Opening Bell: 02.27.12

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Buffett’s Board Selects Manager to Eventually Take Over as Berkshire CEO, Won't Say Who It Is (Bloomberg)
...saying instead that directors were “enthusiastic” and have had “a great deal of exposure” to the person designated to take over as CEO. Buffett, 81, didn’t specify a timeline for the switch.

Buffett On Hormones, Housing (Berkshire Letter)
Every day we are creating more households than housing units. People may postpone hitching up during uncertain times, but eventually hormones take over. And while "doubling-up" may be the initial reaction of some during a recession, living with in-laws can quickly lose its allure. At our current annual pace of 600,000 housing starts - considerably less than the number of new households being formed - buyers and renters are sopping up what's left of the old oversupply.

Buffett Says BofA Warrants Have 'Great Value,' Praises Moynihan (Bloomberg)
"Some huge mistakes were made by prior management," wrote Buffett, 81. "Brian Moynihan has made excellent progress cleaning these up, though the completion of that process will take a number of years. Concurrently, he is nurturing a huge and attractive underlying business that will endure long after today's problems are forgotten."

Berkshire Profit Falls 30% on Insurance, Derivatives (WSJ)
Berkshire Hathaway Inc. said fourth-quarter profit fell 30% as the conglomerate's insurance units struggled and derivatives bets added less to the bottom line. Mr. Buffett, who serves as Omaha, Neb.-based Berkshire's chairman and chief executive, has urged investors to evaluate the firm by how it is growing in relation to the broader market. He often draws attention to Berkshire's book value, a measure of assets and liabilities that he says understates the company's actual value but can serve as an objective indicator of the company's performance over time. Berkshire's book value increased 4.6% in 2011, exceeding the 2.1% return of the benchmark Standard & Poor's 500 Index. It marks the first time in three years that Berkshire's book value increased more than the return of the S&P, according to data provided by Mr. Buffett on the second page of Berkshire's annual report released early Saturday.

Buffett--Adding IBM but more tech unlikely (Reuters)
Berkshire Hathaway Inc has bought more shares in International Business Machines Corp during the first quarter but is unlikely to do much more investing in the technology sector, Warren Buffett told CNBC on Monday. Buffett, asked about Apple Inc, said he has never bought the shares. He did note, though, that Apple's late CEO Steve Jobs contacted him a few years ago seeking advice about that company's substantial cash pile.

Actress Lucy Lawless arrested in oil-ship protest (AP)
Police arrested actress Lucy Lawless and five Greenpeace activists Monday, four days after they climbed onto an oil-drilling ship to prevent it from leaving a New Zealand dock. Police removed the protesters from their perch atop a 174-foot (53-meter) drilling tower on the Noble Discoverer in Port Taranaki. Chartered by oil company Shell, the ship had been due to leave over the weekend to drill five exploratory wells in the Arctic. Lawless and six activists climbed the tower early Friday to stop the ship's departure and raise awareness about Arctic oil drilling...Lawless, 43, a native New Zealander, is best known for her title role in the TV series "Xena: Warrior Princess," and more recently for starring in the Starz cable television series "Spartacus."

Anti-Greece Statements Will 'Destroy' Deal Says Greek Minister (CNBC)
Pavlos Yeroulanos, Cultural & Tourism Minister of Greece, warned: “If you are speaking with both sides of your mouth, one side to the markets and one side to the electorate, then you are going to destroy what you are trying to create. Germany needs the euro just as much as Greece does. They need to decide whether they will make a real commitment to the euro, which has been a great thing for the German economy,” he added.

Europe Left to Dig Deeper After G-20 Rebuffs Call for Help (Bloomberg)
The decision by G-20 finance ministers to fend off pleas for assistance pending an increase in the euro-area backstop puts the onus on Germany, the biggest national contributor to bailouts, to overcome its resistance to doing more. With a parliamentary vote on a second Greek aid package looming in Berlin today, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government must now decide whether to back plans at a March 1-2 European Union summit to combine rescue funds and produce a potential firewall of 750 billion euros ($1 trillion).

Geithner Says Europe Has Lowered Risks of 'Catastrophe' (Reuters)
So that's nice.

Investigators Scrutinize MF Global Wire Transfers (NYT)
Federal investigators examining the final days at MF Global and how customer money went missing are poring over scores of wire transfers in and out of the brokerage firm, including the possible movement of $325 million that may have belonged to customers, according to people briefed on the matter.

Sacha Baron Cohen as ‘The Dictator’ storms Academy Awards red carpet, dumps ashes on Ryan Seacrest (NYDN)
The 40-year-old actor showed up in full costume and full character as Admiral General Shabazz Aladeen the titular despot from his upcoming movie, “The Dictator.” "Ryan, hello! Death to the West," Cohen greeted Seacrest. When Seacrest provided the straight line as to why Cohen was carrying an urn with the late North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il’s likeness on the side, the actor explained in a thick Middle Eastern accent: “It gave me the opportunity to bring my dear friend and double tennis partner Kim Jong Il. It was his dream to come to the Oscars and be sprinkled over the red carpet and Halle Cerry's chest again."” Cohen said, before seeming to trip and dump the urn’s contents all over Seacrest’s tuxedo.

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Opening Bell: 11.30.12

Germany Approves Greek Aid (WSJ) German parliamentarians approved with an overwhelming majority a package of new aid measures for Greece Friday, clinching support for a plan to close a €14 billion ($18.17 billion) gap in the heavily indebted nation's finances and to ready a near €44 billion tranche of promised aid. The vote shows that German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been able to consolidate the support of her center-right coalition of Christian Democrats and Free Democrats, many of whom have expressed skepticism that Greece can be saved without significant costs to German taxpayers. Her coalition voted 90% in favor of the measures. Leave "fairy world" behind, Draghi tells euro zone (Reuters) "We have not yet emerged from the crisis," Draghi told Europe 1 radio. "The recovery for most of the euro zone will certainly begin in the second half of 2013." "The crisis has shown that we were living in a fairy world," the ECB chief later added at a conference with top financial officials, pointing to the unsustainable debts, weak banks and poor policy coordination that gave birth to the crisis three years ago. Obama Takes ‘Fiscal Cliff’ on the Road; Republicans Stew (CNBC) President Barack Obama, reapplying his re-election campaign theme of protecting the middle class, heads to Pennsylvania on Friday suggesting that Republicans could spoil Christmas by driving the country over the "fiscal cliff." The president's road trip, visiting a factory that makes Hasbro's [HAS 38.60 --- UNCH] Tinkertoys, is infuriating Republicans. House Speaker John Boehner called it a "victory lap" as he rejected Obama's proposals to avoid the cliff, the combination of tax increases and spending cuts set to start taking effect in January. Berkshire Hathaway, CaixaBank Agree to Reinsurance Deal (WSJ) Berkshire Hathaway will pay CaixaBank SA million €600 million ($778.7 million) for the future cash flow from a portfolio of life insurance policies, the Barcelona-based bank said Friday, a rare dip into a fiscally stressed euro-zone country for the investment firm run by Warren Buffett. If You Like Late Nights, Try Being an Analyst in Hungary (WSJ) As the clock ticked toward midnight on a recent night, stock analyst Gergely Gabler sat sleepily in his pajamas at the small desk in his bedroom, waiting. Then, just after 12, he sprang into action, evaluating the newly released earnings report of Hungary's largest bank. For the next two hours, Mr. Gabler worked on a report about OTP Bank's performance for clients of his firm, Hungarian brokerage Equilor Investments, before catching some shut eye, only to awake about 3½ hours later so he could be in his office to field questions by 7 a.m. Burning the midnight oil is a painful quarterly tradition for analysts and financial journalists in Hungary, where the country's biggest blue-chip companies publish their results in the wee hours, after markets in New York have closed and long before they open anywhere in Europe. "I'm a night owl, so I don't mind staying up," Mr. Gabler said. The hard part, the 28-year-old said, is getting out of bed the next day. That morning, he grabbed a red-and-black can of Hell, a caffeine-laden Hungarian energy drink, to fuel his workday. Moody's Puts Aston Martin on Watch for Downgrade (NYT) “The review was prompted by a significant deterioration in Aston Martin’s liquidity profile as per end September 2012, caused by a much weaker cash generation and operating performance in the third quarter than anticipated by the company and compared to Moody’s expectations,” Falk Frey, a Moody’s analyst, said in a statement. Harvard Approves BDSM Group (Crimson) It started last October with a meal in Currier dining hall with a handful of friends who shared something in common: an affinity for kinky sex. More than a year after the group first began informally meeting over meals to discuss issues and topics relating to kinky sex, Harvard College Munch has grown from seven to about 30 members and is one of 15 student organization that will be approved by the Committee on Student Life this Friday. Michael, who was granted anonymity by The Crimson to protect his privacy, is the founder of Munch, an informal lunch or dinner meeting for people across the kink community. For him, the recognition will provide a sense of ease for current and future members, knowing they are receiving institutional support. “It’s a little hyperbolic for me to get teary-eyed and paternal about sophomores, but it’s really a joy to see the experience they will have now,” Michael said. Michael said there are many benefits to being officially recognized on campus such as being able to poster for events and promote Munch’s presence...But for Michael, the biggest advantage to being recognized comes with “the fact of legitimacy,” he said. “[Our recognition] shows we are being taken seriously.” Mae, a member of the organization who asked to be identified by her middle name, said since its formation the group has provided her with a comfortable space to discuss her interests. “I didn’t think that anyone was even remotely interested [in kink] on campus,” Mae said. “It’s a community where you can feel safe, and you can feel comfortable talking about [kink].” Cohen's Damage Control (NYP) Beleaguered hedge fund honcho Steve Cohen held a conference call yesterday for his roughly 1,000 employees to explain potential civil charges against his firm, SAC Capital Advisors. The call with SAC’s employees went over similar talking points as the call with investors the previous day, according to a person familiar with the call. In the latest call, officials notified employees that last week, the $14 billion Stamford, Conn., hedge fund received a Wells Notice from the Securities and Exchange Commission tied to trading by a former portfolio manager who was arrested Nov. 20 on insider trading charges. McDonald’s Starved for Ideas as Burger King Lures Diners (Bloomberg) Burger King has been excelling at a game McDonald’s worked to perfect years ago, introducing a steady stream of new menu items, such as snack wraps and gingerbread sundaes for the holidays. McDonald’s has “not had anything to talk about of substance,” Michael Kelter, a New York-based analyst at Goldman Sachs Group Inc., said in an interview. “People are going elsewhere.” Hong Kong IPOs Generate Little Excitement (WSJ) Hong Kong appears unlikely to regain its position as the world's top venue for initial public offerings anytime soon. In recent days, the city's biggest IPO in two years drew only lukewarm support, while another deal ran up against insufficient demand and a third was postponed. Recession Left Baby Bust as U.S. Births Lowest Since 1920 (Bloomberg) The country’s birth rate fell 8 percent from 2007 to 2010, according to a Pew Research Center report. The rate dropped 6 percent for U.S.-born women and plummeted 14 percent for foreign-born females since 2007, the onset of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. The decline continued last year to the lowest point since records began in 1920. Rogue caviar fugitive Mario Garbarino admits his guilt in fishy egg smuggling scheme (NYDN) Isidoro (Mario) Garbarino, 69, who went on the lam 23 years ago pleaded guilty Thursday to smuggling $10 million worth of Russian and Iranian savruga and beluga to New York more than two decades ago. Garbarino’s plea deal requires him to pay $3 million in restitution. He also faces up to four years in prison when he is sentenced in January. Garbarino, a supplier to fancy gourmet shops including Zabar's, was indicted in 1987 for cheating the government on import duties. Feds say his Bronx company, Aquamar Gourmet Imports, engaged in an elaborate scheme to smuggle more than 100,000 pounds of the expensive delicacy from 1984 to 1987. As part of the plot, Garbarino switched the high-quality caviar with much cheaper American caviar which he then sold to Pan Am, other airlines and cruise ships operators as the real thing. In 1989, Garbarino fled. He was nabbed two months ago in Panama and extradited to New York. "Isidoro Garbarino ran his high-end importation business in a low-end way — cheating the government out of millions of dollars in tax revenues and defrauding his international clients who paid top dollar for exotic caviar they did not receive," said Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara...Garbarino admitted he “occasionally misrepresented the nature of the caviar” to avoid paying the required taxes.

Opening Bell: 01.04.13

SEC Drops Case Against Ex-Berkshire Exec Sokol (Reuters) The U.S. securities regulator has decided not to take action against David Sokol, once considered a possible candidate for the top job at Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, Sokol's lawyer told Reuters. In 2011, Buffett said Sokol violated the company's insider trading rules to score a $3 million windfall profit on shares of U.S. chemicals maker Lubrizol, which rose by nearly a third after Berkshire Hathaway announced it would buy the company. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission began investigating Sokol's investment in Lubrizol shortly after Sokol resigned from Berkshire Hathaway. Sokol's lawyer Barry Wm. Levine told Reuters late on Thursday that he was informed that the SEC had wrapped up its probe and decided not to take action against Sokol. "SEC has terminated its investigation and has concluded not to bring any proceedings against Sokol," said Levine, a lawyer at legal firm Dickstein Shapiro. Sokol has been "completely cleared" as there was no evidence against his client, Levine said. Cohen’s SAC Tops Most Profitable List Amid Insider Probes (Bloomberg) SAC Capital International, Cohen’s flagship fund, was the world’s most-profitable hedge fund in the first 10 months of 2012, earning $789.5 million for Cohen, 56, and his managers, according to Bloomberg Markets’ annual ranking of hedge funds...SAC Capital International is No. 1 not because of performance; it ties for No. 86 on that measure, with a 10 percent return in the Markets ranking of the 100 top-performing funds. Rather, the fund earned the most money because Cohen charges some of the highest fees on Wall Street. While most funds impose a 1 to 2 percent management fee and then take 15 to 20 percent of the profits, Cohen levies 3 percent and as much as 50 percent, according to investors. Geithner's Planned Departure Puts Obama In A Tough Spot (Reuters) The Treasury Department said Geithner would stick to his previously announced schedule to stay until sometime around the Jan. 21 inauguration. Obama chose Geithner to lead the just-ended negotiations with Congress to avert the Dec. 31 fiscal cliff of spending cuts and tax hikes that threatened to push the economy back into recession. But the deal, which preserved most of the Bush-era tax breaks for Americans, sets up a series of crucial fiscal deadlines by delaying automatic spending cuts until March 1 and not increasing the government's borrowing limit. That puts Obama in the tough spot of nominating another Treasury secretary and asking the Senate to approve his choice when lawmakers are in the middle of another budget battle. Egan Jones Says Further US Downgrades Unlikely (CNBC) "This latest round (of negotiations) indicates a sign of health. You have a major ideological clash going on in Congress and many people uncomfortable with it, but it is part of democracy. The more positive light is that we actually have a deal and can move forward," Sean Egan, managing director of Egan-Jones told CNBC on Friday. "We've gotten a lot more comfortable about the U.S. and we probably won't take additional negative actions for the foreseeable future," he added. Almost All of Wall Street Got 2012 Market Calls Wrong (Bloomberg) From John Paulson’s call for a collapse in Europe to Morgan Stanley’s warning that U.S. stocks would decline, Wall Street got little right in its prognosis for the year just ended. Paulson, who manages $19 billion in hedge funds, said the euro would fall apart and bet against the region’s debt. Morgan Stanley predicted the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index would lose 7 percent and Credit Suisse foresaw wider swings in equity prices. All of them proved wrong last year and investors would have done better listening to Goldman Sachs Chief Executive Officer Lloyd C. Blankfein, who said the real risk was being too pessimistic. The ill-timed advice shows that even the largest banks and most-successful investors failed to anticipate how government actions would influence markets. Unprecedented central bank stimulus in the U.S. and Europe sparked a 16 percent gain in the S&P 500 including dividends, led to a 23 percent drop in the Chicago Board Options Exchange Volatility Index, paid investors in Greek debt 78 percent and gave Treasuries a 2.2 percent return even after Warren Buffett called bonds “dangerous.” Fed Divided Over Bond Buys (WSJ) A new fault line has opened up at the Federal Reserve over how long to continue bond-buying programs aimed at spurring stronger economic growth. Minutes released Thursday of the Fed's Dec. 11-12 policy meeting showed that officials were divided. Some wanted to continue the programs through the end of 2013, others wanted to end them well before then and a minority wanted to halt the programs right away. Swiss Bank Pleads Guilty In Probe (WSJ) In the latest blow to Switzerland's centuries-old banking practices, the country's oldest bank pleaded guilty to a criminal conspiracy charge in the U.S. on Thursday and admitted that it helped wealthy Americans for years avoid tens of millions of dollars in taxes by hiding their income from secret accounts abroad. Wegelin & Co., founded in 1741, is the latest Swiss bank to reach a deal with U.S. prosecutors as they crack down on Americans who kept their money in secret accounts overseas and the entities which helped them. Three Wegelin bankers also were charged criminally in the U.S. last year. Subway worker tells customer to 'fight me like a man,' during confrontation over ketchup (WFTV) Luis Martinez said he stopped by a Subway shop in a Walmart on South Semoran Boulevard late Tuesday night to get something to eat. He said he ordered a Philly cheese steak the way he always does. "American cheese, onions and ketchup," said Martinez. Lawrence Ordone was working behind the counter. "He wants ketchup on the Philly cheese steak and I have never put -- we don't even have ketchup at Subway -- I've never put ketchup on anybody's sandwich," said Ordone. Martinez said he didn't want the sandwich without the ketchup and that a man next to him in line offered to buy the sandwich. Ordone said that Martinez mouthed off at the man. Martinez denied saying anything, but neither he or Ordone disputed what they said happened next. "That's when I flew off the handle," said Ordone. "He shoved a chair to the side, like knocked it down to come at me, and I said, 'This is going to be serious,'" said Martinez. "I said, 'Let's go, fight me like a man,'" said Ordone. "I was scared. Next thing, I'm thinking a gun's going to come out," said Martinez. Ordone said he blocked the customer so he couldn't get out. "He threatened to kill me in front of my wife," said Martinez. Martinez called 911, but by the time police got there the Subway worker had already left. Ordone said he was fired from his job Wednesday, and that he is baffled the confrontation started over something as simple as ketchup. "There's ketchup three aisles down. You can go buy your own ketchup, and I promise to God, you can put as much as you want on it and nobody's going to say nothing," said Ordone. Economy Adds 155,000 Jobs (WSJ) Rebuilding following superstorm Sandy, which struck the Northeast in late October, likely added to job growth last month. Nationally, employment in the construction sector advanced by 30,000 jobs. Meanwhile, manufacturing payrolls increased by 25,000 and health-care jobs grew by 45,000. JPMorgan Faces Sanction for Refusing to Provide Madoff Documents (Bloomberg) The Treasury Department’s inspector general has threatened to punish JPMorgan Chase for failing to turn over documents to regulators investigating the bank’s ties to Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. Inspector General Eric Thorson gave the largest U.S. bank a Jan. 11 deadline to cooperate with the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency probe or risk sanctions for impeding the agency’s oversight. JPMorgan, according to the Dec. 21 letter, contends the information is protected by attorney-client privilege. Rich Catch a Break With Budget Deal Providing Deductions (Bloomberg) “The increases in taxes and limits to deductions are more favorable than expected,” said Christopher Zander, partner and head of wealth planning at Evercore Partners Inc. (EVR)’s wealth management unit. “They could have been worse for high net-worth taxpayers.” Regulators to ease up on banks to get credit flowing (Reuters) Banks will get more time to build up cash buffers to protect against market shocks under a rule change that could help free up credit for struggling economies, a European regulatory source said. The Basel Committee, made up of banking supervisors from nearly 30 countries, is expected to announce the revision on Sunday to its "liquidity coverage" ratio or LCR, part of efforts to make banks less likely to need taxpayer help again in a crisis. The change comes after heavy pressure from banks and some regulators, who feared Basel's original version would suck up too much liquidity at a time when ailing economies are badly in need of a ready supply of credit to finance growth. 'Stripper' arrested after performance art leads to ruckus in Hallandale (SS) According to police and witnesses, Mena, 25, was first spotted standing and yelling in the middle of A1A outside her condo building along the 1800 block of South Ocean Drive about 10:45 a.m. on Wednesday. Noel von Kauffman, 40, said he was walking along the street when he noticed Mena trying to direct traffic while wearing a tank-top, cut-off jean shorts and tall boots...At some point, Mena picked up a traffic cone and threw it at a car driven by Dieter Heinrich, 49, of Dania Beach, according to an arrest report. The cone broke the car's side mirror, causing about $300 in damages, the report indicated. When Heinrich got out of his car, Mena allegedly spat in his face. Von Kauffman said he jumped in to help Heinrich, who had children in the back seat of his car. Mena scratched von Kauffman's wrist as the two men tried to restrain her and move her away from the busy roadway, according to the police report. After pinning her to the ground, von Kauffman said the woman first tried to say the incident was part of a television show and that everything was being caught on camera. Then she claimed she was a federal agent. Then she said she was friends with Hallandale Beach Mayor Joy Cooper and everyone involved would be in trouble, von Kauffman said.