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May 1999

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  • The race towards a pan-European exchange speeded up on March 11 when Borsa Italiana, the Italian stock market, agreed to cooperate with the Paris and Swiss bourses in their effort to create a single market for the new century.
  • The volume of money raised by European private equity funds continues to grow. Much of that money is flowing in the belief that continental Europe is close to developing the sort of buy-out and start-up culture which has long produced spectacular returns for venture capitalists in the US. In late March Apax Partners closed a €1.8 billion ($1.9 billion) pan-European fund. It has the distinction of being the largest private equity fund for Europe denominated in the new currency, but it joins an already large pool of funds, much of it denominated in dollars, which is dedicated for investment in private European companies.
  • The Germans are at it again. Amid a big diplomatic punch-up, the Basle Committee on Banking Supervision failed to release its long-awaited consultation paper on credit risk control and capital adequacy on April 9.
  • Sicily's wait for money is over. The regional government found itself nearly L1.7 trillion ($1 billion) late last year and over 40 banks refused to lend. Nor was there interest in a local bond issue.
  • Who is Alice in euroland? Is it the average euro-punter watching his assets disappear down a deflationary rabbit hole? According to Willem Buiter, Cambridge economics professor and a member of the Bank of England's monetary policy committee, the white rabbit is the European Central Bank (ECB). It's operating on flawed principles, he says in a paper, Alice in euroland, published by the Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR). Hoping that his criticism will be constructive, he recommends the ECB should have greater accountability – publishing its minutes and answering to a parliamentary/judicial committee – and a smaller governing council and executive board, so it can act more promptly. Above all it should have the role of lender of last resort, so that, like the US Federal Reserve, it can stand behind the currency and, implicitly, support the major credit institutions when they're strapped for cash.
  • Ecuador's financial crisis came to a head in mid-March. With 10 banks closed or subject to state intervention in the past nine months, depositors have lost confidence. A major run on the banks was only avoided when the government declared a week-long bank holiday on March 8 and imposed a freeze on $1.5 billion in sucre and dollar deposits, for up to a year. Already struggling to cut a severe fiscal deficit, the government could not make good immediately on last year's legislation guaranteeing deposits. Now it is looking for help from international auditors and multilateral financiers to cleanse, downsize and recapitalize banks.
  • The battles rage for Telecom Italia, Société Générale and Gucci. Europeans have learnt aggressive US-style tactics. Optimists think corporate Europe has woken up after trailing the US for years. But these mega deals are driven by clan rivalry and gigantism, rather than efficiency.
  • Arab banks used to be content to stick to their lucrative national markets. But with oil prices low, times are getting harder in the Middle East and banks are positioning themselves to go regional. Darren Stubing reports.
  • The pie may be getting smaller but the top players are taking bigger slices. However, as Jack Dyson reports, the largest foreign-exchange firms are having to work ever harder to carve out a point of difference in a mature market with thin margins. In our eagerly-awaited annual foreign-exchange poll, Citigroup stays ahead of Deutsche by a whisker. Research by Rebecca Cicolecchia.
  • It's not just the tragic events in Kosovo that are hitting the economies and financial assets of central Europe. The current state of the European Union isn't helping either. It's ironic that, just as central Europe's reorientation towards the EU once underpinned its post-communist revival, it's now proving to be its nemesis. Slow growth in the EU this year means big external financing gaps for Poland and Hungary. Germany, which accounts for around 30% of the region's exports, is crucial. But the collapse of demand from Russia, which accounts for another 5% to 8% of exports, doesn't help.
  • We know that the cloggies of ABN Amro and ING Barings are deadly rivals the world over and eat each other's client lists for breakfast. In Almaty, Kazakhstan, that competition extends to the bankers' leisure time. And these aren't even Dutchmen, they're Kazakhs. They issue mad challenges to each other: downhill racing, skeet shooting, computer warfare, it's all in a day's fun.
  • The prospect of sovereign bond defaults in emerging markets has focused attention on the legal documentation. Christopher Stoakes explains why.
  • Information technology is the catch phrase of the moment. The issues surrounding Y2K, the introduction of the euro and spread of the internet are the bread and butter of an ever-expanding industry. They are also the daily bread of the key figures we invited to participate in our roundtable. What are the new challenges they face and how did they solve the old?
  • Have you been wondering what, if anything, can cause bank stocks to fall? Last year's crisis managed to do it, but now it would appear to be little more than a temporary blip. And in the US at least, the first quarter of 1999 has been a profits bonanza for most of the banks, even for the likes of JP Morgan, which had been stuck in the return-on-equity doldrums for several years.
  • It is flattering to be remembered by Paul Roby so long after the event (letter, "Begging to differ" April, page 13).
  • There could be few clearer indications that foreign banks are smoking out the locals in the Japanese capital markets than Citibank's success in syndicating a $5 billion loan for Japan Tobacco.
  • Why did Morgan Stanley Dean Witter decide in January to move the irrepressible Riccardo Pavoncelli from head of European debt capital markets to head its European media industry group.
  • This year's splurge of big M&A deals have upped the pace in the race to be Europe's top M&A adviser.
  • Is the tide about to turn for the Nigerian Stock Exchange (NSE)? With major companies trading at very low P/E ratios, and with prospects of greater political stability, surely this is an emerging market that has been too long overlooked? Nigerian Bottling Company managers seem to think so. In March NBC did a N3.5 billion ($38 million) rights issue, Nigeria's largest ever.
  • In the eurozone big is beautiful. The potential three-way merger of Banque Nationale de Paris, Société Générale and Paribas is just the latest example of the consolidation that will transform Europe's fragmented and largely unsophisticated banking industry. National borders and regulations have become irrelevant more quickly than anyone had predicted, leaving the way open for huge intra-market and cross-border tie-ups. But as banking goes the way of auto manufacturing and pharmaceuticals, what role is left for the smaller institutions - the regional specialists and the boutiques?
  • French banking has arrived at a turning point. In the past the government would have stepped in to resolve the takeover battle between Société Générale, Paribas and Banque Nationale de Paris. But this time it looks likely that shareholders will determine who triumphs. Rebecca Bream reports.
  • A revolution in securities settlement will make Emu and Y2K look like child's play. And it will be the death knell of custody as we know it. Increasingly, custodians see their business as information, not safe-keeping. Meanwhile the consolidation continues. James Rutter reports.
  • Which bank has the best connected external directors? Steven Irvine presents the first ever ranking of this often neglected weapon in the competitive armoury.
  • Gordon Brown, UK chancellor of the exchequer, speaks to Nick Kochan about the birth of the euro, tax competition in Europe and rethinking the world's financial architecture.
  • Since Russia and LTCM, risk managers have been searching for a better way to value financial firms and the risks they run. Amazingly, they and their regulators temporarily lost sight of an important relationship - between financial assets and the way they are funded. David Shirreff reports on a meeting at the sharp end of firm-wide risk management
  • When Wim Duisenberg announced a 50 basis point cut in the European Central Bank refinancing rate from 3% to 2.5% on April 8, he made every effort to pre-empt speculation about more such cuts for the foreseeable future. Throughout its first three months of operation, the ECB has had to endure endless pressure from European politicians and private-sector economists to cut interest rates. Having frustrated this critical audience by keeping rates stable in the face of sharply declining business confidence in the three largest economies in euroland Germany, Italy and France Duisenberg now surprised the markets with one swift, deep cut. And his message was: "This is it." Don't expect any more cuts in the near to medium term.
  • David Bowie's done it, European soccer clubs have done it, even British pubs and motorway service stations have done it. Now it's the turn of waxwork models.
  • Could El Salvador, a country of 6 million people, be about to steal a march on its larger Latin American neighbours?
  • ABN Amro's ebullient new chief financial officer was known by colleagues at the Dutch central bank as "Turbo Tommy" for the speed with which he got things done. "His greatest strength is his social intelligence," says a senior central banker. "He's also always open to new concepts and new approaches. If he has a weakness, it is that when he delegates, it is often to himself."
  • Money from pension funds is fuelling a boom in corporate bond issuance. But long-dated bonds and equities are lagging. Hans van Leeuwen reports