German union calls four-day strike at Amazon sites ahead of Easter

BERLIN (Reuters) – The trade union Verdi has called for workers at six Amazon sites in Germany to go on strike from Sunday evening for four days in the latest attempt to try to force the U.S. e-commerce group to recognise collective bargaining agreements.

Verdi said the strikes at Amazon’s sites in Rheinberg, Werne, Koblenz, Leipzig and at two locations in Bad Hersfeld signalled an “unofficial start” to wage talks for the retail and mail order industry, which are due to begin in the next few weeks.

“Amazon is making a mint in the coronavirus crisis. For this reason alone, wage evasion must be stopped there,” said Verdi representative Orhan Akman.

Verdi is demanding a pay increase of 4.5% for workers in the retail and mail order industry.

“This must also be possible at Amazon this year,” Akman said.

Amazon has faced a long-running battle with unions in Germany over better pay and conditions for logistics workers, who have frequently staged strikes since 2013.

Germany is Amazon’s biggest market after the United States.

Amazon says it offers excellent pay and benefits. It has said during past calls for strikes over 90% of employees in the logistic centres worked as normal.

Court critical of German curb on Facebook data gathering

DUESSELDORF (Reuters) – A German court on Wednesday criticised curbs on data collection imposed on Facebook by the country’s antitrust watchdog, in an indication that it may find in favour of the social network’s appeal against the two-year-old order.

“We criticise the decision of the Federal Cartel Office,” Juergen Kuehnen, the presiding judge at the Higher Regional Court in Duesseldorf, told a hearing.

The cartel office ordered Facebook in February 2019 to curb its data collection practices, saying that the world’s largest social media company had abused its market dominance to gather information about its users without their consent.

Facebook appealed that decision and, in the last significant development in the case, the German Federal Court reinstated the restrictions last June pending a resolution of the high-stakes legal battle.

The case has thrown up questions over whether personal data protection – a hot-button issue in Germany – is a matter properly addressed under competition law or whether it would be better covered by the European Union’s privacy rules.

At NATO, Blinken warns Germany over Nord Stream 2

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Tuesday the Nord Stream 2 pipeline being built from Russia to Germany ran counter to the European Union’s own interests and could undermine Ukraine.

Germany is pushing for the pipeline’s completion, despite sustained U.S. opposition over more than a decade. Speaking on his first visit to NATO, Blinken said he was due to meet his German counterpart, Heiko Maas, to discuss the issue.

“President (Joe) Biden has been very clear, he believes the pipeline is a bad idea, bad for Europe, bad for the United States, ultimately it is in contradiction to the EU’s own security goals,” Blinken said as he met NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.

“It has the potential to undermine the interests of Ukraine, Poland and a number of close partners and allies,” Blinken said, saying that a U.S. law required Washington to impose sanctions on companies participating in the Nord Stream 2 project.

Nord Stream 2 will bypass Ukraine, a Western ally, potentially depriving it of valuable transit fees. It will also increase European energy dependency on Russia and compete with shipments of U.S. liquefied natural gas.

The pipeline is already around 95% built, and could be finished by September, analysts who monitor tracking data say.

The United States fears Russia could use Nord Stream 2 as leverage to weaken EU states by increasing dependency on Moscow.

Analysis: Electric shock – German auto stocks get a new lease of life

LONDON (Reuters) – Volkswagen and BMW’s plans to grab market share in the fast-growing electric car market and challenge Tesla could shift the dial for their cheaply priced shares.

A deadline set by many countries to go carbon-free by 2050 has led to rising adoption of zero-emission vehicles and Tesla has been at the forefront of this transformation, selling long-range battery electric vehicles (BEVs).

Despite a recent pullback, its stock has soared 650% in the last year, helped also by a cult following for CEO Elon Musk.

But it is no longer the only electrification play in town.

Volkswagen, the German company competing with Toyota to be the world’s biggest vehicle seller by volume, laid out its ambitious plan to turn 70% of European sales at its core VW brand electric during its “power day” last Monday.

The plan, months in the making, has helped to fuel a Tesla-esque rally in the 83-year old company’s shares, with CEO Herbert Diess even taking to Twitter, Elon Musk-style to crow as the company’s market value crossed 100 billion euros ($119 billion) earlier this month.

The stock is now up 52% year-to-date, taking its market value to 143 billion euros.

“With VW’s CEO really pushing the message on BEVs across all channels (conventional media, investors as well as Twitter and LinkedIn) we believe the private investors are picking up on this story and could be quite a powerful force by themselves,” said Barclays analyst Kai Alexander Mueller.

German rival BMW, meanwhile, said on Wednesday it was aiming for half of its sales to be non-fossil fuel vehicles by 2030, and that around 90% of its market categories would have fully-electric models available by 2023.Slideshow ( 2 images )

REBIRTH

“No one can know today who will win in the global electric car market, but while there is greater balance among the players, in stock market valuations there is unprecedented imbalance between early adopters and those who are becoming so,” said Alessandro Fugnoli, a strategist at Kairos in Milan, calling it “the rebirth of the German auto”.

UBS recently forecast Volkswagen would match Tesla’s output by 2025 and raised the price target on the company’s shares by 50% to 300 euros – the most bullish target among the 28 analysts covering the stock. The stock is currently at about 223 euros.

Valuation comparisons are also supportive.

At 160 times forward earnings, Tesla is by far the most expensive stock in the autos sector, whereas Volkswagen and BMW still trade at only around 9-10 times forward earnings.

“European carmakers, from a size and balance sheet perspective are well positioned to re-orient themselves towards electrification and they have strong distribution platforms,” said Sunil Krishnan, head of multi-asset funds at Aviva Investors.

What’s more, Volkswagen is also considering listing luxury car arm Porsche AG to help raise funds for investments in software and electric vehicles, according to a source.

STILL A VALUE PLAY

Despite its recent gains, Volkswagen’s market value is still only about a quarter of Tesla’s, and several analysts see further room for gains at both the German group and across the European autos industry.

“Abandoned by all, and in particular by investors, the German auto industry, after eating a lot of dust and falling in a state of disrepair, understands that adherence to electrics must be total,” Fugnoli said.

As well as lifting German autos stocks, the electrification drive is helping to boost broader European equity markets, which have long underperformed those in the United States.

Germany’s DAX has been setting new record highs in March.

With positioning and flows into European equities still relatively weak, some investors think that could soon change. BofA’s weekly flow data for March 10-17 showed fund managers withdrew $1 billion from Europe, while pumping a record $53 billion into U.S. equities.

Still, few think European indexes will attract the frenzied buying seen by tech stocks on the U.S. Nasdaq in recent years.

“In Europe, it will remain a stock specific issue for a while, we won’t be looking at the Euro50 this year as a tech index,” Aviva’s Kirshnan said.

“But these things can change quickly – look how quickly VW moved up in the market cap pecking order.”

GRAPHIC: Market cap race: Tesla vs. top car sellers –

Reuters Graphic

Covid: Germany warns of ‘exponential’ rise in coronavirus cases

Coronavirus cases are rising exponentially in Germany, officials warn, as continental Europe braces for a third wave of infections.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it was likely that the country would now need to apply an “emergency brake” and re-impose lockdown measures.

France, Poland and other nations are also reintroducing restrictions.

German Health Minister Jens Spahn has said that Europe lacks the vaccines needed to significantly reduce cases.

“We have to be honest about the situation – in Europe we don’t have enough vaccines to stop a third wave through vaccinations alone,” he told reporters. 

The vaccine rollout across the EU has been hindered by delayed deliveries as well as the suspension in several countries of the use of the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine, over fears of possible side effects.

On Friday, Ms Merkel defended Germany’s decision to temporarily suspend the rollout of the vaccine and said she did not believe its reputation had been damaged.

“I would get vaccinated with AstraZeneca,” she said, adding: “I would like to wait until it’s my turn.”

What’s the situation in Germany? 

The increase in reported cases in Germany is said to be fuelled by outbreaks among younger people. 

“The numbers are rising, the share of mutations is large and there are some fairly challenging weeks ahead of us,” Mr Spahn said.

Ms Merkel said she had hoped lockdown measures would not need to be reintroduced so soon after easing restrictions, but that “sadly” developments meant that it was looking unavoidable.

“We agreed that, should the seven-day incidence rate exceed 100 per 100,000 people in a region or state, we will go back to the restrictions which were in place until 7 March – we called it the emergency brake.”

Ministers are particularly concerned about the Easter holidays. They are urging people not to travel and to limit gatherings to immediate family.

Just 8% of Germany’s population has so far received a first dose of vaccine, although the government on Friday resumed the rollout of the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab.

Vice-president of the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases, Lars Schaade, warned of the possibility of “many severe cases and deaths, and hospitals that are overwhelmed”.

The RKI has said that cases in Germany are rising at a “very clearly exponential rate”. 

What’s the latest on the AstraZeneca vaccine?

Despite assurances from the European medicines regulator that the AstraZeneca vaccine is safe and effective, some countries remain reluctant to resume their campaigns using the jab. 

Finland’s health authority has announced a pause in its use of the vaccine that will last at least a week. 

The move, which follows two reports of blood clots in patients who had received the jab in the country, was said to be a precautionary measure. 

Meanwhile, Sweden, Denmark and Norway said on Friday that they needed more time to determine whether they should resume AstraZeneca inoculations. 

Germany, Italy, France, Spain and the Netherlands are among the countries that have restarted their AstraZeneca vaccination campaigns. 

Health authorities in France have recommended that the vaccine be offered only to people aged 55 and over. 

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) reviewed the jab after 13 European countries suspended use of the vaccine over fears of a link to blood clots.

It found the jab was “not associated” with a higher risk of clots.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has urged countries to continue using the AstraZeneca vaccine.

On Friday, experts at the WHO said the vaccine had “tremendous potential to prevent infections and reduce deaths across the world”. 

“The available data do not suggest any overall increase in clotting conditions such as deep venous thrombosis or pulmonary embolism following administration of Covid-19 vaccines,” the WHO’s Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety said in a statement.

What’s happening in France and Poland?

Some 21 million people in 16 areas of France, including the capital Paris, will be placed under Covid lockdown measures from midnight on Friday as the country fears a third wave.

Trains leaving Paris for parts of the country where lockdown restrictions do not apply, such as Brittany and Lyon, were reportedly fully booked hours before the measures were due to come into effect. Traffic jams were reported on several roads leaving the capital. 

In Poland, coronavirus cases are continuing to surge with new daily infections reaching levels not seen since the second wave peaked in November. 

A three-week partial lockdown is being introduced on Saturday to try to slow the spread of Covid-19. Shops, hotels, cultural and sporting facilities will close across the country.

Volkswagen overtakes SAP to become Germany’s most valuable blue-chip

(Reuters) – Volkswagen overtook software maker SAP on Wednesday as the most valuable company in Germany’s blue-chip DAX index, as investors warm to the carmaker’s plans to take on Tesla.

Volkswagen shares rose as much as 12%, giving the company a market valuation of more than 136 billion euros ($162 billion), compared with SAP’s 127 billion.

Volkswagen shares have gained 47% year-to-date, supported by a raft of announcements on its electric vehicle expansion strategy, which culminated in a “Power Day” this week including plans to build six gigafactories in Europe by 2030.

Chief Executive Herbert Diess said on Tuesday he thought Volkswagen, the world’s second-largest carmaker after Toyota, was worth 200 billion euros, still a far cry from Tesla’s $650 billion market value.

($1 = 0.8401 euros)

Apple to set up silicon design centre in Germany, invest – $1.2 billion

Apple said on Wednesday it would establish a European silicon design centre in Munich, Germany, and invest more than 1 billion euros ($1.2 billion) over the next three years in expanding its team there and in research and development.

Munich is already Apple’s largest engineering hub in Europe, with close to 1,500 engineers from 40 countries working in areas including power management design, application processors, and wireless technologies.

The new facility will be home to Apple’s growing cellular unit, and Europe’s largest R&D site for mobile wireless semiconductors and software, Apple said in a statement, adding that the team would focus on 5G and other wireless technologies.

The expansion follows a $600 million deal struck by Apple with Anglo-German chip designer Dialog Semiconductor in 2018 to bring in-house the teams designing the main power chips used in its iPhone and other devices.

German business decries gradual easing of coronavirus curbs as ‘disaster’

German business groups expressed dismay on Thursday after Chancellor Angela Merkel and state leaders agreed a gradual easing of coronavirus curbs but added an “emergency brake” to reimpose restrictions if case numbers get out of control.

“The results of the coronavirus summit are a disaster for the retail sector,” said Stefan Genth, chief executive of the HDE retail association.

Under the five-stage plan agreed late on Wednesday, up to five people from two households will be allowed to meet from March 8, with children under 14 exempt. Some shops, including book stores and garden centres, can reopen.

Other retailers can only reopen in regions where case numbers are below 50 cases per 100,000 people over seven days. If the incidence rises above 50, ‘click and meet’ restrictions kick in, whereby customers book a slot to go to the store.

On Thursday, Germany’s seven-day case average rose to 64.7 from 64 on Wednesday. New infections increased by 11,912 to 2,471,942 and the death toll rose by 359 to 71,240.

“The stable incidence of 50 prescribed for opening shops is not in sight,” the HDE said, adding that retailers were likely to lose another 10 billion euros ($12.1 billion) in sales by the end of March compared to 2019.

Merkel’s chief of staff Helge Braun defended the decision to ease curbs only gradually, telling ARD public broadcaster that the emergency brake for regions with incidence rates above 100 was needed to avoid a third wave of infections.

“That’s very important… because the opening steps come at a time when the numbers are slightly going up again and the British mutant is becoming the most common virus type in our country. So we have to remain cautious”, Braun said.

The HDE was sceptical about the possibility of shopping by appointment, noting that personnel and operating costs would probably be higher than the turnover.

Hans Peter Wollseifer, president of the association representing skilled trades, called for faster progress on vaccination and mass testing for COVID-19.

“In order to prevent the death of businesses on a broad front, economic life must be made possible again as quickly as possible,” Wollseifer said. “The decisions taken now do not do justice to this.”

He called for other criteria had to be taken more into account instead of just focusing on the level of infections, such as the situation in intensive care units in hospitals as well as progress in testing and vaccination.

($1 = 0.8295 euros)

German lawmakers turn sights on finance ministers in Wirecard fraud fiasco

Fresh from toppling the head of Germany’s top financial regulator last week, lawmakers are turning their fire on finance minister Olaf Scholz and his deputy Joerg Kukies.

As their inquiry into the collapse of Wirecard gathers pace, it has put Germany’s biggest fraud centre stage in national elections in which Scholz wants to stand for chancellor.

“The focus of the parliamentary inquiry will more and more shift to the role of Scholz and his ministry,” Florian Toncar, a lawmaker involved in the investigation said.

The inquiry into the implosion of a payments company which was once worth $28 billion and hailed as a German success story has embarrassed the country’s governing centrist coalition.

Scholz and Kukies, who deny responsibility for failings which led to Wirecard’s collapse, have responded with reforms to the structure and leadership of financial watchdog BaFin. They are due to announce further changes on Tuesday.

But lawmakers are growing impatient, with some such as Danyal Bayaz saying Scholz has been slow to respond.

“The tough questions about political responsibilities only start now,” Fabio De Masi, one of the lawmakers driving a parliamentary inquiry into the affair, told Reuters.

Scholz’s Social Democrats (SPD) have been in a coalition government with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) for years and he hopes to succeed her as chancellor in elections later this year following her decision to retire.

But the SPD is struggling with voters, polling a distant third behind the CDU and the Greens, while criticism of Scholz is also emanating from within Merkel’s party.

“Consequences for the finance ministry are now overdue,” CDU parliamentarian Hans Michelbach said.

KUKIES CONNECTIONS

Kukies’ role has also come under close scrutiny and lawmakers have highlighted multiple discussions he held with regulators, Wirecard executives, bankers and others.

The Finance Ministry said these were part of his job.

Lawmakers say they also want to examine a 100 million euro ($121 million) loan to Wirecard by a subsidiary of state bank KfW in September 2018, some two years before its collapse.

One person with knowledge of the matter told Reuters that the money was unsecured and that 90% of the loan by KfW’s IPEX bank had been written off.

The finance ministry said that the bank’s supervisory board, on which Kukies sat, was not involved and learned of the loan only in the middle of last year.

The lawmakers are also calling for details of communications between Kukies and the CEO of Goldman Sachs in Germany, his former employer, De Masi said.

Goldman Sachs declined to comment, referring to Wolfgang Fink’s statement that he had no contact with officials on Wirecard.

The Finance Ministry also said there had been no contact.

German lawmakers are not the only ones to see the root cause of BaFin’s problems in the finance ministry, a weakness also flagged by European regulators last year.

Hans-Peter Burghof, a professor at the University of Hohenheim, said the ministry had years ago hired many of the agency’s top staff. “They lost this spirit of independence.”

Coronavirus: Germany facing ’10 tough weeks’ of vaccine shortages

Germany is likely to face a shortage of coronavirus vaccines until at least April, the country’s health minister has warned.

“We will still have at least 10 tough weeks with a shortage,” Jens Spahn wrote on Twitter.

The pace of Germany’s rollout has been criticised, and it has failed to meet its own daily target of vaccinations.

Mr Spahn’s comments come amid a row between the EU and the vaccine maker AstraZeneca over supply shortages.

The UK-based company has said production issues at its Europe-based plants means it will be unable to deliver the promised number of doses to the 27-member bloc.

But the EU said the firm must honour its commitments and deliver the jabs by diverting stock from the UK.

On Thursday, Mr Spahn called for a vaccination summit involving pharmaceutical companies, manufacturers and politicians to explore how the rollout could be accelerated.

“Then we will see… where we can support the industry,” he said. “We are going through at least 10 tough weeks. We should spend that by working together.”

Vial of vaccine from Pfizer-BioNTech

PAEU and vaccines

  • 448m EU population
  • 8.4m People received vaccine so far (1.9%)
  • 2.3bn Doses ordered overall
  • 400m Doses ordered from AstraZeneca (Not yet EMA approved) – 17% of total

Sources: EU/Our World in Data

Earlier this week, Mr Spahn backed the EU’s proposal to create a register of vaccine exports in order to monitor where doses are being sent.

He also said the falling number of cases in Germany was encouraging and suggested schools could reopen once the current lockdown ends on 14 February.

Meanwhile, the country is preparing to bar travellers from the UK, Brazil and South Africa over concerns over new variants. “We are co-ordinating towards the aim of refusing inbound travel from mutation areas,” Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said.

What’s happening with the rollout elsewhere?

The pace of the EU’s vaccination programme has been criticised in recent weeks, with a number of countries failing to hit their own targets. Officials have blamed a combination of logistical and supply issues.

In Spain, authorities in the capital Madrid have suspended all first doses of the vaccination for at least two weeks because of the ongoing shortages.

A number of other regions, including Catalonia in the north-east, are having similar problems with stock. Catalan officials believe their 30,000 remaining doses will run out this week.

Image shows vaccine doses by population in the EU

Many countries are facing similar shortages due to delays in shipments of both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, which are the only ones currently approved for use in the EU.

There was added confusion in the Czech Republic on Wednesday, after the health ministry called for a two-week halt to new vaccinations due to supply issues only for their statement to be denied by the prime minister.

“This [health ministry statement] was unnecessary,” Prime Minister Andrej Babis said. “The vaccination centres need to deal with this themselves.”

Elsewhere, Portugal is recording a high number of new infections and reports suggest hospitals in Lisbon are struggling to cope with the influx of patients.

A record 293 deaths were recorded in the country on Wednesday, and doctors from the German army have been deployed to Lisbon to help manage the spike.

Cases have also increased in parts of France and President Emmanuel Macron is reportedly mulling a stricter lockdown.

What’s behind the supply problems?

The EU signed a deal with AstraZeneca in August for 300 million doses, with an option for 100 million more, but the UK-Swedish company has reported production delays at plants in the Netherlands and Belgium.

AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot said production was “basically two months behind where we wanted to be”.https://emp.bbc.com/emp/SMPj/2.39.12/iframe.htmlmedia captionStella Kyriakides: “AstraZeneca needs to deliver on its commitments”

The EU had hoped that as soon as approval was given – probably on Friday – delivery would start straight away, with some 80 million doses arriving in the 27 nations by March. But the production issues have dented this hope.

Reports said last week the EU would get 60% fewer vaccine doses – about 50 million jabs – than promised in the first quarter of the year.

The bloc is also facing delays with supplies of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, and it has a much bigger deal with the US-German vaccine maker.

Both the EU and AstraZeneca have vowed to work together to resolve the problems, and crisis talks were held on Wednesday.