full excesses of the pre-2008 boom still looks unlikely. The crash cleared some second-tier developers out of the market, and the companies that remain still bear the balance sheet scars of the last crash; this should encourage at least some of them to be more cautious.

There are signs that developers are paying more attention to their rivals’ plans and implementing projects only in stages, proceeding with each one after reevaluating the demand outlook.

“Supply is more coordinated” than it was in the past, said Fahd Iqbal, head of Middle East research at Credit Suisse.

Nevertheless, the risks may be substantial in the next few years. Any sudden loss of confidence by a large proportion of foreign investors, or sharp tightening in U.S. monetary policy, could ignite a pull-back in the market, SP said in its report.

“What happened in 2013 was unsustainable. It is a big question mark whether or not we are going to have a sustained leveling off or whether it is going to pick up again,” said Farouk Soussa, Citigroup’s chief economist for the region.

“In Dubai things change quickly. If they build…all these big projects…then I think we can start to get more concerned about another massive cycle in the property sector that might be unsustainable.”

(Additional reporting by David French; Editing by Andrew Torchia and Philippa Fletcher)

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Medtronic nears $45 billion-plus deal for Covidien: sources

(Reuters) – U.S. medical device maker Medtronic Inc is in advanced talks to buy rival Covidien Plc in a deal valued at $45 billion to $50 billion, people familiar with the matter said on Saturday.

The deal, which would allow Medtronic to be domiciled in Ireland, where Covidien is based, and thus take advantage of lower tax rates, could come as soon as Monday, one person said, asking not to be named because the matter is not public.

Minneapolis-based Medtronic, the world’s largest stand-alone medical device maker, with an array of products ranging from heart defibrillators and stents to insulin pumps and spinal implants, has a market value of about $61 billion. Covidien, a maker of devices used in surgery, is valued at about $32 billion.

In a market that has seen an accelerated pace of deal-making, some aimed at redomiciling major U.S. companies overseas, Pfizer Inc PFE.N recently mounted an abortive takeover bid for British-based AstraZeneca AZN.L in what would have been a roughly $120 billion deal aimed in part at lowering the U.S. drug firm’s corporate tax rate.

Medical device makers in recent years have struggled with slowing sales and pricing pressure as governments overseas slash budgets and the United States transforms its healthcare system under the Affordable Care Act.

In addition, hospitals are looking to reduce supply costs in part by consolidating vendors amid sluggish demand for services as patients avoid going to the doctor because of a lack of insurance or rising out-of-pocket costs for care.

“It makes sense on a lot of levels, both strategic and financial,” Jefferies analyst Raj Denhoy said of the potential combination. There are a lot of reasons to believe it is going to happen.”

Acquiring Covidien, with its focus on minimally invasive surgical procedures, would help expand Medtronic’s footprint in the marketplace, as the two companies have very little product overlap, Denhoy said.

The medical device industry is seeing more mergers such as Zimmer Holdings Inc’s recently announced $13.4 billion takeover of smaller rival orthopedic device maker Biomet Inc as companies in the sector move to cut costs and become more efficient.

Pfizer’s bid for AstraZeneca, which was rejected, was one of a few recently launched major deals that have looked to take advantage of an increasingly popular tax-lowering strategy known as an inversion.

Several smaller transactions have succeeded, drawing the attention of U.S. lawmakers in Congress who are targeting legislation that would make it much more difficult for U.S. companies to do profitable inversions.

A Reuters review showed about 50 such deals had been done in the past 25 years, with half occurring since the 2008-2009 credit crisis abated.

Officials at Medtronic and Covidien declined to comment on the news, which was earlier reported by the Wall Street Journal.

(Reporting by Soyoung Kim in New York and Susan Kelly in Chicago; Editing by Eric Beech, Bernard Orr and Gunna Dickson)

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Ukraine, Russia agree to hold new gas talks on Sunday

KIEV (Reuters) – Ukraine and Russia failed to end a gas pricing dispute at talks on Saturday but agreed to meet again on Sunday, a day before a Russian deadline for Kiev to pay a $1.95 billion debt or have its gas supplies cut off.

Halting deliveries to Kiev could disrupt the gas flow to the European Union, which receives gas via Ukraine, but the chances of a breakthrough have been hit by tensions over an uprising by pro-Russian separatists in east Ukraine.

The two sides did little other than set out their positions at talks with European Energy Commission Guenther Oettinger in a Kiev hotel before deciding to resume discussions in the morning.

“Each side explained its position today. No solution was found. Therefore, in line with a proposal by Commissioner Oettinger, the talks will continue tomorrow morning,” Ukrainian Energy Minister Yuri Prodan told reporters.

Andrei Miller, the chief executive of Russia’s top natural gas producer, Gazprom,, said nothing to reporters as he went in and left the talks.

Resolving the long-running dispute and averting a cut in gas supplies could help ease tension over the separatist rising, which Kiev blames on Moscow despite Russian denials that it is arming the rebellion.

Russia had initially rejected the idea of holding another round of talks over the weekend, but agreed in the end to have one more try.

“We are ready to seek compromise, but it is useless to put pressure on us,” Sergei Kupriyanov, spokesman for Russian state gas producer Gazprom, said in Moscow.

The dispute is part a broader crisis in which Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March following the overthrow of the country’s Moscow-leaning president, and tensions are high following the shooting down of a Ukrainian military transport plane by the rebels in east Ukraine.


Gazprom has said Ukraine should pay at least $1.95 billion – part of its debt for Russian gas supplies – by Monday, or face being switched to a system under which it would receive only gas it pays for in advance, and possible gas supply cuts.

After the failure of several rounds of talks, the last of which were in Brussels this week, Ukraine’s government ordered the energy sector, ministers and local authorities to prepare for supply cuts.

Russia initially demanded at the talks that Ukraine should pay $485 per 1,000 cubic metres of gas but then offered to remove the export duty, a move that would cut the price to $385 – around the average amount paid by Russia’s European clients.

Ukraine had held out for $268.5 until Friday, when it said it was ready to pay $326 for an interim period of 18 months while a long-term price was worked out.

Russian energy authorities said last week that the price of $385 was final, but Prodan suggested to reporters Ukraine was not ready to go beyond its offer of $326.

Russia has extended its deadline twice in the past few weeks to allow more time to reach a deal but has made clear it will not do so again.

Russia meets about a third of the EU’s gas needs, and around half of the gas is delivered via pipelines that go through Ukraine.

Supply cuts would not be a big problem now because it is summer and the EU and Ukraine have enough gas in storage, but the EU suffered serious disruptions in supplies when Russia cut off supplies in a gas war with Kiev in 2009.

(Additonal reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow, Writing by Timothy Heritage, editing by David Evans)

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Medtronic in talks to combine with Covidien in $45 billion deal: source

(Reuters) – Medical-device maker Medtronic Inc MDT.N and rival Covidien Plc COV.N are in advanced talks to combine in a deal valued at $45 billion to $50 billion, a source familiar with the matter said on Saturday.

The deal, which would allow Medtronic to be domiciled in Ireland where Covidien is based and thus take advantage of lower tax rates, could come as soon as Monday, the person said, asking not to be named because the matter is not public.

The Wall Street Journal first reported the talks.

Minneapolis-based Medtronic, which makes cardiovascular and orthopedic devices, has a market value of about $61 billion. Covidien, which makes devices used in surgery, is valued at about $32 billion.

Pfizer Inc PFE.N recently mounted an abortive takeover bid for British-based AstraZeneca AZN.L in what would have been a roughly $120 billion deal aimed in part at lowering the U.S. drug firm’s corporate tax rate.

(Reporting by Soyoung Kim in New York; Editing by Eric Beech)

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Valeant senior official leaves amid Allergan takeover battle

(Reuters) – An executive vice-president of Valeant Pharmaceuticals International Inc (VRX.TO) will leave the company, even as the Canadian drugmaker fends off criticism about management turnover from its takeover target Allergan Inc (AGN.N).

Executive vice-president and company group chairman Ryan Weldon will leave, Valeant confirmed late on Friday after inquiries by Reuters. Like Chief Executive Mike Pearson, Weldon previously worked for management consulting firm McKinsey Co.

Valeant said Weldon’s departure was planned, and takes effect after it completes a $1.4 billion sale of several injectable treatments to Nestle SA (NESN.VX). The sale was made to allay potential anti-trust concerns about Valeant’s takeover bid for Allergan.

“Although his leadership will be missed, the company has created and developed a strong management team and I am confident Ryan will assist us successfully through this transition period,” Pearson said in a statement.

Weldon called his six years at Valeant “extraordinary” and said it was a privilege to work with Pearson and the rest of the company.

Weldon exits as Allergan has criticized Valeant’s “significant management turnover” and accused the Laval, Quebec-based company of lacking the experience to manage complex global businesses.

In a May 27 investor presentation, Allergan said that of the current management team, only Pearson and general counsel Robert Chai-Onn were in executive officer positions three years ago.

Pearson answered that criticism and others the next day, in a 3-1/2 hour meeting with investors and analysts in New York.

“We make those changes through people that we bring in through our acquisitions, we go outside for key talent and we continue to look to upgrade the talent,” Pearson said. “We think this is a strength, not a weakness in terms of our business model.”

Valeant and its ally Pershing Square Capital Management – Allergan’s biggest shareholder – have offered to buy the Botox maker for $53 billion in cash and shares. Allergan has rejected the offer and refused to negotiate, leading Pershing to move toward replacing most of Allergan’s board at a special meeting.

Valeant’s Toronto-listed stock has fallen nine consecutive sessions, losing 12 percent since touching a three-week high on May 30, when it made its most recent revised offer for Allergan.

Talk circulated last week that ValueAct Capital Management, one of Valeant’s biggest shareholders, was selling its stock, but ValueAct was quoted by Bloomberg on Friday saying this was not true.

California-based Allergan has lost ground in seven of the last nine sessions.

(Reporting by Rod Nickel in Winnipeg, Manitoba and Olivia Oran in New York, editing by David Evans)

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