Opening Bell: 11.19.12

Geithner: Deal To Avoid 'Fiscal Cliff' Can Be Made In Weeks (Bloomberg) Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner said he’s confident an agreement on averting the fiscal cliff can be concluded within weeks after White House talks between President Barack Obama and congressional leaders. “It was a good meeting, and the tone was very good,” Geithner said in an interview in Washington. “I think this is doable within several weeks.” Geithner said a deal must be reached soon to prevent further damaging consumer confidence. The lack of agreement is “this huge cloud of uncertainty hanging over the economy,” he said. As the peak of holiday shopping season approaches, “You’d want to do it as soon as you can.” “This is within our grasp, within our reach,” Geithner said. “It’s not that complicated.” Geithner repeated the administration’s calls for an immediate extension of middle-class tax cuts, and said a deal on high-end tax cuts shouldn’t be delayed. “I think deferring things doesn’t work,” he said. “You know, we’ve had several periods now where there was a choice made to defer.” Obama Calls CEOs, Including Buffett, Dimon (Politico) President Obama made calls to a handful of top business leaders over the weekend, a White House official said Sunday, as part of effort to build support for his approach to averting the fiscal cliff. In conversations that came during his weekend of travel to and in Asia, Obama stressed "the need to find a balanced deficit reduction solution that protects the middle class and continues to move our economy forward," the official said. Obama spoke to Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett, Apple CEO Tim Cook, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, Boeing CEO Jim McNerney and Costco CEO Craig Jelinek, the official said. Lagarde: Reality' Not 'Wishful Thinking' Needed on Greece (Reuters) "I am always trying to be constructive but I am driven by two objectives," Lagarde said in an interview, "to build and approve a program for Greece that is solid, that is convincing today, that will be sustainable tomorrow, that is rooted in reality and not in wishful thinking. Investment Falls Off A Cliff (WSJ) U.S. companies are scaling back investment plans at the fastest pace since the recession, signaling more trouble for the economic recovery. Half of the nation's 40 biggest publicly traded corporate spenders have announced plans to curtail capital expenditures this year or next, according to a review by The Wall Street Journal of securities filings and conference calls. Sahara Feeling Heat Over Bond Sales (WSJ) India's Sahara Group has built an empire by offering financial products to tens of millions of rural Indians who typically stashed their meager savings under the mattress. Business was so good that Sahara, using fees and investments from its customers' deposits, grew into a multi-billion-dollar conglomerate that includes a 10,000-acre township, New York's Plaza Hotel building and a Formula-1 racing team. Today, the company's practices are coming under intense public scrutiny, the product of years of tussle between Sahara and regulators who worry India's informal financial sector has grown dangerously fast and without oversight. Many savers who scraped together money to put with Sahara now fear they could face lengthy delays in getting their money back. Opportunists Stockpile Twinkies for Big Payday (AP) Hours after the maker of Twinkies, Hostess Brands, announced its plans to close forever, people flocked to stores to fill their shopping baskets with boxes of Twinkies, which are cream-filled sponge cakes, and other snacks made by the company — Ding Dongs, Ho Hos and Zingers. Late Friday and Saturday, the opportunists took to the Web sites eBay and Craigslist. They began marketing their hoards to whimsical collectors and junk-food lovers for hundreds, in some cases thousands, of dollars. That is a fat profit margin, considering the retail price for a box of 10 Twinkies is about $5. Bond Investor Takes Big Punt On Ireland (FT) Franklin Templeton funds increased their holdings of Irish bonds by more than a third to at least €8.4 billion in the third quarter. This means that the San Francisco-based US asset manager now controls almost a 10th of Ireland’s entire government bond market. Most of the bonds have been snapped up by funds controlled by Michael Hasenstab, co-director of Franklin Templeton’s international bond department, and particularly by the $64 billion Templeton Global Bond Fund he manages. Kim Kardashian Weighs In On The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (HP) Kim Kardashian is apparently neutral when it comes to the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The reality star first tweeted support for Israel: "Praying for everyone in Israel," she wrote. And after five minutes of backlash, the star tweeted again: "And praying for everyone in Palestine and across the world!" she wrote. Kardashian is clearly the last person anyone wanted to hear from regarding the issue, and the 32-year-old was immediately hit with more backlash over the tweets -- including death threats. The star has since deleted the tweets and explained her reasons for tweeting about the conflict in a blog post on her website. Shadow Banking Grows to $67 Trillion Industry, Regulators Say (Bloomberg) The shadow banking industry has grown to about $67 trillion, $6 trillion bigger than previously thought, leading global regulators to seek more oversight of financial transactions that fall outside traditional oversight. The size of the shadow banking system, which includes the activities of money market funds, monoline insurers and off- balance sheet investment vehicles, “can create systemic risks” and “amplify market reactions when market liquidity is scarce,” the Financial Stability Board said in a report, which utilized more data than last year’s probe into the sector. “Appropriate monitoring and regulatory frameworks for the shadow banking system needs to be in place to mitigate the build-up of risks,” the FSB said in the report published on its website. Lehman Trustee Ends Citigroup Fight (WSJ) The trustee unwinding Lehman Brothers Inc. reached an agreement with Citigroup that ends a long-running legal fight over more than $1 billion that Lehman deposited at the bank the week it filed for bankruptcy protection. The deal puts $435 million in the coffers of Lehman's brokerage unit, LBI, for distribution to customers and other creditors, according to the settlement filed Friday night in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Manhattan. Europe Seeks More Taxes From US Multinationals (NYT) Google, Amazon, Starbucks and other American companies facing tax scrutiny say they are doing nothing wrong. They use complex accounting strategies to exploit national differences across Europe in corporate tax rates, which range from less than 10 percent to more than 30 percent, and loopholes that can reduce their effective European tax levies to almost nothing. Google, for example, records most of its international revenue at its European headquarters in Ireland, where the corporate tax rate is 12.5 percent. Across Europe, customers who buy advertising, Google’s primary source of revenue, sign contracts with the company’s subsidiary in Ireland, rather than with local branches. Google ends up paying Irish taxes on only a fraction of the billions of euros that course through its Dublin office. That is because the company uses a variety of methods, including royalty payments to a unit in Bermuda, to reduce further the amount of money exposed to tax liability. So, while Google told the Securities and Exchange Commission that it generated more than $4 billion in sales in Britain last year, it reported revenue of only £396 million, or $629 million, in itsofficial filings there. Central New York district attorney Marc Suben admits to '70s porn star past (NYDN) Prior to this year’s election, Marc Suben denied appearing in 1970s skin flicks, telling reporters he was the subject of a campaign by political rivals who wanted to sully his reputation. But Friday, CNYCentral.com published a story highlighting a YouTube video comparing Suben with porn actor Gus Thomas, whose IMDB film credits include “Deep Throat Part 2” and “Doctor’s Teenage Dilemma.” Suben swiftly called a press conference and “humbly” apologized to those he had deceived. He admitted to using “bad judgment” both by appearing in adult films in his youth and by lying about them as a public official. He was first elected in 2008. “I was shocked and embarrassed to be confronted with this so many years later,” said Suben, who has also served as a judge. “I was embarrassed for my family and friends who stood by me. I also denied my actions to my family, my friends and my staff.” He declined to say whether he plans to resign.
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Geithner: Deal To Avoid 'Fiscal Cliff' Can Be Made In Weeks (Bloomberg)
Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner said he’s confident an agreement on averting the fiscal cliff can be concluded within weeks after White House talks between President Barack Obama and congressional leaders. “It was a good meeting, and the tone was very good,” Geithner said in an interview in Washington. “I think this is doable within several weeks.” Geithner said a deal must be reached soon to prevent further damaging consumer confidence. The lack of agreement is “this huge cloud of uncertainty hanging over the economy,” he said. As the peak of holiday shopping season approaches, “You’d want to do it as soon as you can.” “This is within our grasp, within our reach,” Geithner said. “It’s not that complicated.” Geithner repeated the administration’s calls for an immediate extension of middle-class tax cuts, and said a deal on high-end tax cuts shouldn’t be delayed. “I think deferring things doesn’t work,” he said. “You know, we’ve had several periods now where there was a choice made to defer.”

Obama Calls CEOs, Including Buffett, Dimon (Politico)
President Obama made calls to a handful of top business leaders over the weekend, a White House official said Sunday, as part of effort to build support for his approach to averting the fiscal cliff. In conversations that came during his weekend of travel to and in Asia, Obama stressed "the need to find a balanced deficit reduction solution that protects the middle class and continues to move our economy forward," the official said. Obama spoke to Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett, Apple CEO Tim Cook, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, Boeing CEO Jim McNerney and Costco CEO Craig Jelinek, the official said.

Lagarde: Reality' Not 'Wishful Thinking' Needed on Greece (Reuters)
"I am always trying to be constructive but I am driven by two objectives," Lagarde said in an interview, "to build and approve a program for Greece that is solid, that is convincing today, that will be sustainable tomorrow, that is rooted in reality and not in wishful thinking.

Investment Falls Off A Cliff (WSJ)
U.S. companies are scaling back investment plans at the fastest pace since the recession, signaling more trouble for the economic recovery. Half of the nation's 40 biggest publicly traded corporate spenders have announced plans to curtail capital expenditures this year or next, according to a review by The Wall Street Journal of securities filings and conference calls.

Sahara Feeling Heat Over Bond Sales (WSJ)
India's Sahara Group has built an empire by offering financial products to tens of millions of rural Indians who typically stashed their meager savings under the mattress. Business was so good that Sahara, using fees and investments from its customers' deposits, grew into a multi-billion-dollar conglomerate that includes a 10,000-acre township, New York's Plaza Hotel building and a Formula-1 racing team. Today, the company's practices are coming under intense public scrutiny, the product of years of tussle between Sahara and regulators who worry India's informal financial sector has grown dangerously fast and without oversight. Many savers who scraped together money to put with Sahara now fear they could face lengthy delays in getting their money back.

Opportunists Stockpile Twinkies for Big Payday (AP)
Hours after the maker of Twinkies, Hostess Brands, announced its plans to close forever, people flocked to stores to fill their shopping baskets with boxes of Twinkies, which are cream-filled sponge cakes, and other snacks made by the company — Ding Dongs, Ho Hos and Zingers. Late Friday and Saturday, the opportunists took to the Web sites eBay and Craigslist. They began marketing their hoards to whimsical collectors and junk-food lovers for hundreds, in some cases thousands, of dollars. That is a fat profit margin, considering the retail price for a box of 10 Twinkies is about $5.

Bond Investor Takes Big Punt On Ireland (FT)
Franklin Templeton funds increased their holdings of Irish bonds by more than a third to at least €8.4 billion in the third quarter. This means that the San Francisco-based US asset manager now controls almost a 10th of Ireland’s entire government bond market. Most of the bonds have been snapped up by funds controlled by Michael Hasenstab, co-director of Franklin Templeton’s international bond department, and particularly by the $64 billion Templeton Global Bond Fund he manages.

Kim Kardashian Weighs In On The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (HP)
Kim Kardashian is apparently neutral when it comes to the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The reality star first tweeted support for Israel: "Praying for everyone in Israel," she wrote. And after five minutes of backlash, the star tweeted again: "And praying for everyone in Palestine and across the world!" she wrote. Kardashian is clearly the last person anyone wanted to hear from regarding the issue, and the 32-year-old was immediately hit with more backlash over the tweets -- including death threats. The star has since deleted the tweets and explained her reasons for tweeting about the conflict in a blog post on her website.

Shadow Banking Grows to $67 Trillion Industry, Regulators Say (Bloomberg)
The shadow banking industry has grown to about $67 trillion, $6 trillion bigger than previously thought, leading global regulators to seek more oversight of financial transactions that fall outside traditional oversight. The size of the shadow banking system, which includes the activities of money market funds, monoline insurers and off- balance sheet investment vehicles, “can create systemic risks” and “amplify market reactions when market liquidity is scarce,” the Financial Stability Board said in a report, which utilized more data than last year’s probe into the sector. “Appropriate monitoring and regulatory frameworks for the shadow banking system needs to be in place to mitigate the build-up of risks,” the FSB said in the report published on its website.

Lehman Trustee Ends Citigroup Fight (WSJ)
The trustee unwinding Lehman Brothers Inc. reached an agreement with Citigroup that ends a long-running legal fight over more than $1 billion that Lehman deposited at the bank the week it filed for bankruptcy protection. The deal puts $435 million in the coffers of Lehman's brokerage unit, LBI, for distribution to customers and other creditors, according to the settlement filed Friday night in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Manhattan.

Europe Seeks More Taxes From US Multinationals (NYT)
Google, Amazon, Starbucks and other American companies facing tax scrutiny say they are doing nothing wrong. They use complex accounting strategies to exploit national differences across Europe in corporate tax rates, which range from less than 10 percent to more than 30 percent, and loopholes that can reduce their effective European tax levies to almost nothing. Google, for example, records most of its international revenue at its European headquarters in Ireland, where the corporate tax rate is 12.5 percent. Across Europe, customers who buy advertising, Google’s primary source of revenue, sign contracts with the company’s subsidiary in Ireland, rather than with local branches. Google ends up paying Irish taxes on only a fraction of the billions of euros that course through its Dublin office. That is because the company uses a variety of methods, including royalty payments to a unit in Bermuda, to reduce further the amount of money exposed to tax liability. So, while Google told the Securities and Exchange Commission that it generated more than $4 billion in sales in Britain last year, it reported revenue of only £396 million, or $629 million, in its official filings there.

Central New York district attorney Marc Suben admits to '70s porn star past (NYDN)
Prior to this year’s election, Marc Suben denied appearing in 1970s skin flicks, telling reporters he was the subject of a campaign by political rivals who wanted to sully his reputation. But Friday, CNYCentral.com published a story highlighting a YouTube video comparing Suben with porn actor Gus Thomas, whose IMDB film credits include “Deep Throat Part 2” and “Doctor’s Teenage Dilemma.” Suben swiftly called a press conference and “humbly” apologized to those he had deceived. He admitted to using “bad judgment” both by appearing in adult films in his youth and by lying about them as a public official. He was first elected in 2008. “I was shocked and embarrassed to be confronted with this so many years later,” said Suben, who has also served as a judge. “I was embarrassed for my family and friends who stood by me. I also denied my actions to my family, my friends and my staff.” He declined to say whether he plans to resign.

Related

Opening Bell: 01.23.13

Greece Charges Statisticians Over Size of Deficit (FT) Greece has brought criminal charges against the official responsible for measuring the country's debt, thereby calling into question the validity of its 172 billion euros second bailout by the EU and International Monetary Fund. Andreas Georgiou, head of the independent statistical agency Elstat, and two senior officials are accused of undermining the country's "national interests" by inflating the 2009 budget deficit figure used as the benchmark for successive austerity packages. The three statistical experts face criminal charges of making false statements and corrupt practices, a judicial official said, adding that if found guilty they could serve prison terms of five to 10 years. They have denied any wrongdoing. Spain's Recession Deepens (WSJ) Spain's central bank said a recession in the euro zone's fourth-largest economy deepened slightly in the final quarter of last year, but it said austerity cuts are bringing the country's runaway budget deficit under control. Obama-Bashing Swapped for Pragmatism at Davos (Bloomberg) “We have to move on in our society,” Blackstone found Stephen Schwarzman said today in an interview in Davos with Bloomberg Television’s Erik Schatzker. “I like President Obama as a person, and he’s well- intentioned.” Schwarzman, 65, warned in Davos in 2010 that banks could restrict lending because “their entire world is being shaken and they’re being attacked personally.” Later that year, at a nonprofit group meeting, he likened Obama’s tax proposals to Hitler’s invasion of Poland. Third Point LLC CEO Daniel Loeb, who in 2010 compared Wall Street’s Obama supporters to “battered wives,” will help lead a Jan. 25 Davos dinner discussion, “Can Capitalism Evolve?” Schwarzman apologized in 2010 for his comparison of Obama’s effort to double taxes on private-equity income to the invasion of Poland. He said the analogy was inappropriate and that the administration’s need to work with business “is still of very serious concern.” JPMorgan's Jamie Dimon Apologizes, Attacks (WSJ) James Dimon of J.P. Morgan Chase was prepared in Davos to apologize for the more than $6 billion of trading losses racked up by the so-called London Whale, but he certainly wasn’t prepared to abase himself...Min Zhu, deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund, reeled off a string of statistics to show that the industry certainly hadn’t cleaned up its act since the crisis, and Paul Singer, principal of hedge fund Elliott Associates, was also keen to lambaste big banks, including Mr. Dimon’s. The two had some testy exchanges and the body language indicated that Messrs. Singer and Dimon have exchanged fire quite a few times previously. Still, Mr. Dimon gave us good as he got. He kicked off with repeating his apology to shareholders for the London Whale trading losses, which led to his own bonus being slashed, saying, “If you’re a shareholder of mine, I apologize deeply.” Having offered this apology he then went on the offense. He pointed out that his bank lent money to a whole host of worthy organizations such as schools, hospitals, governments, and Italian and Spanish corporates and governments. And he also had some snappy comebacks. Elliott’s Singer said that the global banks are “too big, too leveraged, too opaque,” which left Mr. Dimon with an easy retort about how could a hedge fund possibly criticize a bank about being opaque? “Our [securities filing] 10K is 400 pages long,” Mr. Dimon said. “What would you like to know?” Geithner Exit Next Friday (AFP) US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who steered the administration of President Obama through the financial crisis, will step down from his post Friday, a source told Agence France Presse yesterday. Golfer Mickelson recants tax rant (NYP) Mickelson — who hinted he might move from his home state of California to escape higher taxes — said he regretted his public rant on the issue after setting off a political firestorm. “Finances and taxes are a personal matter and I should not have made my opinions on them public,” according to a statement from Mickelson, who plans to elaborate today at the Farmers Insurance Open. “I apologize to those I have upset or insulted and assure you I intend to not let it happen again.” Senator Lautenberg Suggests Spanking In Store For Mayor Cory Booker (CI via DI) "I have four children, I love each one of them. I can't tell you that one of them wasn't occasionally disrespectful, so I gave them a spanking and everything was OK," Lautenberg said with a smile in his first public comments since Booker announced he was considering a run for Senate. Banker's Latest Bet: Teamwork on Bonds (WSJ) Texas banking tycoon Andrew Beal is known for making unconventional moves, including gambling on high-stakes poker and a self-financed plan to launch rockets into space. His latest gambit: an attempt to wring money from giant banks by banding together aggrieved bondholders. Mr. Beal's CXA Corp. ran a pair of advertisements late last year, one appearing in The Wall Street Journal. The ads listed an alphabet soup of residential mortgage-backed securities held by CXA and asked those with positions in the same securities to join the company in investigating possible infractions by banks that sold the debt. If the groups can prove the mortgages that underlie the bonds were approved through shoddy underwriting, they could be entitled to compensation—CXA's payday alone could be tens of millions of dollars. Firms Keep Stockpiles Of 'Foreign' Cash In US (WSJ) Some companies, including Internet giant Google, software maker Microsoft, and data-storage specialist EMC Corp, keep more than three-quarters of the cash owned by their foreign subsidiaries at U.S. banks, held in U.S. dollars or parked in U.S. government and corporate securities, according to people familiar with the companies' cash positions. In the eyes of the law, the Internal Revenue Service and company executives, however, this money is overseas. As long as it doesn't flow back to the U.S. parent company, the U.S. doesn't tax it. And as long as it sits in U.S. bank accounts or in U.S. Treasurys, it is safer than if it were plowed into potentially risky foreign investments. SEC Reins In Ratings Firm (WSJ) The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission barred Egan-Jones Ratings Co. from issuing ratings on certain bonds, an unprecedented step by the regulator and a setback for a small credit-rating firm with a history of courting controversy. The SEC said Tuesday that Egan-Jones couldn't officially rate bonds issued by countries, U.S. states and local governments, or securities backed by assets such as mortgages, for at least the next 18 months. The ban was part of an agreement the SEC reached with Egan-Jones and its president, Sean Egan, to settle charges that they filed inaccurate documents with the regulator in 2008. The SEC alleged that Egan-Jones misled investors about its expertise, and that Mr. Egan caused the firm to violate conflict-of-interest provisions. Lindenhurst dentist busted after reporting to work reeking of booze and drilling teeth while allegedly drunk (NYDN) Dr. Robert Garelick was hauled out of his Lindenhurst office in handcuffs Monday after his dental hygienist smelled booze on his breath and caught him administering Novocain to the wrong side of a patient’s mouth. “I observed Dr. Garelick looking for cavities in the right side of the patient’s mouth, but the cavities were in the left side,” hygienist Kimberly Curtis told police in a written statement. “I pointed this out to the doctor and that’s when he ordered more Novocain for the patient,” Curtis told cops. “So now, he basically numbed the whole patient’s mouth.” After noticing Garelick’s wobbly behavior Monday, Curtis texted co-worker Dina Fara, who called 911. Curtis said she sent the message after Garelick used a drill to treat another patient who had a chipped tooth. “He was filing the tooth down,” Curtis said. “When you’re using that drill, you have to be very careful and have a steady hand.” She said that just before Garelick treated the chipped tooth, he slipped into his office. “I noticed that he was drinking from a white and purple squeeze bottle,” Curtis said. “At first I didn’t think anything was wrong,” Curtis said. “But right after, he took a drink from that bottle, he got up and walked past me. When he did this I smelled a strong odor of alcohol.” The dentist initially claimed he only had a couple of beers with pizza during lunch Monday, according to Suffolk County cops. But Garelick, who was charged with misdemeanor reckless endangerment, later confessed to his drunken dentistry while being taken to a police precinct in the back of squad car. “I never had any beers with my pizza. I’ve been sipping at that bottle all along today,” he told police, referring to his squeeze bottle filled with vodka, according to a criminal complaint.

Opening Bell: 12.17.12

SAC E-Mails Show Steve Cohen Consulted on Key Dell Trade (Bloomberg) Two days before Dell Inc. was set to report second-quarter 2008 earnings, Jon Horvath, a technology analyst at SAC Capital Advisors LP, e-mailed his boss Michael S. Steinberg and another portfolio manager to warn that the computer maker would miss earnings estimates. “I have a 2nd hand read from someone at the company,” Horvath began the Aug. 26 message, which provided details on gross margins, expenditures and revenue. “Please keep to yourself as obviously not well known.” Steinberg, a 15-year veteran of the hedge fund founded by billionaire Steven A. Cohen, responded: “Yes normally we would never divulge data like this, so please be discreet. Thanks.” The e-mails indicate Steinberg, the longest-serving SAC employee linked to the U.S. insider-trading probe, discussed the Dell trade with Cohen. While neither has been accused of any wrongdoing, the messages were admitted as evidence at the New York insider-trading trial of two hedge-fund managers last week after a judge ruled they supported prosecutor claims that Steinberg should be considered an unindicted co-conspirator. AIG To Sell Life Insurer Stake (WSJ) AIG will sell its stake in Asian life insurer AIA Group Ltd., raising as much as $6.5 billion in what could be the second-largest deal in Asia this year. Completion of the sale will mark another step forward for AIG, which is shedding noncore assets, as it seeks to repay its debt to the U.S. government, which took over the company in a $182 billion bailout in 2008. A Shadow Over Banks As UBS Nears Libor Deal (WSJ) The Swiss bank is set to agree as soon as this week to pay roughly $1.5 billion to settle allegations of wrongdoing related to benchmarks such as the London interbank offered rate, or Libor, say people close to the talks. So far, UBS has agreed in principle with the U.S. Justice Department that a company unit in Japan will plead guilty to a criminal charge, according to a person familiar with the tentative deal. The Zurich-based parent will pay the fine in return for a deal that lets it avoid criminal prosecution. Criminal charges against individuals are expected to be filed in tandem with the settlement, according to U.S. officials briefed on the matter. The pursuit of criminal charges and the higher-than-expected fine are ominous signs for more than a dozen financial firms still under investigation. "There's no panic—yet," says someone close to one of the banks in the sprawling probe. Moody’s Gets No Respect as Bonds Shun 56% of Country Ratings (Bloomberg) The global bond market disagreed with Moody’s Investors Service and Standard & Poor’s more often than not this year when the companies told investors that governments were becoming safer or more risky. Yields on sovereign securities moved in the opposite direction from what ratings suggested in 53 percent of the 32 upgrades, downgrades and changes in credit outlook, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That’s worse than the longer-term average of 47 percent, based on more than 300 changes since 1974. This year, investors ignored 56 percent of Moody’s rating and outlook changes and 50 percent of those by S&P. Economy Poised To Nudge Ahead In 2013 (WSJ) So that's nice. Boehner Opens the Door to Tax Hikes on the Wealthy (Reuters) U.S. House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner's offer to accept a tax rate increase for the wealthiest Americans knocks down a key Republican road block to a deal resolving the year-end "fiscal cliff." The question now boils down to what President Barack Obama offers in return. Such major questions, still unanswered so close to the end of the year suggest, however, that no spending and tax agreement is imminent. A source familiar with the Obama-Boehner talks confirmed that Boehner proposed extending low tax rates for everyone who has less than $1 million in net annual income, meaning tax rates would rise on all above that line. Actor Depardieu Hits Back at French PM Over Taxes (CNBC) Actor Gerard Depardieu, accused by French government leaders of trying to dodge taxes by buying a house over the border in Belgium, retorted that he was leaving because "success" was now being punished in his homeland. A popular and colourful figure in France, the 63-year-old Depardieu is the latest wealthy Frenchman to seek shelter outside his native country after tax increases by Socialist President Francois Hollande. Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault described Depardieu's behaviour as "pathetic" and unpatriotic at a time when the French are being asked to pay higher taxes to reduce a bloated national debt. "Pathetic, you said pathetic? How pathetic is that?" Depardieu said in a letter distributed to the media. "I am leaving because you believe that success, creation, talent, anything different must be sanctioned," he said. [...] The "Cyrano de Bergerac" star recently bought a house in Nechin, a Belgian village a short walk from the border with France, where 27 percent of residents are French nationals, and put up his sumptuous Parisian home up for sale. Depardieu, who has also inquired about procedures for acquiring Belgian residency, said he was handing in his passport and social security card. Singapore Establishment Challenged by Carson Block on Olam (Bloomberg) When Carson Block likened Olam International Ltd. to fraud-ridden Enron Corp., he challenged more than the accounting of the Singapore-based commodities firm. He also took on Temasek Holdings Pte, the government-owned investment company whose money has helped build the city-state into a corporate dynamo known as Singapore Inc. Temasek is Olam’s second-largest shareholder, with a 16 percent stake that has lost more than $100 million in value since Nov. 19, when Block’s Muddy Waters LLC first questioned the validity of the company’s finances and said it was betting against the stock. Temasek is also the biggest shareholder in many of the country’s best-known companies, including DBS Group Holdings Ltd., Southeast Asia’s largest bank, Singapore Telecommunications Ltd. and Singapore Airlines Ltd. “Carson Block is putting his whole reputation on this one,” said Low Chee Keong, associate professor of corporate law at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “He’s taking on the Singapore government, Singapore Inc. here.” UN court orders immediate release of Argentine ship seized by hedge funder Paul Singer over unpaid debt (AP) A United Nations court ordered the immediate release Saturday of an Argentine navy training ship held in Ghana two months ago at the request of an American hedge fund. The ARA Libertad was held Oct. 2 in the port of Tema as collateral for unpaid bonds dating from Argentina's economic crisis a decade ago. Argentina appealed to the UN's International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea for the ship's release, arguing that as a warship the Libertad is immune from being seized. In an expedited ruling, the court ordered that Ghana "forthwith and unconditionally release the frigate ARA Libertad" and ensure the ship and its crew can leave Ghanaian waters. It also ordered that the vessel should be resupplied as needed. Detaining the ship was "a source of conflict that may endanger friendly relations among states," the court said. The ruling leaves untouched the parties' rights to seek further international arbitration on the matter. Debt Loads Climb In Buyout Deals (WSJ) Private-equity firms are using almost as much debt to fund acquisitions as they did before the financial crisis, as return-hungry investors rush to buy bonds and loans backing those takeovers. The rise in borrowed money, or leverage, heralds the possibility of juicy returns for buyout groups. Ominously, the surge also brings back memories of the last credit binge around six years ago, which saddled dozens of companies with huge levels of debt. Berlusconi's Love Life Lost in Translation (CNBC) Global media reports that the former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi announced his engagement to his 28-year-old girlfriend on one of his TV Channels on Sunday, have been dismissed by native Italians who say Berlusconi has been mis-translated. Various newspapers have reported that Berlusconi is to get married for the third time, when in fact he announced that he is in love and in a relationship...Professor of Modern Italian History at University College London (UCL), John Foot, told CNBC that Pascale is a"girlfriend, nothing more." "In Italy the phrase 'Mi sono fidanzato' usually means 'I have a girlfriend or boyfriend' and not 'I am engaged to be married'. This can cause confusion abroad but is pretty clear in the Italian context," he told CNBC. Twinkies again by spring? It could happen (NBC) It’s not even Christmas, but Twinkies fans may be able to start looking forward to an Easter present. Bankrupt Hostess Brands has received a number of bids from companies interested in buying the maker of Twinkies, Ho Hos, and Wonder bread, including retail heavyweights such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Kroger Co, Bloomberg News reported Friday, quoting an unnamed person familiar with the matter...Anthony Michael Sabino, a bankruptcy attorney and a professor at St. John's University, said bankruptcy judge Robert Drain was motivated to move quickly. Bidding will likely take place by early January, since the assets — if not the treats themselves — could become stale. “I think this will move a at a fairly decent pace. He knows what’s at stake here.

Opening Bell: 04.16.12

Downgrades Loom For European Banks (WSJ) Under pressure from banks, Moody's Investors Service said Friday that it is delaying until early May its highly anticipated decision on whether to downgrade the credit ratings of 114 banks in 16 European countries. Moody's announced the review in February, saying it was needed in light of the banks' weak conditions and the tough environment in which they're operating. It had planned to start unveiling the decisions this week. Obama Bid to End Too-Big-to Fail Undercut as Banks Grow (Bloomberg) Two years after President Barack Obama vowed to eliminate the danger of financial institutions becoming “too big to fail,” the nation’s largest banks are bigger than they were before the credit crisis. Five banks-- JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, and Goldman Sachs-- held $8.5 trillion in assets at the end of 2011, equal to 56 percent of the U.S. economy, according to the Federal Reserve. Five years earlier, before the financial crisis, the largest banks’ assets amounted to 43 percent of U.S. output. The Big Five today are about twice as large as they were a decade ago relative to the economy, sparking concern that trouble at a major bank would rock the financial system and force the government to step in as it did during the 2008 crunch. “Market participants believe that nothing has changed, that too-big-to-fail is fully intact,” said Gary Stern, former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Carlyle Takes Cautious Approach in IPO Price (WSJ) Carlyle Group plans to sell 30.5 million shares priced between $23 and $25 in its initial public offering, which could come before the end of the month, according to people familiar with the matter. Those shares would represent about 10% of the Washington, D.C., private-equity firm, in a deal that would value Carlyle at more than $7 billion, these people said. That value is toward the lower end of what earlier had been expected...Carlyle is putting less emphasis on pricing shares high at the IPO, instead hoping they rise in value once they are traded, according to people familiar with the matter. Bond Recipes Use Fresh Ingredients (WSJ) With risk-taking in vogue again, Wall Street is betting on the revival of a market for bonds made out of everything from "The English Patient" to fried chicken. The amount of so-called esoteric bonds backed by unusual assets has nearly doubled this year compared with the same period a year ago, according to Credit Suisse. Thus far this year, there have been $5.6 billion in deals done, more than twice the $2 billion in the same period last year. Over the past several months investors have bought bonds backed by revenue from Domino's Pizza DPZ +0.34% franchises, Miramax films, patents for drugs like Clarinex and Flumist and loans to buyers of Wyndham vacation time-shares. The deals show investors are becoming comfortable again with Wall Street's engineering skills, after many were hammered during the financial crisis by losses on bonds backed by subprime home loans and complex debt pools known as collateralized-debt obligations. The esoteric sales also mark a rare growth area for giant banks that have been hit hard by a slowdown in deal-making and trading. Four-year-old Heidi Hankins joins Mensa with 159 IQ (BBC) A four-year-old girl from Hampshire has been accepted into Mensa with an IQ just one point below Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking. Heidi Hankins from Winchester has a 159 IQ. She taught herself to read and was able to count to 40 at two years old. British Mensa chief executive John Stevenage said Heidi's parents "correctly identified that she shows great potential." According to Mensa, the average adult IQ score is 100. Geithner Rebuts Romney on Women and Jobs (WSJ) As the fight for women voters intensified in recent days, Mr. Romney took a swipe at Mr. Obama by saying women had borne the vast majority of job losses over the past three years. Labor Department data show women do account for 92.3% of the workers who have lost jobs since Mr. Obama took office in January 2009. But men suffered deeper job losses than women in the year before Mr. Obama's inauguration and men have gained more jobs than women since the recovery began in 2009. "It's a ridiculous way to look at the problem," Mr. Geithner said of Mr. Romney's criticism. Mr. Geithner on Sunday also defended the Obama administration's efforts to reduce the federal budget deficit, and said there was "no risk" that the U.S. would go through a debt crisis in the next two years like the one Greece is experiencing. But he had a warning for Congress, when asked on NBC's "Meet the Press" about whether Congress would act to raise the government's debt ceiling again at the end of this year. "This is Congress's obligation to do as they have always done in the past," he said. "It would be good for the country this time if they did it with less drama." Barclays' Tax Deal Faces US Scrutiny (FT) Barclays’ controversial tax planning business will come under fresh scrutiny in a U.S. court this week over whether a transaction designed by the bank cost the U.S. government more than $1 billion in lost tax receipts. The U.S. Internal Revenue Service claims that complex, cross-border deals Barclays structured for several mid-tier banks in the last decade were an abusive tax shelter that exploited loopholes between U.S. and U.K. tax laws. Prime Brokerages Consolidate After 'Big Bang' (Reuters) Hedge funds are cutting back on the brokerage accounts they hold as the prime brokerage industry begins to consolidate more than four years after the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy blew the sector wide open. Goldman Sachs Said to Raise $2.5 Billion in ICBC Sale (Bloomberg) The Wall Street firm is selling $2.5 billion of shares at HK$5.05 each, according to two people with knowledge of the matter. It sold 3.55 billion shares, or 4 percent of ICBC’s Hong Kong-traded shares, to Temasek, the Singapore state-owned investment group said. Temasek, which is increasing stakes in China’s biggest banks, paid $2.3 billion for the stock, based on the per-share price and stake size. 'Hug Me' Coke Machine Asks for Hugs, Delivers Free Coke (MFDC) Coca-Cola's global marketing campaign dubbed "Open Happiness" takes on a new twist with a Coke vending machine that asks passers by to give it a hug. The big red and white machine, located at the National University in Singapore, has "Hug Me" written across its front side. And people are actually hugging it...and given free Cokes.

Opening Bell: 12.03.12

Fiscal Cliff Talks At Stalemate (WSJ) Leading figures on both sides doubled down on their positions in interviews that aired Sunday, and they blamed each other for the current standoff, reflecting the talks that House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) told "Fox News Sunday" have gone "nowhere." Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, speaking on the same program for the Obama administration, suggested Republicans needed to take a breather from negotiations but would ultimately agree to raise tax rates—a key White House demand that is part of its push to raise $1.6 trillion in taxes over 10 years. "It's obviously a little hard for them now, and they're trying to figure out where they go next, and we might need to give them a little time to figure out where they go next," Mr. Geithner said. Geithner Joins Boehner to Trade Blame on Fiscal Cliff Talks (Bloomberg) “There’s not going to be an agreement without rates going up,” Geithner said in a taped interview that aired Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.” Republicans will “own the responsibility for the damage” if they “force higher rates on virtually all Americans because they’re unwilling to let tax rates go up on 2 percent of Americans.” Clock Ticks For SAC Investors (WSJ) Seventy-five days remain until Feb. 15, the date by which investors must tell SAC whether they want to pull money from the firm during the next redemption period...Some investors already decided to pull out. French bank Société Générale SA, which has client money in SAC through its Lyxor asset-management arm, has put in a request to pull its money from the firm, according to people familiar with the matter. It is unclear how much money Lyxor has in SAC. Many, however, said they would reserve judgment, at least for now. Ironwood Capital Management, a San Francisco-based investment firm with client money in SAC, has been in touch with investors about the position and is monitoring the situation, said a person familiar with the firm. Last week, a unit within Morgan Stanley's MS +0.06% asset-management arm that has client money with SAC sent a note telling employees it would monitor the situation and be in touch frequently with SAC, according to a person familiar with the bank...Greycourt & Co., Inc., a Pittsburgh-based firm that manages about $9 billion for wealthy families, says it is sticking with SAC. Greycourt cited the stellar long-term returns of the firm, what it says is a robust compliance staff at SAC, Mr. Cohen's promise to cover any penalties himself and a belief that the firm's investment portfolio would be well-protected, even if it eventually faces charges. "The SAC portfolio is liquid enough that I'm not terribly concerned," says Gregory Curtis, Greycourt's chairman. "I very much hope that [Mr.] Cohen hasn't been behaving badly, but either way I'm not too concerned about our client positions." UK’s Euro Trade Supremacy Under Attack (FT) The City of London should be deposed as the euro's main financial center so the single currency club can "control" most financial business in the euro zone, France's central bank governor has said. Christian Noyer of the Banque de France said there was "no rationale" for allowing the euro area's financial hub to be "offshore", in a blunt assessment that will fan UK concerns over EU rules being rigged against it. "Most of the euro business should be done inside the euro area. It's linked to the capacity of the central bank to provide liquidity and ensure oversight of its own currency," Mr Noyer told the Financial Times while touring Asia to promote Paris as a renminbi trading center. "We're not against some business being done in London, but the bulk of the business should be under our control. That's the consequence of the choice by the UK to remain outside the euro area." Zoe Cruz trying to make a return to high finance, has reconciled with John Mack (NYP, earlier) Sources say Cruz has reconciled with her former boss Mack, who helped fuel her rise within their firm before their falling out. He has been helping his one-time protégée in her efforts to land at a buyout firm such as KKR. Mack also has been a shoulder for Cruz to lean on as she copes with the split from her husband Ernesto Cruz...[who] was once reprimanded by his superiors in the mid-2000s for frolicking in a hotel pool in Midtown after a company Christmas gala with a group of female assistants, according to sources familiar with the situation. SEC Chief Delayed Rule Over Legacy Concerns (WSJ) Internal SEC emails, released to a congressional panel and reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, appear to show how a last-minute intervention by a consumer lobbyist might have helped persuade Ms. Schapiro to change her mind and delay one of the centerpiece measures of the Jumpstart Our Business Startups, or JOBS, Act. In Panicky Russia, It’s Official: End of World Is Not Near (NYT) There are scattered reports of unusual behavior from across Russia's nine time zones. Inmates in a women's prison near the Chinese border are said to have experienced a "collective mass psychosis" so intense that their wardens summoned a priest to calm them. In a factory town east of Moscow, panicked citizens stripped shelves of matches, kerosene, sugar and candles. A huge Mayan-style archway is being built — out of ice — on Karl Marx Street in Chelyabinsk in the south. For those not schooled in New Age prophecy, there are rumors the world will end on Dec. 21, 2012, when a 5,125-year cycle known as the Long Count in the Mayan calendar supposedly comes to a close. Russia, a nation with a penchant for mystical thinking, has taken notice. Last week, Russia's government decided to put an end to the doomsday talk. Its minister of emergency situations said Friday that he had access to "methods of monitoring what is occurring on the planet Earth," and that he could say with confidence that the world was not going to end in December. He acknowledged, however, that Russians were still vulnerable to "blizzards, ice storms, tornadoes, floods, trouble with transportation and food supply, breakdowns in heat, electricity and water supply." Similar assurances have been issued in recent days by Russia's chief sanitary doctor, a top official of the Russian Orthodox Church, lawmakers from the State Duma and a former disc jockey from Siberia who recently placed first in the television show "Battle of the Psychics." One official proposed prosecuting Russians who spread the rumor — starting on Dec. 22. Old testimony may bite Cohen in SEC case (NYP) Steve Cohen’s sworn testimony in another legal skirmish could come back to haunt his $14 billion hedge-fund empire...In 2011, Cohen gave several days of deposition testimony in the civil fraud case, in which Fairfax sued SAC and other firms for allegedly conspiring to drive down its share price. The case was dismissed due to a lack of evidence, but the testimony offers a rare look into Cohen’s views on illegal trading. In his testimony, Cohen called SEC rules on insider trading “vague” and said he doesn’t expect his employees to follow the company’s internal compliance manual to the letter. When asked whether it was “legal or illegal to trade on material nonpublic information,” Cohen said: “It depends on the circumstance.” “So there are circumstances, in your view, in which it is legal . . . to trade on the basis of material, nonpublic information?” asked Fairfax ’s lawyer, Michael Bowe. “Yes,” Cohen said. Among them, he said, is when employees trade in the opposite direction of the nonpublic information they receive. He also said he didn’t expect employees to adhere to the company’s compliance manual in every situation. “See, we don’t operate our firm in absolutes,” he said. “When I look at this manual, I see guidelines.” Morgan Stanley trader probed over trades made while at Goldman (Reuters) Morgan Stanley trader Edward Glenn Hadden is under investigation by regulators at CME Group over trades in Treasury futures four years ago while he was employed by Goldman Sachs, according to a regulatory filing. Hadden is a managing director and head of global interest rates products at Morgan Stanley. Prior to joining Morgan Stanley, Hadden was a partner at Goldman Sachs, and head of government bond trading. Hedge Funds Increase Bullish Bets Most Since August (Bloomberg) Hedge funds increased bullish bets on commodities by the most since August as evidence that China is accelerating outweighed concern that U.S. lawmakers have yet to resolve an impasse over automatic spending cuts and tax rises. Krawcheck, possible SEC head, raises Washington (Reuters) ...many who have worked with her say Krawcheck was a smart, analytical and competent executive who not only knew the business, but was good at building consensus among different units of companies. She helped restore brokerage Smith Barney's reputation at Citigroup and was popular with many of the financial advisers at Merrill Lynch. Schumer and other lawmakers contacted by Reuters did not return calls or requests for comment about meetings with Krawcheck or their thoughts about her. In the end, of course, Krawcheck may not land in Washington at all, two people who know her said. She has had discussions about a variety of roles with several companies, one source said. "She has lots of balls in the air," said the source, who asked not to be named because the conversations were private. "Sallie always has a plan." Bret Easton Ellis mistakenly asks for cocaine on Twitter (DJ) Bret Easton Ellis, famed author of "American Psycho," tweeted a request for cocaine Sunday morning, leaving many to speculate that it was supposed to be a private message...“Come over at do bring coke now,” he tweeted at 3:44AM, stranding his 360,000 followers in a state of bewilderment regarding what the cryptic tweet could possibly mean.

Opening Bell: 12.05.12

Global Banking Under Siege as Nations Tighten Local Rules (Bloomberg) Regulators want to curtail risks exposed after global banks such as New York-based Citigroup, Edinburgh-based Royal Bank of Scotland and Zurich-based UBS took bailouts in the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression. Forcing lenders to dedicate capital and liquidity to multiple local subsidiaries, rather than a single parent, may undermine the business logic of a multinational structure. “Being big and spread out all over the world isn’t what it used to be,” said Mayra Rodriguez Valladares, managing principal at New York-based MRV Associates, which trains bank examiners and executives at financial firms. “You’ll see global banks jettison divisions abroad and at home.” Paulson Said to Blame Bet Against Europe for Most of Loss (Bloomberg) John Paulson, manager of $20 billion in hedge funds, told investors that the bulk of his losses this year came on bets that the European sovereign-debt crisis would worsen, according to a person familiar with the matter. Paulson, speaking to clients at his firm’s annual meeting yesterday in New York, said he has reduced those positions following European Central Bank President Mario Draghi’s comments in July that the ECB was committed to preserving the euro, said the person, who asked not to be identified because the meeting was private. Paulson said in a February letter to investors that the euro was “structurally flawed” and would eventually fall apart. In April, the founder of New York-based Paulson & Co. told clients he was wagering against European sovereign bonds and buying credit-default swaps on European debt, or protection against the chance of default. No Payback For Singer This Year (NYP) Paul Singer’s last-ditch attempt to get cash from Argentina this year has failed. A motion by Singer’s hedge fund, Elliott Management, requesting that the South American country put up a security deposit of $250 million by Dec. 10 was denied by a federal appeals court yesterday. “Since we will not have a big payment for ages (if ever), this looks like a huge blow to [Elliott’s] strategy,” said sovereign-debt expert Anna Gelpern. In Tax Fight, G.O.P. Seeks a Position to Fall Back On (NYT) Senator Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, who is retiring, joined a handful of other Republicans on Tuesday suggesting that Congress should pass the middle-class tax cut extensions now, then leave the fight over taxes and spending until later. Americans, she said, "should not even be questioning that we will ultimately raise taxes on low- to middle-income people." Congress could take that off the table "while you're grappling with tax cuts for the wealthy," she said. But any move toward compromise with Democrats on fiscal issues quickly comes under attack from conservatives as a surrender and unsettles the rank-and-file. It is a dynamic that has haunted Speaker John A. Boehner throughout the 112th Congress, as he has repeatedly been caught between the imperative to govern and the need to satisfy the restive right. Mr. Boehner, of Ohio, has drawn fire this week for removing a handful of House Republicans who have defied the leadership from their preferred committee seats, a step he took to enforce party discipline. Fed to launch fresh bond buying to help economy (Reuters) The Federal Reserve is set to announce a fresh round of Treasury bond purchases when it meets next week, avoiding monetary policy tightening to maintain support for the weak U.S. economy amid uncertainty over the looming year-end "fiscal cliff." Many economists think the U.S. central bank will announce monthly bond purchases of $45 billion after its policy gathering on December 11-12, signaling it will continue to pump money into the U.S. economy during 2013 in a bid to bring down unemployment. Merkel Wins Party Reelection, Eyes Third Term (Reuters) Merkel, at the height of her popularity, was returned unopposed as CDU chairwoman with 97.9 percent of votes from delegates who stood and applauded her for nearly eight minutes after she lauded Germany's economic resilience in the euro crisis and promised to fight for jobs and prosperity. McAfee Emerges From Hiding in Guatemala (FT) John McAfee, the antivirus software entrepreneur, has revealed that he has fled to Guatemala from Belize where he is wanted for questioning in relation to a murder. Posting on his website on Tuesday, the US citizen and multimillionaire said: "I apologize for all of the misdirections over the past few days . . . I am in Guatemala." His emergence closes one chapter in a bizarre chain of events that started last month when police in Belize, where Mr McAfee has lived for the past four years, discovered the dead body of Gregory Faull, the owner of a house close to Mr McAfee's main property on the island of Ambergris Caye. Mr McAfee - who Belize considers "a person of interest" in the murder investigation - fled, going into hiding and insisting on his innocence. He said he ran from the police because he believed that the Belize authorities were out to kill him. In response, Dean Barrow, the prime minister, said: "I don't want to be unkind to the gentleman, but I believe he is extremely paranoid". Mr McAfee revealed his location on Tuesday after a hacker called Simple Nomad disclosed his whereabouts by analyzing a mobile-phone photograph taken of McAfee on Monday that was posted on the internet. In a second blog post late Tuesday titled "the new fight", Mr McAfee said he had asked Telsforo Guerra, a former attorney-general of Guatemala, to help uncover what he claims is deep-rooted corruption in Belize. Separately, he told Reuters that Mr Guerra was trying to help him obtain political asylum in Guatemala, even though Belizean authorities have not charged him. EU Banks To Repay Cheap Loans (WSJ) Nearly a year ago, hundreds of European banks borrowed a total of more than €1 trillion ($1.3 trillion) from the European Central Bank as it scrambled to defuse an escalating crisis. Today, in a sign of the industry's partial healing, some of Europe's biggest banks are preparing to repay those loans. The push to repay the loans, however, has generated concerns that banks are moving prematurely and could be vulnerable if the euro-zone crisis intensifies again. The ECB activated the emergency loan program—known as the long-term refinancing operation, or LTRO—late last year, doling out two batches of inexpensive loans that are good for three years. Banks are permitted to repay them starting next month. Euro Crisis Feeds Corruption as Greece Slides in Rankings (Bloomberg) The European debt crisis has given way to a new wave of corruption as some of the most hard-hit countries in the turmoil have tumbled in an annual graft ranking, watchdog group Transparency International said. Greece, in its fifth year of recession and crippled by rounds of austerity, fell to 94th place from 80th -- ranking it below Colombia and Liberia, according to the group’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Ireland, Austria, Malta and Italy were also among member states in the single currency to slide. Moynihan: No Stress (Bloomberg) Bank of America CEO Brian T. Moynihan said the firm has plenty of capital and he’s confident it will pass the next US stress tests. “The question will be what to ask for and when, because we’re not going to fail this,” Moynihan said yesterday at a New York investor conference sponsored by Goldman Sachs. Moynihan, 53, is renewing efforts to win approval to raise the company’s dividend or repurchase shares after the Federal Reserve blocked an earlier request. Fed Filcher Gets Timeout (NYP) Bo Zhang, a Chinese-citizen computer programmer who worked for a contractor at the New York Fed, was sentenced to six months of home confinement for stealing Treasury Department software. Snake on a plane forces emergency landing (CNN) ...the incident forced the pilot to make an emergency landing in the Egyptian resort town of Al Ghardaqa on the Red Sea, according to The Jordan Times. An Egypt Air official told the paper an investigation revealed that a 48-year-old passenger, who owns a reptile shop in Kuwait, had hidden the Egyptian cobra in a carry-on bag. The passenger was trying to control the snake after it bit his hand and started slithering under the seats. The Egyptian daily al-Masry al-Youm reported that the man refused medical treatment, claiming his wound was only superficial. The plane resumed its flight to Kuwait after local authorities confiscated the snake. Doctors told the passenger he should spend 24 hours in a hospital for observation, but the man refused, the Egyptian Air official said, according to The Jordan Times.

Opening Bell: 12.07.12

SEC Warns Netflix CEO Over Facebook Post (WSJ) Mr. Hastings boasted on his Facebook page in July that Netflix exceeded 1 billion hours of video streaming in a month for the first time. The post may have violated rules of fair disclosure, the SEC said. The SEC said it may also issue a cease-and-desist proceeding against Netflix and Mr. Hastings. Mr. Hastings responded in another Facebook post Thursday. He said further disclosure at the time wasn't necessary because he has more than 200,000 subscribers to his Facebook page, which makes it a "very public" forum. Netflix had also disclosed on its blog in June that it was nearing the 1 billion streaming hours milestone, he said. Mr. Hastings, who is also on the board of Facebook, added that, at any rate, such information isn't a "material" event to investors. Germany's Central Bank Cuts Forecasts (WSJ) "The cyclical outlook for the German economy has dimmed [and] there are even indications that economic activity may fall in the final quarter of 2012 and the first quarter of 2013," the Bundesbank said in its monthly report. In its semiannual economic projections, the central bank slashed its forecast for German growth next year to 0.4% from its previous estimate of 1.6% in June. It also lowered its forecast for 2012 growth to 0.7% from 1.0%. Moody's: It's Deal Or Die (NYP) The American economy will fall into “severe recession by the spring” unless Congress lessens the tax increases and spending cuts that are set to begin in January, said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. “We’ve got to nail this down; uncertainty is killing us,” Zandi told lawmakers yesterday at a Joint Economic Committee hearing in Washington...If Congress were to “kick the can down the road” by extending the current tax-and-spend policies, Zandi predicted the US would lose its Aaa rating because “it would signal that the political will is lacking to put the nation on a sustainable fiscal path.” Fiscal Cliff? France Has ‘Fiscal Mountain’: PPR CEO (CNBC) The head of one of France's biggest companies has warned that France's problems dwarf those of the U.S. in an interview with CNBC. Francois-Henri Pinault, chief executive of luxury goods company PPR, said: "When we talk about the fiscal cliff in France it's a mountain, it's much higher than a cliff. And when it comes to France the only solution that has been put on the table is tax raises, nothing about cutting expenses. So it's a completely different situation." Greece sticks to buyback plan, says will shield banks (Reuters) Greece says it is sticking to plans to close its offer to buy back its own bonds from investors on Friday in a deal that should meet a debt writedown target set by its international lenders. The government said it would shield the country's banks from any lawsuits over losses booked if they take part in the buyback. The buyback, part of a broader debt relief package worth 40 billion euros ($52 billion) agreed by Greece's euro zone and International Monetary Fund lenders last month, is central to efforts to bring its debt to manageable levels. Judge: Ganek, Steinberg conspirators (NYP) Manhattan federal judge Richard Sullivan yesterday ruled that SAC Capital money manager Michael Steinberg and Level Global co-founder David Ganek can be named co-conspirators in the current insider trading case unfolding downtown. Neither Steinberg nor Ganek has been charged in the case, but the ruling lets prosecutors submit their e-mails and instant messages as evidence in their case against Todd Newman, a former portfolio manager at Diamondback, and Anthony Chiasson, Ganek’s former Level Global partner. The feds have accused Chiasson and Newman of improperly profiting off insider tips on Dell and Nvidia. Chiasson lawyer Greg Morvillo objected, saying that Chiasson’s former analyst Sam Adondakis, who pleaded guilty, testified that he never told Ganek he had an inside source at Dell. Judge Sullivan said the evidence is “certainly circumstantial” but sufficient enough for the government’s request to be granted. Sullivan cited the “precise information” Ganek had received leading up to Dell’s earnings as well as the “large trading positions” he authorized on the computer maker. The judge relied on three e-mail communications to implicate Steinberg, one of which he said made “clear references to keeping things on the down-low and being extra sensitive.” Burglary suspect calls 911 after Springtown homeowner holds him at gunpoint (DN) In a strange flip of events, a burglary suspect called 911 early Tuesday to report that he was being held at gunpoint by a Springtown homeowner and his son. The homeowner called 911, too, but by then he was in control, holding him at gunpoint and demanding to know what he was doing in his home. “Just unlucky, I guess,” the man responded, according to a release from the Parker County Sheriff’s Department. The incident happened around 12:30 a.m. when the homeowner and his wife woke up to find an intruder in the bedroom of their home in the 100 block of Lelon Lane. The suspect, identified as 41-year-old Christopher Lance Moore of Bedford, left the home and sat in his GMC pickup, parked in the family’s driveway. The homeowner followed him with a pistol, took the suspect’s keys and blocked his getaway with his own vehicle, while his stepson trained a shotgun on Moore, Fox 4 News reports. “If he gets out of the truck, shoot him in the legs,” James Gerow told his son. “You ain’t gotta kill him; just shoot him in the legs. … If he’d got out, I’d have expected him to shoot him.” When deputies arrived, both men were on the phone with 911. Deputies asked Moore why he had broken into the home, to which he merely said he had “bad intentions.” Morgan Stanley Alters Broker Pay Plan as Revenue Bonus Takes Hit (Bloomberg) Morgan Stanley, the brokerage with the biggest corps of financial advisers, changed its wealth- management compensation plan to encourage brokers to increase revenue and allow them to buy discounted stock. The 2013 program pays a bonus of 2 to 5 percentage points of revenue for advisers who bring in new assets and are in the top 40 percent in revenue growth, according to terms outlined in a summary obtained yesterday by Bloomberg News. That comes at the expense of a 2 percentage-point reduction in the revenue bonus paid to all brokers who generate at least $750,000. JPM Bonus Bummer (Bloomberg) JPMorgan Chase’s bonus pool for the corporate and investment bank may shrink as much as 2 percent this year as the firm completes performance reviews, three executives with direct knowledge of the process said. Fed Exit Plan May Be Redrawn as Assets Near $3 Trillion (Bloomberg) A decision by the Federal Reserve to expand its bond buying next week is likely to prompt policy makers to rewrite their 18-month old blueprint for an exit from record monetary stimulus. Under the exit strategy, the Fed would start selling bonds in mid-2015 in a bid to return its holdings to pre-crisis proportions in two to three years. An accelerated buildup of assets would also mean a faster pace of sales when the time comes to exit -- increasing the risk that a jump in interest rates would crush the economic recovery. A decision by the Federal Reserve to expand its bond buying next week is likely to prompt policy makers to rewrite their 18-month old blueprint for an exit from record monetary stimulus. Under the exit strategy, the Fed would start selling bonds in mid-2015 in a bid to return its holdings to pre-crisis proportions in two to three years. An accelerated buildup of assets would also mean a faster pace of sales when the time comes to exit -- increasing the risk that a jump in interest rates would crush the economic recovery. Danger Lurks Inside The Bond Boom (WSJ) Amid the rush of bond deals, which already have topped $1 trillion in value, these managers—from BlackRock to Federated Investment Management Co.—are pointing to unusual wrinkles suggesting that now could be one of the most dangerous times in decades to lend to investment-grade companies. Interest rates are so low and bond prices so high, they warn, that there is little room left for gains. Some worry that even a small increase in interest rates—a traditional enemy of bond returns—could eat away at bond prices. College Student Poisons Roommate's Iced Tea With Bleach Following Argument (DM) A college student faces 15 years in jail after she allegedly sprayed bleach into her roommate's iced tea. Kayla Ashlyn Bonkowski, 19, was charged with felony poisoning and appeared in court on Wednesday. She reportedly told police that she had put chemicals in the drink following an argument about cleaning the dishes with her 20-year-old roommate Emily Joseph. The poisoning occurred on November 7 at the students' apartment in Union Township, located near the Mount Pleasant school of Central Michigan University, authorities said. Miss Joseph was taken to hospital for treatment but later released. After she filed a complaint, Bonkowski was arrested. The 19-year-old 'verbally admitted' to police that she put bleach in the drink because 'Joseph is mean', according to ABC. She was arraigned on Wednesday at 2pm before posting $2,000 bond. She entered a plea of not guilty to the charge of poisoning a food, drink, medicine or water supply. The college student faces up to 15 years in prison. Reached by e-mail, Bonkowski said on Wednesday morning that she needed to consult with a lawyer before commenting.

Opening Bell: 01.08.13

Obama Said Close to Choosing Lew for Treasury Secretary (Bloomberg) President Barack Obama may choose White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew to replace Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner as soon as this week, according to two people familiar with the matter. The selection of Lew would trigger a White House shuffle for Obama’s second term as he replaces his chief of staff and moves senior aides into new roles, said the people, who requested anonymity to discuss personnel matters. While Obama hasn’t made a final decision to pick Lew, the president’s staff has been instructed to prepare for his nomination, said one of the people. Rescued by a Bailout, AIG May Sue Its Savior (NYT) The board of A.I.G. will meet on Wednesday to consider joining a $25 billion shareholder lawsuit against the government, court records show. The lawsuit does not argue that government help was not needed. It contends that the onerous nature of the rescue — the taking of what became a 92 percent stake in the company, the deal's high interest rates and the funneling of billions to the insurer's Wall Street clients — deprived shareholders of tens of billions of dollars and violated the Fifth Amendment, which prohibits the taking of private property for "public use, without just compensation." Greenberg: 'Cadre' Hurt AIG (NYP) Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, former chief executive officer of American International Group, says in a soon-to-be-published book that the company was almost destroyed by overzealous overseers. The insurer was “ultimately taken over and run aground by a cadre of auditors, lawyers, outside directors, and government officials,” according to an excerpt of “The AIG Story” on Amazon.com’s website. JPMorgan’s Staley Quits to Join BlueMountain Hedge Fund (Bloomberg) ames E. Staley, the JPMorgan Chase executive who was once seen as a possible candidate to become chief executive officer, quit to join BlueMountain Capital Management LLC, a $12 billion hedge fund with close ties to the New York bank. Staley, who was at JPMorgan for more than 34 years, most recently as chairman of the corporate and investment bank, will become a managing partner and purchase a stake in BlueMountain, the New York-based firm said today in a statement. Proceeds from the stake sale will be invested in new infrastructure, technology and people, the firm said. “I’m very excited to be joining BlueMountain at a time when sea changes in the financial industry combined with the firm’s unique strengths open up enormous possibilities to deliver value to clients,” Staley, 56, said in the statement. HSBC N.J. Client Admits Conspiracy in Offshore Tax Case (Bloomberg) A New Jersey client of HSBC Holdings pleaded guilty to charges that he hid as much as $4.7 million through Swiss and Indian accounts not declared to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. Sanjay Sethi, 52, who owns SanVision Technology Inc., conspired with HSBC bankers in New York, London and Geneva to hide assets from the IRS, he admitted yesterday in federal court in Newark, New Jersey. Sethi will pay a $2.37 million penalty for failing to file reports required for foreign accounts. “Sethi and his co-conspirators used nominee and shell companies formed in tax-haven jurisdictions and elsewhere to conceal the defendant’s ownership and control of assets and income from the IRS,” according to his charging document. Bill Ackman Says Just Getting Started Exposing Herbalife (Bloomberg) “We’re prepared to spend whatever it costs and do whatever is required to make sure that the world understands the facts about this company,” he said in a telephone interview. “We can’t imagine how the SEC or the Federal Trade Commission or any other relevant regulator will ignore what we have said.” Ackman said he would make all his information available to U.S. regulators. Chinese Tech Titans Eye Brazil (WSJ) The Chinese like emerging markets because, for a change, they don't have to start way behind established American companies. By moving into Brazil aggressively, Chinese PC maker Lenovo Group and Internet-search company Baidu hope to gain an edge over companies like Hewlett-Packard and Google In addition, some U.S. companies that are leaders at home and in Europe have a smaller footprint here because of Brazil's long history of protectionism and red tape and its high cost of labor, particularly compared with Asia. Oregon brewer Daniel Keeton creates nutritional, non-alcoholic brew for his dog (NYDN) Oregon man Daniel Keeton enjoys serving beer to customers at the brewery he works for, so why shouldn't he serve up some healthy brew for the dog he cares about? The dog brew is non-alcoholic of course, but it is a big hit with Keeton's canine Lola Jane. And now Keeton's special brew is available to anyone who wants it. After years of planning, Keeton launched his company Dawg Grog over the summer. Keeton, who works at Boneyard Brewery in Bend, says Dawg Grog is good for the dogs, and they can't seem to get enough of it. "Bend is a dog-loving community and a beer-loving community," Keeton told the Daily News on Monday. "I wanted to marry those two together in some way." Keeton spent years refining the ingredients to his special brew, which includes low-sodium vegetable broth, water and spent grain from Boneyard Brewery. "After a couple of years of trying recipes I came up with one that I am really happy with, and one that my dog is really happy with," he said. Secret Goldman Team Sidesteps Volcker After Blankfein Vow (Bloomberg) MSI wagers about $1 billion of the New York-based firm’s own funds on the stocks and bonds of companies, including a mortgage servicer and a cement producer, according to interviews with more than 20 people who worked for and with the group, some as recently as last year. The unit, headed by two 1999 Princeton University classmates, has no clients, the people said...The team of about a dozen people, based at the firm’s Manhattan headquarters, is headed by Daniel Oneglia and Geoff Adamson. Oneglia was treasurer of the Princeton eating club Tiger Inn, where his nicknames included “the Don” and “the Weasel,” according to the university’s website. Adamson was coxswain for men’s heavyweight varsity crew. A Boston Globe photo shows teammates flinging him into a Massachusetts lake after a victory. Carlyle Bags $4 Billion Profit From China Insurance Exit (Reuters) Private equity firm Carlyle Group sold its remaining stake in China's No.3 insurer CPIC in a deal valued at $793 million, exiting the business with its largest dollar profit on an investment. After several stake sales in the past two years, Carlyle will finish with a total profit of more than $4 billion, five times the $800 million it invested in CPIC between 2005 and 2007 for a 17 percent stake, Thomson Reuters calculations show. By private equity standards, where making two times cash paid and a few hundred million is considered a success, the CPIC exit is an historic deal for Carlyle. London Quantitative Hedge Funds Report Second Year of Losses (Bloomberg) The performance of the funds belies their popularity with investors, who’ve poured $108.2 billion into the pools since the end of 2008, according to Fairfield, Iowa-based BarclayHedge Ltd. While quants made money during the financial crisis when other hedge funds didn’t, they’ve since stumbled as market sentiment swung from optimism to pessimism following political announcements in Washington and Brussels, breaking up the trends they try to follow. That may force investors to withdraw money. Japan Executives Warn Yen May Get Too Weak (WSJ) The executives, who gathered at an annual New Year's reception held by Japan's three biggest corporate lobbies, praised Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's new government for its proposals to boost the economy and tame the strong yen, which erodes exporters' profits and makes it harder to sell Japan-made goods overseas. But they also cautioned that if the economy stays weak, or if the government doesn't take steps to get its bloated finances under control, investors could lose confidence in Japan and flee, sending the yen into free fall. KFC diner stumbles upon strange brain-like organ in his meal (TS) Disgusted Ibrahim Langoo was tucking into a Gladiator box meal when he spotted what he thought was a “wrinkled brain” inside a piece of chicken. KFC have apologised and, after having the photographs analysed, reckon the unsightly organ may in fact be a kidney. The 19-year-old took a photograph of the three-inch stomach-churning discovery on his mobile phone and complained to staff. Apologetic bosses at the fast-food chain – known for its Finger Lickin’ Good slogan – have now offered him vouchers for even more KFC meals.

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.”