Opening Bell: 08.16.11

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Obama Says Debt Limit Battle Hurt The Economy (Bloomberg)
After spending most of the summer in Washington fighting with congressional Republicans over raising the nation’s debt ceiling, Obama is on a three-day trip through the Midwest that the administration has billed as a chance to listen to the public’s concerns about jobs and the direction of the country. He told his audiences that “partisan brinksmanship” has poisoned the dialogue in the nation’s capital.

High Frequency Traders Score Big (WSJ)
High-frequency traders have roughly tripled their stock trades this month, estimates Tabb Group, a markets-research firm in New York. That has boosted their share of overall U.S. stock trading volume to about 65%, up from about 53% during the months before the August turmoil, according to the research firm.

Selloff Raises Stakes in Sarkozy-Merkel Talks (Reuters)
Sarkozy, who broke off his summer holiday last week to deal with the market meltdown in French stocks, is to meet with Prime Minister Francois Fillon over lunch to fine tune France's position before he meets Merkel.

Deutsche Börse Unit Sued Over Alleged Iran Funds (WSJ)
A group of nearly 1,000 American victims of international terrorism is suing Clearstream Banking SA of Luxembourg, a unit of Germany's Deutsche Börse AG, for allegedly assisting Iran in fraudulently securing the release of $250 million in frozen assets and in moving it out of the U.S. financial system, according to legal documents recently unsealed by a federal court in New York. The plaintiffs—family members of the 241 U.S. servicemen killed in the 1983 bombing of a Marine Corps barracks in Beirut—are seeking the funds as partial payment of the $2.7 billion that a federal judge in 2003 ordered Iran to pay the victims of the bombing. The judge ruled that Tehran had orchestrated the attack, at the time the largest terrorist act ever committed against U.S. citizens. Iran has denied any role in the bombing.

Hamptons Scene: Alec Baldwin, Richard Prince, Donald Mullen (Bloomberg)
Alec Baldwin made his art-buying intentions clear Friday night at the Summer Gala Benefit Auction for Guild Hall, the East Hampton art and entertainment complex. “Just get the hell out of my way when Clifford Ross comes up,” he said under a tent on the grounds of a Long Island estate near Guild Hall. “I really want it and I’m going to get it.” When Ross’s 2008 “Hurricane LI,” a scene of crashing waves, came up for auction, Baldwin playfully glared and glowered at competing bidder Donald Mullen, Goldman Sachs Group Inc.’s global head of credit...Mullen, who wore his sunglasses most of the night, paid $100,000 for a Barbara Kruger print of a man wearing a blindfold over which appears the sentence, in red lettering, “He entered shop after shop, priced nothing, spoke no word, and looked at all objects with a wild and vacant stare.”

Starbucks’ Schultz Urges Fellow CEOs to Halt Campaign Giving (Bloomberg)
“I am asking that all of us forego political contributions until the Congress and the President return to Washington and deliver a fiscally disciplined long-term debt and deficit plan to the American people,” Schultz wrote in an e-mail sent to business leaders yesterday. Among the recipients of Schultz’s e-mail were NYSE Euronext CEO Duncan Niederauer and Bob Greifeld, CEO of Nasdaq OMX Group Inc., who in turn e-mailed letters to companies listed on their respective exchanges.

Skowron Admits Drug Tips (NYP)
Joseph “Chip” Skowron III, the doctor-turned-trader who nearly took down $7 billion hedge-fund giant FrontPoint Partners, has owned up to his insider-trading shenanigans. Some nine months after he was linked to an insider-trading probe and fired from FrontPoint, Skowron, 42, pleaded guilty to paying for illegal tips on the progress of a clinical drug trial. “I knew my actions were wrong, and I deeply regret my participation in these activities,” Skowron told Manhattan federal judge Denise Cote yesterday.
The Greenwich, Conn., resident faces up to five years in prison for conspiracy and obstruction of justice. Skowron also agreed to forfeit $5 million to the government. His sentencing is set for Nov. 18.

Manchester United Seeks Singapore IPO (WSJ)
U.K. soccer club Manchester United Ltd. is planning to raise around US$1 billion from a Singapore initial public offering in the fourth quarter, people familiar with the situation said Tuesday, in the latest foreign listing to tap Asia's funding markets.

S&P Downgraded by Investors After China Upgrade (Bloomberg)
Since S&P, the New York-based subsidiary of McGraw-Hill Cos., dropped the U.S. to AA+ from AAA on Aug. 5, the yield on the 10-year Treasury note, a benchmark for everything from home mortgages to car loans, has declined to as low as 2.03 percent from a high this year of 3.77 percent, with American debt on pace in August for the biggest monthly gain since December 2008. Interest rates on American bonds are lower today than on most of the countries with AAA ratings by S&P and the Treasury recently financed its outstanding debt at the lowest cost ever. If anything, the decision from S&P, the largest ratings provider, resulted in an upgrade of U.S. securities as the American bond market outperformed world bond indexes during the period since the downgrade by S&P.

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Two Firms, One Trail, In Probe Of Ratings (WSJ) The Justice Department last week went after Standard & Poor's Ratings Services—not rival Moody's Investors Service —with a $5 billion fraud lawsuit. Some former Moody's employees think they know why. The Moody's Corp. unit took careful steps to avoid creating a trove of potentially embarrassing employee messages like those that came back to haunt S&P in the U.S.'s lawsuit, the former employees say. Moody's analysts in recent years had limited access to instant-message programs and were directed by executives to discuss sensitive matters face to face, according to former employees. The crackdown on communications came after a 2005 investigation by then New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer into Moody's ratings on some mortgage-backed deals, the former employees say. Former employees also point to an April 2001 settlement between Moody's and the Justice Department's antitrust division over the destruction of documents amid a civil inquiry by the agency. Moody's pleaded to one count of obstruction of justice and paid a fine of $195,000. Moody's called that situation "an isolated incident" and said it cooperated with the Justice Department's investigation. That settlement helped lay the groundwork for heightened concerns about sensitive documents, former Moody's employees say. Credit Rating Victims Didn’t Know S&P’s Toxic AAA Born of Greed (Bloomberg) When Charles O. Prince III was chief executive officer of Citigroup Inc. from 2003 to 2007, he didn’t know about a surge in mortgage risk that his own investment bankers loaded on to its bank’s books. Because such debt carried top credit ratings from firms such as Standard & Poor’s, few financial executives paid attention to the potential dangers. When Charles O. Prince III was chief executive officer of Citigroup Inc. from 2003 to 2007, he didn’t know about a surge in mortgage risk that his own investment bankers loaded on to its bank’s books. Because such debt carried top credit ratings from firms such as Standard & Poor’s, few financial executives paid attention to the potential dangers. Makeover At Barclays Won't Be Extreme (WSJ) Mr. Jenkins's cuts are likely to be focused on areas where Barclays lags far behind competitors, executives say. That could include parts of the equities sales-and-trading businesses in Asia and continental Europe, according to analysts and people at other banks. Those are businesses in which Mr. Diamond spearheaded an ambitious expansion but where Barclays remains a second-tier player. But other changes are driven more by polishing the bank's tarnished image than they are by the need to boost profits. A few business lines that don't seem "socially useful" are likely to end up on the chopping block, executives say. For example, Barclays plans to retreat at least in part from the lucrative trading of "soft commodities" such as coffee, executives say. That is a concession to mounting criticism that speculative trading in those commodities contributes to food-price inflation. "We're a big player, but does it pass the smell test of what society would think of this?" a senior executive said. Mr. Jenkins is also expected to trumpet plans to dramaticallyscale back Barclays's tax-planning business, in which it advises clients on how to minimize their tax burdens. The bank will no longer help clients put together transactions that have no businesspurpose other than reducing taxes. "Such activity is incompatible with our purpose," Mr. Jenkins will say on Tuesday, according to the extract of his speech. But the bank isn't expected to exit the business altogether. It will continue to offer tax-minimizing advice. People familiar with the matter say the business has been hiring employees recently. Putin Turns Black Gold Into Bullion as Russia Out-Buys World (Bloomberg) Not only has Putin made Russia the world’s largest oil producer, he’s also made it the biggest gold buyer. His central bank has added 570 metric tons of the metal in the past decade, a quarter more than runner-up China, according to IMF data compiled by Bloomberg. The added gold is also almost triple the weight of the Statue of Liberty. White House Warns Coming Austerity Will Hit Economy Hard (Reuters) Automatic government spending cuts due to go into effect March 1 unless Congress acts to prevent them would bite deeply into programs affecting many Americans, such as law enforcement, small business assistance, food safety and tax collection, the White House said on Friday. The administration urged Congress to blunt the effect of the reductions, which the White House said would slash non-defense programs by 9 percent across the board and defense programs by 13 percent, the White House said. "These large and arbitrary cuts will have severe impacts across the government," the administration said in a statement. World's most prolific stripper calls it a day (DM) For two decades, the Liverpudlian father-of-three has been the Usain Bolt of the naked dash. In 1995, he leapt naked on to Fred Talbot’s weather map on daytime TV show This Morning, and a year later he appeared nude on the green during the Open at Royal Lytham. Then, in 2004, he was fined £550 for trespassing after streaking across the pitch at the Super Bowl in Texas – a match watched by 130 million people in 87 countries. For good measure, Mark has also stripped off at Wembley, Wimbledon and Ascot. ‘There’s no major venue or event I haven’t done,’ he says proudly. ‘But I’m nearly 49 now and my children have begged me to stop. It’s time. I’m not ready for my slippers just yet, but gravity’s against me.’ Treasury Pick Lew Faces Grilling on Citi Bonus, Cayman Account (Reuters) Jack Lew, President Barack Obama's pick to be U.S. treasury secretary, is expected to come under fire for the administration's budget policies and a nearly $1 million bonus he received from bailed-out bank Citigroup when he testifies on Wednesday before a Senate panel vetting him for the job. The hearing will briefly become ground zero in the pitched political battle over the federal budget, with Republicans set to attack over what they contend is Lew's devil-may-care attitude to reducing the U.S. budget deficit. "He'll be used as a political ping-pong ball," said Ted Truman, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for InternationalEconomics who served briefly as an adviser to Obama's former treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner. Treasury Eases Off On Bank Rules (WSJ) The proposal, which will be subject to comment before becoming a final rule, is likely to insist that financial institutions gather beneficial ownership information—who is in charge and who profits—on new corporate accounts, officials said. But in a move that could assuage some industry concerns, financial institutions wouldn't have to vet that ownership data for accuracy. Instead, they would rely on the customer to vouch for the information. With a Focus on Its Future, Financial Times Turns 125 (NYT) On Wednesday, The F.T. is celebrating its 125th birthday. The newspaper’s London headquarters along the south bank of the Thames will be lit up in pink, the color of the paper on which it has been printed since shortly after it was founded. There will be a few parties — understated, of course, for these are straitened times in the City of London, and challenging ones for the newspaper industry. Waxing Our Way To The ER (Salon) A new study from the University of California-San Diego reveals that “Emergency room visits due to pubic hair grooming mishaps,” including “lacerations,” increased fivefold between 2002 and 2010, sending an impressive 11,704 pube-scapers to the E.R. The culprits? Scissors and hot wax did some of the damage, but plain-old non-electric-razors accounted for the lion’s share, at 83 percent...The study also revealed that below-the-belt grooming isn’t just for adult ladies anymore – men accounted for 43.3 percent of the injuries, and almost 30 percent of them were girls under the age of 18. To avoid becoming yet another harrowing grooming gone bad statistic, the researchers advise hair removal aficionados to “Pay attention to where you’re placing that razor. Invest in a non-slip bath mat. And don’t shave while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.”