Opening Bell: 10.07.13

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A U.S. Default Seen as Catastrophe Dwarfing Lehman’s Fall (Bloomberg)
Failure by the world’s largest borrower to pay its debt -- unprecedented in modern history -- will devastate stock markets from Brazil to Zurich, halt a $5 trillion lending mechanism for investors who rely on Treasuries, blow up borrowing costs for billions of people and companies, ravage the dollar and throw the U.S. and world economies into a recession that probably would become a depression. Among the dozens of money managers, economists, bankers, traders and former government officials interviewed for this story, few view a U.S. default as anything but a financial apocalypse.

Boehner Says House Won’t Vote on Clean Debt Limit Bill (Bloomberg)
U.S. Speaker John Boehner said the House can’t pass an increase to the U.S. debt ceiling without packaging it with other provisions -- something President Barack Obama has labeled a nonstarter. “We are not going to pass a clean debt limit,” Boehner said yesterday in an interview on ABC’s “This Week” program. “The votes are not in the House to pass a clean debt limit.” Boehner said he thinks the U.S. could end up in default if Obama doesn’t negotiate. “That’s the path we’re on,” he said...While Obama will negotiate on budget details or to strengthen the Affordable Care Act, he “is not going to sanction negotiations with any faction that are using the threat of default as a way of extracting policy in our democracy,” Gene Sperling, director of the president’s National Economic Council, said at a breakfast today sponsored by Politico.

Greek Budget Sees End To Six-Year Recession Next Year (Reuters)
Twice bailed-out Athens also confirmed it would post a budget surplus before interest payments this year for the first time in over a decade, and its battered economy won a vote of confidence from billionaire U.S. investor John Paulson...U.S. hedge fund group Paulson & Co said it expected the protracted recession to bottom out this year, making Greece's recapitalized banking sector an attractive investment play on the country's recovery after a deep six-year slump.

Buffett's Crisis-Lending Haul Reaches $10 Billion (WSJ)
The latest windfall for the Omaha, Neb., billionaire and his conglomerate, Berkshire Hathaway Inc., came when candy maker Mars Inc. repaid $4.4 billion that its subsidiary, Wrigley, borrowed in 2008. That payment alone is expected to net Berkshire a profit of at least $680 million...Besides Mars and Bank of America, Berkshire made investments in Goldman Sachs Group, Swiss Re Ltd., Dow Chemical Co., and General Electric. Several deals are continuing to pay hefty dividends. Berkshire also owns equity stakes in the firms, or warrants to buy them, that add several billion dollars more to the company's return on investments, at least on paper.

Cinnabon President Worked As As Hooter's Waitress (NYP)
Cinnabon’s 35-year-old chief, Kat Cole, has always worked on the naughtier side of the food industry. Before being named Cinnabon president three years ago, where she oversees a business with $1 billion-plus in sales, she worked at Hooters in Jacksonville, Fla., when she was still in high school. At 16, wanting to earn money to buy a car, Cole greeted Hooters customers at the door and cleared tables.
At 18, Cole became a Hooters Girl, dressed in tiny orange shorts and a revealing top, serving beer and chicken wings. She became a Hooters bartender, then a manager trainer, and started work on a college degree in engineering. Hooters then asked the 20-year-old Cole to open franchises around the world. Such was the start of a 16-year career at the bawdy restaurant chain, where she ultimately became an executive vice president. One of the biggest lessons she learned from the experience was to never try to hide what makes a company unique. “The central piece of the business model was the girls,” Cole says. “You can’t ever try to hide it, or say, ‘Come to Hooters, it’s all about the food.’ The fact is, the focus was the Hooters Girls, and that is what made it special.”

Moody's CEO: US default 'extremely unlikely' (CNBC)
"It is extremely unlikely that the Treasury is not going to continue to pay on those securities," Moody's CEO Raymond McDaniel said in an interview with CNBC. "Hopefully it is unlikely that we go past October 17 and fail to raise the debt ceiling, but even if that does happen, then we think that the U.S. Treasury is still going to pay on those Treasury securities," he added.

Gold Befuddles Bernanke as Central Banks’ Losses at $545 Billion (Bloomberg)
Bernanke, who holds economics degrees from Harvard College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and led the Federal Reserve through the biggest financial disaster since the Great Depression, told the Senate Banking Committee in July that “nobody really understands gold prices and I don’t pretend to really understand them either.” Central banks, which own 18 percent of all the gold ever mined, will add as much as 350 tons valued at about $15 billion this year, the London-based World Gold Council estimates. They purchased 535 tons in 2012, the most since 1964. Russia is the biggest buyer, expanding reserves by 20 percent since prices reached a record $1,921.15 an ounce in September 2011. Gold slumped 31 percent since then.

Investor Trying To Pry Pepsi From Its Snack Business (NYP)
Nelson Peltz is nothing if not persistent. Months after a mainly solo effort to get PepsiCo to split its snacks business from its beverage unit so it could then buy Mondelez failed, the activist investor appears to be tilting at the same windmill, sources tell The Post. Peltz’s Trian Fund Management has reached out to some of PepsiCo’s largest shareholders in the last several weeks to gauge how much support there is for such a move, these sources said. If he finds support, Peltz may even attempt to gain a PepsiCo board seat, sources familiar with effort said.

Buffalo neighbors miss crack-dealing grandmother (NYDN)
Theresa Anderson controlled the drug game for a dozen years on Buffalo’s East Side, presiding like a godmother over a pair of poor streets. “I miss Theresa, I really do,” neighbor Debra Walker said. “I actually felt safer. Now my place has been broken into.” Anderson, 58, bought up at least 10 houses in the crumbling neighborhoods along Swinburne and Deshler streets, and operated a bustling crack trade with the help of her many relatives. Federal prosecutors said the family trampled rival dealers through violence and intimidation, but neighbors said organization also kept the area clean and safe for the people who lived there. Neighbor Deanna Gresko said Anderson wasn’t a “gang-banger drug dealer who would threaten you.”

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Opening Bell: 01.03.13

Fresh Budget Fights Brewing (WSJ) If Congress doesn't do more in the coming months, Moody's warned, the company could follow Standard & Poor's in downgrading U.S. debt. "Further measures that bring about a downward debt trajectory over the medium term are likely to be needed to support the AAA rating," Moody's said Wednesday. But the battles on how to do that are far from over. Republicans say any further deficit reduction or legislation to avoid across-the-board spending cuts should come from reducing spending. President Obama and many Democrats advocate a combination of tax increases and spending cuts. The most serious skirmish will arrive toward the end of February, when the U.S. Treasury is expected to be unable to pay all the government's bills unless Congress boosts the federal borrowing limit. Then on March 1, the across-the-board spending cuts of the fiscal cliff, deferred in this week's deal, are scheduled to begin slicing into military and domestic programs. And on March 27, a government shutdown looms unless Congress approves funding for government operations for the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. CEOs Pan Fiscal Cliff Deal, Vow to Continue Debt Fight (Reuters) "I think this deal's a disaster," said Peter Huntsman, chief executive of chemical producer Huntsman Corp. "We're just living in a fantasy land. We're borrowing more and more money. This did absolutely nothing to address the fundamental issue of the debt cliff." Former Wells Fargo CEO Dick Kovacevich said the agreement confirms that Washington and both parties are totally out of control. "I think it's a joke," Kovacevich said of the deal. "It's stunning to me that after working on this for months and supposedly really getting to work in the last 30 days that this is what you come up with." Obama’s Warning to Boehner Started Road to Budget Plan (Bloomberg) President Barack Obama had a warning for John Boehner at a Dec. 13 White House meeting: Stop opposing higher tax rates for top earners, or the president would dedicate his second term to blaming Republicans for a global recession. The next day, the House speaker called the president and said he was open to a tax-rate increase on annual income of more than $1 million...While the budget deal Obama and Boehner were negotiating fell apart, the speaker’s concession on tax rates ultimately allowed Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, to craft the last-minute plan Congress passed Jan. 1. Nouriel Roubini: US Will Soon 'Get Messy' Again (CNBC) "It won't be long before there is another crisis. Two months, in fact." Pershing to Take 'Passive Shareholder' Role in General Growth (WSJ) Pershing Square Capital Management LP agreed to sell $271.9 million in General Growth Properties warrants to Brookfield Asset Management Inc., as part of a deal between the mall owner's two biggest shareholders that would resolve their recent disputes and see Pershing become a passive shareholder. Brookfield, in turn, offered to sell the warrants, which represent the right to acquire 18.4 million shares of General Growth stock, back to General Growth for the same purchase price. Pershing also agreed to limit its ownership stake in General Growth to no more than 9.9% and intends to become a passive shareholder. Brookfield agreed to limit its ownership in General Growth to 45%. Bank Of Canada won’t discuss melting plastic bills, says national security behind silence (NP) Disclosing details of behind-the-scenes discussions about tales of melting banknotes could endanger national security or international relations, says Canada’s central bank. In response to a formal request from The Canadian Press, the Bank Of Canada released 134 pages of internal records — almost completely blanked out — concerning allegations its new polymer bills melted in the scorching summer sun. The bank began issuing $100 polymer banknotes in late 2011, saying they were harder to counterfeit than paper notes and would last much longer. Unconfirmed reports of cooked currency emerged in July when a Kelowna, B.C., bank teller said she had heard of cases in which several bills had melted together inside a car. Soon after, Mona Billard of Cambridge, Ont., reported that she had returned eight plastic bills in January, after her son stashed his $800 Christmas bonus in a tin can and hid it near a baseboard heater. When he retrieved them the next day to make a deposit, the $100 banknotes had shriveled and melted. Ms. Billard exchanged clean bills for the shrunken, unusable ones. “The leather couch is up against the baseboard heater, it doesn’t melt,” she said. “The kids’ toys are back there, they don’t melt.” The Bank of Canada will reimburse damaged notes, but only if they clear an examination by an Ottawa laboratory. Paulson&Co Added To Abacus Suit Against Goldman (Bloomberg) Paulson & Co. was named as a defendant in a proposed revised lawsuit by ACA Financial Guaranty Corp. against Goldman Sachs over a collateralized debt obligation called Abacus. Paulson conspired with Goldman Sachs to deceive ACA Financial, which provided financial guaranty insurance for the deal, ACA Financial said in papers filed yesterday in Manhattan. Private Sector Added 215,000 Jobs Last Month (WSJ) Economists surveyed by Dow Jones Newswires expected ADP to report a gain of 150,000 private jobs. Preet Bharara and other financial heavyweights opposing Paul Singer's attempt to get Argentina to pay debt (NYP) US Attorney Preet Bharara and BlackRock CEO Larry Fink are among the latest bold-faced names to oppose Singer’s attempt to get Argentina to pay him and others $1.3 billion on defaulted debt. Singer, the hedge fund billionaire who runs Elliott Management, is among the 8 percent of Argentina debtholders who refused to accept a 70 percent haircut following a 2001 default by the embattled South American country. Singer inched closer to winning the epic legal showdown in November when a federal judge ruled Argentina could not pay Fink’s BlackRock or other holders of the reorganized debt without putting money in escrow for Singer’s band of investors. An appeals court slowed Singer’s victory parade but refused to set aside the judge’s order. Now, Bharara, Fink’s $3.67 trillion bond firm and others are urging the appeals court to throw the case out. Basel Becomes Babel as Conflicting Rules Undermine Safety (Bloomberg) While higher capital requirements, curbs on banks trading with their own money and other rules have reduced risk, they have magnified the complexity of supervision, according to two dozen regulators, bankers and analysts interviewed by Bloomberg News. Even if the new regulations can be enforced, they don’t go far enough to ensure safety, said Robert Jenkins, a member of the Bank of England’s financial policy committee. Cops: Woman, 50, Battered Boyfriend, 32, Because Six Came Before Nine (TSG) Jennie Scott, 50, was booked into the Manatee County lockup on a misdemeanor charge stemming from the 11 PM encounter in the Palmetto bedroom of Jilberto Deleon, 32. Scott has dated Deleon “for the last 5 years on and off,” according to a sheriff’s report. Deputies were summoned to Deleon’s home by a witness who heard the couple arguing and saw Scott atop Deleon “punching and scratching him.” She also allegedly struck Deleon with a stick and threatened to hit him with a wrench before the tool was taken from her hand by the witness. When questioned by a cop, Scott explained that she and Deleon “were giving each other oral pleasure in the bedroom” when Deleon “finished first and stopped pleasuring her.” Scott added that she “became upset and they began arguing.” A deputy noted that Scott said that she was also mad at Deleon because she had “heard [him] having sex with another woman over the phone earlier in the day.” Scott struggled with deputies before being placed in a police cruiser, where she kicked a window until being warned that she would be maced unless she stopped.

Opening Bell: 01.16.13

Goldman Profit Soars (WSJ) "While economic conditions remained challenging for much of last year, the strengths of our business model and client franchise, coupled with our focus on disciplined management, delivered solid performance for our shareholders," Chief Executive Lloyd C. Blankfein said. Overall, the investment-banking arm recorded revenue of $1.41 billion for the quarter, up from $857 million a year ago and $1.16 billion in the third quarter. Financial advisory revenue rose 8.1% from year ago. Debt underwriting revenue surged to $593 million from $196 million in the year ago and the $466 million reported in the third quarter. Equity underwriting revenue popped 59% from the year ago and 61% from the prior quarter to $304 million. Revenue from fixed income, currency and commodity trading totaled $2.04 billion, versus $1.36 billion a year earlier and $2.22 billion in the third quarter. Revenue from equities execution rose 45% from a year ago to $764 million but fell 10% from the third quarter. Overall profit for the fourth quarter totaled $2.89 billion, compared with a year-earlier profit of $1.01 billion. Earnings per share, reflecting the payment of preferred dividends, jumped to $5.60 from $1.84. Net revenue, including net interest income, surged 53% to $9.24 billion. JPMorgan Profit Tops Estimates (WSJ) JPMorgan's fourth-quarter earnings surged 53% on strong revenue and better credit, as the bank further detailed the fallout from more than $6 billion in trading losses last year. The outsized, complex trades on credit default swaps tied to corporate bonds became known as the "London Whale." On Wednesday, the bank made public an internal report outlining mistakes and oversights by executives who played a role in the matter, including Chief Investment Officer Ina Drew, who has since left the bank, and Douglas Braunstein, who was chief financial officer during the episode and has since become a vice chairman. It also said its Treasury and Chief Investment Office, where the "Whale" trades were made, recorded a loss of $157 million on the fourth quarter, compared to net income of $417 million in the year ago. J.P. Morgan also said it halved the 2012 compensation of Chief Executive James Dimon to $11.5 million. Additionally, he will have to wait up to another 18 months before he can start exercising two million options that were awarded to him five years ago. Overall, J.P. Morgan reported a profit of $5.69 billion, or $1.39 a share, for the fourth quarter, up from $3.73 billion, or 90 cents a share, a year ago. Bankers Get IOUs Instead Of Bonus Cash (WSJ) Several thousand Morgan Stanley traders, investment bankers and other employees will get IOUs instead of cash when bonus day arrives Thursday, a fundamental change in Wall Street pay triggered by the financial crisis. The New York company will pay its bonuses in four equal installments, according to people briefed on the plan, with the first chunk coming in May and the last in January 2016. Employees who quit or are laid off before the payments stand to lose their deferred compensation unless they negotiate a separate deal with the company. "I don't think there will be a lot of cheers on the trading floors of Morgan Stanley," said Mark Williams, a former Federal Reserve bank examiner who now teaches at Boston University. "Bonuses were used to buy houses and cars. They were savings vehicles." AIG Seeks Approval To File More Bank Suits (NYT) Since the summer of 2011, the insurance giant American International Group has been battling Bank of America over claims that the bank packaged and sold it defective mortgages that dealt A.I.G. billions of dollars in losses. Now A.I.G. wants to be able to sue other banks that sold it mortgage-backed securities that plunged in value during the financial crisis. It has not said which banks, but possibilities include Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase. But to sue, A.I.G. first must win a court fight with an entity controlled by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, which the insurer says is blocking its efforts to pursue the banks that caused it financial harm. Hungary Attacks Roubini Over Currency 'Advice' (CNBC) Hungary's Ministry for National Economy said in a statement that the forint began to depreciate after economist Nouriel Roubini – dubbed Dr Doom for his pessimistic forecasts – said in a newsletter that failure to secure a deal with the International Monetary Fund was bad news for the currency. The forint has been in decline since last week hitting seven-month lows earlier this week but has since gained some ground. Hungarian officials rounded on Roubini saying; "On Thursday speculators seem to have taken Roubini's advice and attacked the forint." BofA Takes A Mortgage Mulligan (WSJ) Less than two years after embarking on a painful retreat from home lending, Bank of America Corp. is girding for a new run at the U.S. mortgage business. Whether that gamble pays off will depend in large measure on how long the mortgage market's run of record profits continues. The Charlotte, N.C., company aims to sell more mortgages through its 5,000-plus branches, executives said. The fourth-biggest U.S. mortgage lender, after Wells Fargo & Co., J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. and U.S. Bancorp, is intent on "growing that business," Chief Executive Brian Moynihan said at a December investor conference. Eurozone Plan May Be Watered Down (WSJ) One of the euro zone's most significant commitments last year aimed at containing its financial crisis—a plan to allow the bloc's bailout fund to directly boost the capital of banks in countries facing debt troubles—could be undermined by technical complications and second thoughts by some governments. Germany Repatriates Gold Reserves (WSJ) Germany's central bank said it would remove nearly a fifth of its total gold reserves from deposits at the New York Federal Reserve Bank and the Bank of France and bring them back to Germany, amid a debate in the country over the transparency of its global gold holdings. Inside Trader Sent To Kinnu-can (NYP) John Kinnucan, the former head of Portland, Ore.-based firm Broadband Research, was sentenced to four years and three months in prison after admitting to feeding illegal stock tips to his well-heeled hedge fund clients. Reporter fired for secret stripping job gets new journalism gig with same (NYDN) Tressler, 30, is now a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News, covering “cops, crime and general mayhem,” according to her Twitter account. In April, the gorgeous Tressler was fired from her job as a society reporter for the Houston Chronicle for failing to tell the newspaper about her after-hours gig as a stripper, which she chronicled in her blog, “Diary of an Angry Stripper.” Tressler then sued her former employer's parent company, the Hearst Corp., which also owns the Express-News, alleging that the firing was unfair. She hired celebrity lawyer Gloria Allred and filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, saying the paper’s reason for firing her -- failing to write on her application that she had been working part-time as a stripper -- was ridiculous. "I've worked at KB Toys. I've worked at a surf shop. I've worked at multiple coffee shops. I've worked at Taco Bell. I've worked as a line cook at a restaurant," Tressler told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in June. “Do you really want me to put every single one of those on my job application?" Over the summer, Tressler embarked on a national stripping tour and pushed a book, which shared the same title as her blog. She also picked up some freelance assignments for “Good Morning America.” After the suit and the tour, it seemed unlikely Tressler would re-enter Texas journalism, let alone for a newspaper owned by the same parent company that fired her. Some have suspected that her new job was part of a settlement she reached with the company.

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: 12.21.12

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