Critics Say UBS Let Off Too Easy (WSJ)
Our goal here is not to destroy a major financial institution,” Lanny Breuer, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s criminal division, said Wednesday after the $1.5 billion fine against UBS was announced. Prosecutors have to at least “evaluate whether or not innocent people might lose jobs” and other types of potential collateral damage. Sen. Charles Grassley (R., Iowa), a Senate Finance Committee member, said he is unsatisfied that prosecutors didn’t go higher up the corporate ladder at UBS than its Japanese subsidiary…”The reluctance of U.S. prosecutors to file criminal charges over big-time bank fraud is frustrating and hard to understand,” Mr. Grassley said. The $1.5 billion fine is a “spit in the ocean compared to the money lost by borrowers at every level, including taxpayers.”
Regulatory ‘Whale’ Hunt Advances (WSJ)
The first regulatory ripples from the “London Whale” trading fiasco are about to hit J.P. Morgan Chase. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, led by Comptroller Thomas Curry, is preparing to take a formal action demanding that J.P. Morgan remedy the lapses in risk controls that allowed a small group of London-based traders to rack up losses of more than $6 billion this year, according to people familiar with the company’s discussions with regulators.
Khuzami To Leave SEC Enforcement Post (WSJ)
Robert Khuzami, head of the Securities and Exchange Commission’s enforcement unit, plans to leave the agency as soon as next month, a person familiar with the expected move said Thursday.
Boehner Drops ‘Plan B’ as Budget Effort Turns to Disarray (Bloomberg)
House Speaker John Boehner scrapped a plan to allow higher tax rates on annual income above $1 million, yielding to anti-tax resistance within his own party and throwing already-stalled budget talks deeper into turmoil. He will hold a news conference today at 10 a.m. Washington time to discuss the next steps in the budget dispute, a Republican leadership aide said. House members and senators won’t vote on the end-of-year budget issues until after Christmas, giving them less than a week to reach agreement to avert tax increases and spending cuts set to take effect in January. The partisan divide hardened yesterday, making the path to a deal more uncertain.
BlackRock Sees Distortions in Country Ratings Seeking S&P Change (Bloomberg)
Credit rating companies are distorting capital markets by assigning the same debt ranking to countries from Italy to Thailand and Kazakhstan, according to BlackRock, the world’s biggest money manager. While 23 countries share the BBB+ to BBB- levels assessed by Standard & Poor’s, the lowest investment grades, up from 15 in 2008 at the beginning of the financial crisis, their debt to gross domestic product ratios range from 12 percent for Kazakhstan to 44 percent for Thailand and 126 percent for Italy, International Monetary Fund estimates show. The cost of insuring against a default by Italy, ranked BBB+, over the next five years is almost triple that for Thailand, which has the same rating. For BlackRock, which oversees $3.7 trillion in assets, the measures are so untrustworthy that the firm is setting up its own system to gauge the risk of investing in government bonds. This year, the market moved in the opposite direction suggested by changes to levels and outlooks 53 percent of the time, data compiled by Bloomberg show. “The rating agencies were very, very slow to the game,” Benjamin Brodsky, a managing director at BlackRock International Ltd., said in a Nov. 23 interview from London. “They all came after the fact. For us, this is not good enough.”
If You Bought Greek Bonds in January You Earned 80% (Bloomberg)
Greek government bonds returned 80 percent this year, compared with 3.7 percent for German bunds and 6.1 percent for Spanish securities, Bank of America Merrill Lynch indexes show. It’s the first year since 2009 that investors made money on Greek securities, with 2012 providing the biggest advance since Merrill began compiling the data in 1998, according to figures that don’t reflect this month’s debt buyback by the government.
Texas lawmaker: ‘Ping-pongs’ deadlier than guns (The Ticket)
Incoming Texas State Rep. Kyle Kacal says guns don’t kill people—ping-pong kills people. “I’ve heard of people being killed playing ping-pong—ping-pongs are more dangerous than guns,” he says. “Flat-screen TVs are injuring more kids today than anything.” The lifetime rancher, who will take his seat in 2013 as a freshman, says that new gun restrictions are unnecessary. Kacal, who reportedly operates a hunting business, notably came out against a bill instructing Texans how to secure their assault weapons. “People know what they need to do to be safe. We don’t need to legislate that—it’s common sense,” he said. “Once everyone’s gun is locked up, then the bad guys know everyone’s gun is locked up.”
Flare-up in war of words between Ackman, Herbalife (NYP)
“This is the highest conviction I’ve ever had about any investment I’ve ever made,” Ackman said yesterday in a series of interviews. The investor told CNBC that he expects the Federal Trade Commission will take a “hard look” at the company. The heavyweight battle picked up steam over the last two days and has become, in the typically slow days leading up to Christmas, one of the most-watched events on Wall Street. As the financial world watched, Herbalife CEO Michael Johnson returned fire — calling Ackman’s statements “bogus” and asking the Securities and Exchange Commission to probe the motives of Ackman and his Pershing Square Capital hedge fund. A spokeswoman said if Johnson were allowed the chance to face-off against the investor at the Downtown conference, the CEO “would have been able to tear Mr. Ackman’s premises and interpretation of our business model apart.”
Citigroup Said to Give CCA Managers 75% Stake in Funds for Free (Bloomberg)
Among Vikram Pandit’s last jobs as Citigroup’s chief executive officer was to decide the fate of the bank’s hedge-fund unit, which employs some of his oldest colleagues. He agreed to give them most of it for free. While Citigroup is keeping a 25 percent stake, managers at the Citi Capital Advisors unit will pay nothing for the remaining 75 percent of that business as it becomes a new firm managing as much as $2.5 billion of the bank’s money, according to people with knowledge of the plan. The lender will pay the executives fees while gradually pulling out assets to comply with impending U.S. rules, said the people, who requested anonymity because the terms aren’t public. The deal was Citigroup’s response to the Volcker rule.
Peter Madoff Is Sentenced to 10 Years for His Role in Fraud (Dealbook)
A lawyer by training, Peter Madoff is the second figure in the scandal to be sentenced. His older brother, Bernard, pleaded guilty in March 2009 and is serving a prison term of 150 years.
UK Boom in Pound Shops: An Austerity-Proof Business Model? (CNBC)
Pound shops in the U.K. are reporting massive increases in profits across the board showing that the formula “pile ‘em high and sell ‘em cheap” has particular resonance in Britain’s current age of austerity. Names like “Poundstretcher,” “Poundland” and “99p Stores” in the U.K. have become high street stalwarts as other brands go bust. The chains, immediately recognizable on price point, are opening new stores and reporting record results reflecting the increasing public demand for cheaper goods. U.K. based “Poundland” is one such chain reporting steep sales growth as its range of 3,000 items — from umbrellas and pregnancy tests (it sells 14,000 a week) to bird feeders and bags of crisps all priced at one pound – resonates with cash-strapped Britons. In the year to April 2012, the Warburg Pincus owned company said its turnover increased 22 percent to 780 million pounds ($1.25 billion) and profits increased by 50 percent to 18.3 million pounds from last year’s figure of 12.2 million.
Former Olympian Suzy Favor Hamilton admits to life as a $600-an-hour hooker (NYP)
Steamy, lingerie-clad images of the champion runner helped tout her services on the Web site of a Vegas escort agency called Haley Heston’s Private Collection, where Favor Hamilton operated under the name “Kelly Lundy,” according to The Smoking Gun. Customers could hire her lithe Olympic-class runner’s body for $600 an hour, $1,000 for two hours and $6,000 for 24 hours. The site described her build as “athletic,” her bosom as “perky,” and her belly button as “pierced.” She was willing to provide horny customers the full “girlfriend experience,” and would also engage in a certain undisclosed sex act for an extra $300. “I enjoy men of all shapes, sizes and colors, and I have an affinity for women (I am bisexual),” “Kelly” wrote on her page on the escort service’s Web site. “I consider dates with couples an experience to cherish.” Her sexual skills reportedly earned her a high rating on The Erotic Review, a Web site frequented by prostitution fans. Favor Hamilton’s lusty secret life might have stayed secret if she had not made the mistake of revealing her true identity to some of her wealthy johns, who went to the media.