Opening Bell: 09.17.12

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Draghi Euro Humbles Thought Leaders Seeing End of Union (Bloomberg)
“Over the years, global investors have learned that it does not pay to fight the Fed,” Holger Schmieding, chief economist at Berenberg Bank in London, said this month in an interview. “Those betting on the demise of the euro may now have to realize that the ECB is as mighty as the Fed.”

Probe focuses on JPMorgan's monitoring of suspect transactions (Reuters)
A U.S. regulatory probe of JPMorgan Chase & Co's anti-money laundering systems is focusing on potential lapses in how the largest U.S. bank monitors suspect money transactions, according to people familiar with the situation. The probe appears to be focused on the systems and personnel that JPMorgan uses to safeguard against illicit money flows.

QE3 hit by mortgage processing delays (FT)
The Federal Reserve’s attempt to push aid into the heart of the US economy is being blunted by banks struggling to process mortgage applications fast enough, keeping rates on home loans elevated, according to the largest lenders. ... “In the very near term [QE3] has virtually no transfer mechanism whatsoever to the customer,” said one executive at a leading lender, who requested anonymity. “Originators are massively backlogged in terms of origination volumes.”

Occupy Wall Street Kicks Off One-Year Anniversary With Discussions, March, and Arrests (DI)
Occupy Wall Street kicked off its one-year anniversary on Saturday with an afternoon of group discussions in sunny Washington Square and an evening march to Zuccotti Park. To those who have followed the movement, much was familiar: Chants of "Whose street? Our street!" and "We are the 99 percent!"; long talks about ideas and tactics conducted via the People’s Mic; and, eventually, shouts of "Shame! Shame! Shame!" directed at the dozens of NYPD officers assembled around the protest. ... By the end of the night, 18 protesters had been arrested — seemingly at random.

U.S. to File W.T.O. Case Against China Over Cars (NYT)
The Obama administration plans to file a broad trade case at the World Trade Organization in Geneva on Monday accusing China of unfairly subsidizing its exports of autos and auto parts, a senior administration official said late Sunday, in a move with clear political implications for the presidential elections less than two months away. The W.T.O. case accuses China of providing at least $1 billion worth of subsidies from 2009 to 2011 for exports of autos and auto parts.

The Return of Facebook's Winklevoss Twins (WSJ)
"The band is back together," Tyler Winklevoss said over lunch at Manhattan's Ace Hotel with his brother Cameron and Mr. Narendra.

Shoe-loving poker player Beth Shak starting own shoe line (NYP, related)
“My almost-18-year-old daughter wasn’t happy having a mom that traveled and was gambling,” Shak told The Post. “She kept saying, ‘Why don’t you design a shoe line?’ and one day I was like, ‘You know, she’s right.’” Shak, who has competed in the World Series of Poker, has a collection of some 1,200 pairs of shoes that she keeps in password-protected closets in her home in Bryn Mawr, Pa. The collection includes about 700 Christian Louboutin pairs and is valued at nearly $1 million. Her ex-husband, former New York hedge-fund manager Daniel Shak, sued her over the shoes earlier this year, claiming she didn’t disclose their value in their divorce. But the suit was dropped over his laughable claim that he had never noticed her museum-sized collection because it was in a “secret room.” “He is saying he didn’t know the closet in our master bedroom existed,” Beth Shak said at the time.

U.S. Balks at GM Plan (WSJ)
Earlier this summer, GM floated a plan with Treasury officials to repurchase 200 million of the roughly 500 million shares the U.S. holds in the auto maker, according to people familiar with the discussions. Under the plan, Treasury would sell the remaining shares through a public stock offering. But Treasury officials aren't interested in GM's offer at the current price and aren't in a rush to offload shares, according to people familiar with the matter. The biggest reason: A sale now would leave the government with a hefty loss on its investment. At GM's Friday share price of $24.14, the U.S. would lose about $15 billion on the GM bailout if it sold its entire stake. While GM stock would need to reach $53 a share for the U.S. to break even, Treasury officials would consider selling at a price in the $30s, people familiar with the government's thinking have said.

Spanish Banks Bleeding Cash Cloud Bailout Debate: Euro Credit (Bloomberg)
“There are significant outflows of deposits now in Spain and they won’t start coming back until people are sure they’re safe and that Spain is secure,” said Simon Maughan, a financial strategist at Olivetree Securities Ltd. in London.

SEC Keeps Wary Eye on Exchanges (WSJ)
The Securities and Exchange Commission, alarmed at a recent string of high-profile technology mishaps that have roiled stock markets, is homing in on exchanges' ability to monitor their own systems. The SEC is also worried that exchanges, in their rush to introduce new technology, have provided unfair advantages for the computer-driven trading firms that are their biggest customers.

Earnings in United States Are Beginning to Feel a Pinch (NYT)
Giants like FedEx and Intel, two bellwethers of the global economy, are warning of lower quarterly profits because of weakness in worldwide demand. ... In all, Wall Street expects quarterly profits at the typical large American company to decline for the first time since 2009.

Grandmaster of Russia's pyramid cult (Reuters)
The pitch from the pyramid scheme sweeping Russia has undeniable appeal: make money and make the world a better place, it says. ... The MMM website proclaims: "This is, in essence, the most sincere and kind system in this thoroughly dishonest, hypocritical and vicious world."

Parents angry at ban on kids at Brooklyn bar (NYDN)
Parents are foaming mad that Brooklyn teachers who frequent a beer garden near their schools have convinced the proprietors to ban kids after 4 p.m. ... Owner Diane Vasilakos said some of the kids were out of control. She said adult patrons, many of them teachers, were ticked off. “Kids were getting rowdy,” she said. “They expect parents to supervise them a little bit better.”

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Opening Bell: 12.19.12

UBS In $1.5 Billion Libor Fine (WSJ) As part of the deal, UBS acknowledged that dozens of its employees were involved in widespread efforts to manipulate the London interbank offered rate, or Libor, as well as other benchmark rates, which together serve as the basis for interest rates on hundreds of trillions of dollars of financial contracts around the world. UBS's unit in Japan, where much of the attempted manipulation took place, pleaded guilty to one U.S. count of fraud. Authorities on Wednesday painted a picture of "routine and widespread" attempts by UBS employees to rig Libor and the euro interbank offered rate, or Euribor. The U.K. Financial Services Authority said it had identified more than 2,000 such attempts between 2005 and 2010 with the participation or awareness of at least 45 UBS traders and executives. Regulators on Wednesday released a trove of internal UBS emails and other communications—many of them colorful and expletive-laden—in which bank traders, sometimes with the knowledge of their managers, sought to manipulate the rates in order to boost their trading profits or mask the Swiss bank's mounting financial problems in 2008. UBS Traders' 'Humongous' Libor-Fixing Boasts (CNBC) The FSA documents suggest a macho trading culture on the UBS trading floor. Trader A also said: "if you keep 6s [i.e. the six month JPY LIBOR rate] unchanged today ... I will ****ing do one humongous deal with you ... Like a 50,000 buck deal." Traders and brokers implicated in the scandal referred to each other as "the three muscateers [sic]" and "captain caos [sic]." SAC's top consumer trader draws scrutiny from U.S. authorities (Reuters) U.S. authorities are examining trading by one of SAC Capital Advisors' most successful portfolio managers, Gabriel Plotkin, as part of a probe into the $14 billion hedge fund firm's investment in Weight Watchers International Inc last year, according to a person familiar with the investigation. Plotkin, a specialist in consumer and retail stocks who makes investment decisions for more than $1.2 billion worth of assets, is among several SAC portfolio managers whose trades are being investigated, said the source, who did not want to be identified. The source would not name the other managers. Federal authorities are trying to determine whether any of SAC Capital's retail and consumer portfolio managers traded Weight Watchers shares based on non-public confidential information about the diet company, said the source and another person familiar with the investigation. The two sources said it is too soon to conclude if there was any insider trading. Authorities have not charged Plotkin with any wrongdoing. Banks See Biggest Returns Since ’03 as Employees Suffer (Bloomberg) Shareholders, impatient for the industry to boost profit, were rewarded as Wall Street firms cut jobs and pay, and exited businesses. The shrinking unnerved employees, who watched the chiefs of two big banks lose their jobs and others contend with a drop in deal making and stock trading, stiffer regulations, trading losses, rating downgrades and scandals involving interest-rate manipulation and money laundering. “There’s always grumbling on Wall Street, which is pathetic given how overpaid we all are, but there is a level of angst this year that is just unprecedented,” Gordon Dean, who left a 26-year career at Morgan Stanley (MS) to co-found a San Francisco boutique advisory firm this year, said in a telephone interview. “It’s just a profound sadness and dissatisfaction.” Greek Bond Bet Pays Off for Hedge Fund (FT) One of the world's most prominent hedge funds is sitting on a $500 million profit after making a bet that Greece would not be forced to leave the euro zone, bucking the trend in a difficult year for the industry. Third Point, headed by the billionaire US investor Dan Loeb, tendered the majority of a $1 billion position in Greek government bonds, built up only months earlier, as part of a landmark debt buyback deal by Athens on Monday, according to people familiar with the firm. The windfall marks out the New York-based firm as one of the few hedge fund managers to have profited from the eurozone crisis. Standard and Poor's, the rating agency, raised its assessment of Greece's sovereign debt by several notches on Tuesday, citing the euro zone's"strong determination" to keep the country inside the common currency area. Fitch Warns US Could Lose AAA If 'Fiscal Cliff' Hits (Reuters) "Failure to avoid the fiscal cliff.. would exacerbate rather than diminish the uncertainty over fiscal policy, and tip the US into an avoidable and unnecessary recession," Fitch said in its 2013 global outlook published on Wednesday. "That could erode medium-term growth potential and financial stability. In such a scenario, there would be an increased likelihood that the U.S. would lose its AAA status." Science explains Rudolph's red reindeer nose (CNET) A collection of Dutch scientists contributed to a paper titled "Microcirculatory investigations of nasal mucosa in reindeer Rangifer tarandus (Mammalia, Artiodactyla, Cervidae): Rudolph's nose was overheated." According to the paper, "The exceptional physical burden of flying with a sleigh with Santa Claus as a heavy load could have caused cerebral and bodily hyperthermia, resulting in an overworked nasal cooling mechanism that resembles an overheated cooling radiator in a car: Rudolph suffered from hyperemia of the nasal mucosa (a red nose) under more extreme heat loads during flight with a sleigh." Of course, scientists don't like to put all their scientific eggs into just one basket of science. The paper's authors acknowledge other theories for the red nose, including the common cold, alcoholic intoxication, or a parasitic infection of the nostrils. GM To Buy Back Stock From Treasury (WSJ) GM said it will purchase 200 million shares of stock held by the U.S. Treasury Department in the first step of the government's eventual exit from the auto maker within the next 12 to 15 months. The auto maker will pay $5.5 billion for the shares in a deal that is expected to close by the end of the year. The repurchase price of $27.50 a share represents a 7.9% premium over the closing price on Dec. 18. Berlusconi Says Italy May Be Forced to Leave the Euro Zone (Reuters) "If Germany doesn't accept that the ECB must be a real central bank, if interest rates don't come down, we will be forced to leave the euro and return to our own currency in order to be competitive," Berlusconi said in comments reported by Italian news agencies Ansa and Agi. Knight, Getco Confirm Merger (WSJ) The $1.8 billion deal for Knight, which values the firm at $1.4 billion plus $400 million in debt held by Getco, will create a trading powerhouse ranking as one of the largest players on U.S. exchanges and the main trading partner of online brokerage firms that service everyday investors. Porsche Executives Charged Over VW Bid (WSJ) Prosecutors have charged the former top executives of Porsche Automobil Holding SE with allegedly manipulating financial markets during the company's attempt to take over Volkswagen AG in 2008, lawyers representing the executives said Wednesday. A court in Stuttgart must now decide whether to open criminal proceedings against Porsche's former chief executive Wendelin Wiedeking and former finance chief Holger Härter, who are suspected of misleading investors when they denied trying to take over VW in 2008. Market manipulation in Germany can be punished with up to five years' imprisonment. From early March to October of 2008, Porsche issued at least five statements denying it was trying to raise its stake in Volkswagen to 75%, but the prosecutors allege that Messrs. Wiedeking and Härter had already decided to try to raise the stake and were preparing for the move by purchasing buy options on ordinary and preference shares of Volkswagen. The denials induced investors to sell or make bets the shares would fall by so-called short selling, the prosecutors said, which benefited Porsche by lowering the share price ahead of the planned takeover. Spanx Bandit On The Loose After JCPenney Heist (TSG) An unknown thief (or thieves) stole a whopping $4182 worth of the popular body shapers from a JCPenney in Vero Beach, according to an Indian River County Sheriff’s Office report. The Spanx theft was reported Friday afternoon after a JCPenney employee noticed “the empty rack in the women’s undergarment section.” The worker noted that the Spanx stock had been there the prior evening. A subsequent search of the store revealed that about 100 Spanx “were taken along with their plastic hangers.” The purloined undergarments--tan and black tops and bottoms--were from Spanx’s Assets Red Hot Label line, police reported. A JCPenney store manager gave cops an itemized list of the boosted body shapers, but it appears the Spanx Bandit will escape unscathed. Due to a lack of witnesses, evidence, or store surveillance video, no further investigative activity could be undertaken by a sheriff’s deputy.

Opening Bell: 01.07.13

Regulators Give Ground To Banks (WSJ) Global banking regulators watered down a key element of their plan for creating a safer financial system, giving ground to banks that argued the rules were unworkable and financially risky. The Basel Committee on Banking Supervision, a group of the world's top regulators and central bankers, said Sunday that it agreed to relax a rule designed to ensure that big banks are able to weather financial crises without running short of cash. Bowing to two years of intense pressure from the banking industry, the regulators made it easier for banks to meet the rule, known as the "liquidity coverage ratio," and delayed its full implementation until 2019. It is the latest instance of regulators chipping away at their landmark 2010 response to the global financial crisis. The regulators argue that the changes make banking rules much stronger than they were before the crisis. Herbalifers Stay Resolute (WSJ) When hedge-fund manager William Ackman unveiled his 334-slide presentation alleging that Herbalife is a pyramid scheme, it did nothing to shake Joanne Clare. The 38-year-old Staten Island mother of three has been selling the company's weight-loss products and supplements since 2004, when she says they helped her drop from 210 to 160 pounds in four months. She now sells as much as $3,500 a month of Herbalife products to her 30 clients and the two distributors in her "down line." "People have always said it's a pyramid scheme, but it's not," Ms. Clare said, adding that the bulk of her earnings come from sales to clients, not her cut of her recruits' take. Mr. Ackman's declaration that he had bet more than $1 billion against Herbalife caused many investors to flee, sending the stock down 38% in four days in late December. But some of the company's 3.1-million-strong army of distributors were unmoved. Eliot Spitzer Ends His Show On Current TV (NYT) The announcement comes a few days after Al Jazeera said it was acquiring Current TV. Later this year, the Qatar-owned broadcaster plans to turn the channel into an Americanized version of the international news channel Al Jazeera English. Mr. Spitzer said he had a “wonderful time” at Current, but emphasized that his relationship was with Al Gore and Joel Hyatt, Current’s co-founders, not with Al Jazeera. “Moving forward, their mission will be different,” he said — more international newscasts, less liberal talk about the news. Citi's Corbat builds bridges (Reuters) Citigroup Inc's Michael Corbat has been meeting with bank regulators in his first months as CEO, as he looks to bolster relationships and finalize the bank's plan to return capital to shareholders, sources familiar with the matter said. Corbat also expects to name his team of top managers within the next week or so, one of the sources said on Sunday. Corbat is expected to play it safe when Citigroup asks the U.S. Federal Reserve for permission for moves such as buying back shares or increasing dividends, analysts and investors said. His predecessor, Vikram Pandit, lost his job in October in part because the bank's request for returning capital was denied in March. The bank, which is due to submit its plan to the Fed on Monday, has not yet done so, the source said. The third-largest U.S. bank will only seek approval to buy back shares and not raise dividends, the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday. Last year, the bank wanted permission to return more than $8 billion to shareholders over two years, the paper said. For Newly Minted MBAs, A Small Paycheck (WSJ) For graduates with minimal experience—three years or less—median pay was $53,900 in 2012, down 4.6% from 2007-08, according to an analysis conducted for The Wall Street Journal by PayScale.com. Pay fell at 62% of the 186 schools examined. Even for more seasoned grads the trend is similar, says Katie Bardaro, lead economist for PayScale.com. "In general, it seems that M.B.A. pay is either stagnant or falling," she says...It is all a far cry from the late 1980s and early 1990s heyday for M.B.A.s, when some companies would hire 100 or more M.B.A.s. It wasn't uncommon to recruit first, and fill actual jobs later. DOJ pledges to respect Swiss law in tax probe (Reuters) Swiss chief finance diplomat Michael Ambuehl was given a verbal pledge from the U.S. Department of Justice to respect Swiss law when asking for bank client data of potential tax dodgers, a newspaper reported on Sunday. Switzerland is in negotiations with U.S. authorities to find a deal that would end tax probes into at least ten Swiss banks suspected of helping clients dodge taxes, including Credit Suisse and Julius Baer. The Alpine country is trying to preserve what is left of its cherished banking secrecy that suffered a severe blow in 2009 when UBS, the first Swiss bank that came under scrutiny in the U.S., was required to disclose client data. Brazilian prison gaurds catch cat that slipped through the gate with escape tools taped to its body (NYDN) Guards at a Brazilian prison nabbed a white cat that slipped through the gate with a cell phone, drills, small saws and other contraband taped to its body. Alagoas prison spokeswoman Cinthya Moreno says the cat was caught New Year’s Eve at the medium-security prison in the city of Arapiraca. The O Estado de S. Paulo newspaper reported Saturday that all of the prison’s 263 inmates are suspects in the smuggling attempt, though a spokesperson said, “It will be hard to discover who is responsible since the cat does not speak.” Loeb, Cooperman Stand Out in Horrid Year for Hedge Funds (CNBC) Third Point was the clear hedge fund standout in a horrible year for the industry as almost nine out of 10 managers underperformed the S&P 500. Omega Advisors' Leon Cooperman also scored big. Loeb — once better known for his acerbic letters to CEOs — used an activist position in Yahoo and the contrarian buying of Greek bonds to drive the firm's flagship fund to a 21 percent gain in 2012. The firm's more-leveraged Ultra fund posted an even bigger 34 percent return...Cooperman's fund had a net return of 26 percent in 2012. Banks Zero In On Foreclosure Pact (WSJ) Banks were closing in on a $10 billion foreclosure-abuse settlement with regulators that could be announced as soon as Monday, according to people familiar with the talks. The settlement was nearly complete Sunday afternoon, the people said, after the Federal Reserve backed down on a demand for more compensation for consumers and other changes to the pact. Bankers threatened to walk away from the deal if the Fed's demand for an additional $300 million was included, a person briefed on the talks said. Junk Bonds' Fire Is Poised to Fade (WSJ) Junk bonds started 2013 much like they finished 2012—on fire. In just three trading days this year, bonds of low-rated companies delivered returns of almost three-quarters of a percent, even as most other types of bonds lost value. And junk bonds continued to clock new milestones: Average prices soared to their highest since 2004 and average yields, which decline as prices rise, dropped below 6% for the first time ever, according to Barclays. But the rapid march is making fund managers and analysts wary. Prices are now so high—averaging more than 105 cents on the dollar—that there is little room for them to climb much further, some investors say. These are lofty prices for bonds that usually trade below 100 cents, reflecting the higher default risk for such companies. At the very least, returns will pale in comparison with the 15% achieved in 2012, analysts and investors say. NHL, Players Settle Labor Dispute (AP) On the 113th day of a management lockout and five days before the league's deadline for a deal, the bleary-eyed sides held a 6 a.m. news conference to announce there will be a season, after all. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and union head Donald Fehr both appeared drained, wearing sweaters and not neckties, when they stood side by side at the hotel and announced labor peace. "We have reached an agreement on the framework of a new collective bargaining agreement, the details of which need to be put to paper," Bettman said. "We've got to dot a lot of Is, cross a lot of Ts. There's still a lot of work to be done, but the basic framework of the deal has been agreed upon." Hostess in Talks to Sell Off Bread Brands (WSJ) Hostess could disclose Flowers, Grupo Bimbo or others as opening bidders in a looming bankruptcy-court auction for the assets as soon as this week, said people familiar with the matter. Hostess, whose bread brands include Wonder Bread, Nature's Pride, Home Pride, Merita and Butternut, is still determining how to split up assets and package them for buyers, one of the people said. Gérard Depardieu gives up French citizenship after bitter tax fight (GM) In a fit of pique, French movie star Gérard Depardieu announced during the weekend that he would give up his citizenship after politicians and the media took him to task for moving to Belgium and avoiding an impending tax hike for the rich. Mr. Depardieu is not France’s first fiscal refugee but his high-profile door-slamming so monopolized public debate that Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault had on Monday to parse whether or not he had insulted the actor. “I did not call Mr. Depardieu a loser, I said that it was loser-like [to move to Belgium to avoid taxes],” Mr. Ayrault told reporters...The “loser” comment seemed to have been the jab that stung Mr. Depardieu the most. “Loser, did you say loser?” the 63-year–old actor began an open letter to Mr. Ayrault that appeared Sunday in Le Journal du dimanche. Mr. Depardieu wrote that he had paid a total of €145-million in income tax in the last four decades and kept 80 people employed. He added that he had been taxed at a marginal rate of 85 per cent this year. “I am giving you back my passport and my social insurance, which I had never used. We no longer have the same fatherland. I am a true European, a citizen of the world.”