Maybe it's because she's only got a few months left on the job. But no one doubts that Neelie Kroes is taking a far more aggressive stance as the European Commission's top competition watchdog, going after Europe's bailed-out banks and barrelling unexpectedly into the pan-European battle for the future of carmaker Adam Opel GmbH. When her term comes to an end on Dec. 31, many European CEOs may quietly cheer even as their companies may be decidedly changed.
In what is seen as a sign of things to come for other European lenders rescued by state aid, ING Groep NV on Oct. 26 said it would completely rework its business model to secure EC approval for its $15 billion government bailout. The Dutch bank said it would sell off assets representing 45% of its balance sheet and exit its insurance business altogether, ending a bancassurance structure that had made it one of the Continent's biggest financial services groups.
"Kroes wants to clear the desks and take the credit for a number of things," says Michael Tscherny, a former spokesman for Kroes predecessor Mario Monti and a partner with Brussels communications consultancy GPlus Europe. "[ING] is seen as particularly important because it's the breakup of a big bank."
ING's asset sales went deeper than analysts expected and raised questions about just what exactly Kroes has in store for other European lending giants that required tax money to stay afloat. Her five-year term had been set to expire Oct. 31 along with the rest of the Commission, but until President José Manuel Barroso appoints a new competition commissioner, Kroes can stay in office. Indeed, her successor isn't expected to take up the post earlier than Jan. 1. Though she can rule on cases she's already opened, she can't launch any new investigations.
On Oct. 28 the EC did, as many expected, approve the restructuring plan for nationalized U.K. lender Northern Rock plc.
But analysts are concerned about the future of KBC Group NV, which the Belgian state bailed out, as well as Royal Bank of Scotland Group plc, 70% owned by the British government, and Lloyds Banking Group plc, 43.5% state-owned. They may have to make more painful cuts than first anticipated.
It's not just bailed-out bankers who have been caught off guard. German government officials had to scramble when Kroes, in a surprise October letter to Economy Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, said she saw "significant indications" that Berlin had been too involved in talks to sell Opel, the main European unit of General Motors Co.
With half of Opel's 50,000 payroll employed in Germany, politicians in Europe's biggest economy played a key role in the deal. Berlin agreed to prop up Opel with a €1.5 billion bridge loan until a new parent could be found and then agreed to front €4.5 billion in loan guarantees for Canadian auto supplier Magna International Inc. and Russian lender Sberbank, which eventually were tapped to take 55% of Opel. Kroes was concerned the guarantees were available only to Magna, Berlin's preferred bidder, which would go against Commission rules on political interference.
After Guttenberg wrote a letter stating that government support would be available to any Opel buyer, the Commission backed off and said it had no intention of blocking the deal. But Kroes' move had already left its mark. GM cited the German letter when it delayed the signing of a binding purchase agreement by several weeks. The U.S. automaker, which emerged from bankruptcy in July, said its board would have to review and approve the deal Nov. 3, sparking speculation GM may harbor hopes -- however remote -- that it could cash the €4.5 billion check itself.
Robert Klotz, a partner at the Brussels office of Hunton & Williams LLP, expects the Commission to demand some concessions of Berlin in order to approve the aid. "I can't imagine it will just be waved through," he says. "It's a political decision."
That's no consolation to Larry Ellison. The brash CEO of Oracle Corp. is working to win Commission approval for his $7.2 billion acquisition of Sun Microsystems Inc. Kroes is taking a close look at the agreement, which has already cleared the U.S. Department of Justice, and has accused Oracle of not doing enough to allay its concerns. Oracle claims Sun is bleeding $100 million a month amid the Commission review, which could run until Jan. 19 and then be extended a further 35 days.
Ellison may be bluffing to get the best possible deal, but as Europe's banks are finding out, Kroes has no reason to bluff. She's made her mark, and at the end of the year, she's gone.