Opening Bell: 11.22.13

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SAC’s Steinberg went bad as income plunged: prosecutors (NYP)
As Steinberg’s total pay sank to that level in 2008 from about $5 million the prior year, the 41-year-old hedgie started using illegal insider tips to score some very profitable trades, a federal court jury was told Thursday. Steinberg used illegal tips on Dell in 2008, supplied by his analyst Jon Horvath, to score huge profits, the government has charged. SAC’s CFO Dan Berkowitz told the jury in Manhattan federal court that Steinberg’s total pay took a hit in 2008 as Wall Street reeled from the financial crash.

Draghi Makes Case For Low ECB Rates (WSJ)
European Central Bank President Mario Draghi reinforced his message to a German audience Friday that the central bank's low interest rates help savers by supporting the economy, countering concerns that low rates depress savers' returns. Mr. Draghi and the ECB have both faced some criticism in Germany, a country with an entrenched belief in sound money and a fear of inflation, since the ECB cut its main interest rate to a record low earlier this month. "It is important to understand that interest rates are low because the economy is weak. If we raised rates, we would further depress the economy, people would lose their jobs, and then their savings would be lower for longer," Mr. Draghi said in a speech at the European Banking Congress here.

German Business Confidence Increases as Recovery on Track (Bloomberg)
German companies are becoming more optimistic as they invest to take advantage of domestic unemployment near a two-decade low and the end of the euro area’s longest-ever recession. Investor confidence rose to the highest level in four years in November and the Bundesbank said this week that the nation’s economy remains on a “solid growth path.”

IMF Urges Spanish Banks to Raise Capital (WSJ)
The International Monetary Fund recommended Friday that Spanish banks raise more capital and keep their dividend payments capped in 2014 to facilitate lending to an economy constrained by tight credit. A fragile economic environment and small buffers of excess capital underscore "the need for Spanish banks to continue efforts to maintain recently achieved capital levels in ways that do not rely excessively on credit contraction," the IMF said in a report on the country's progress in cleaning up its banking industry.

Professional chicken catcher fired over his attitude can't get jobless aid, Pa. court says (PennLive)
Professional chicken catcher Joshua Spickler was fired in January over what his ex-employer said was a bad attitude. On Thursday, Commonwealth Court concluded that was enough to deny the Northumberland County man unemployment compensation benefits, too, on grounds that his supposed negativity constituted willful misconduct. The state court turned aside Spickler's arguments that the evidence his attitude had declined to the point where it was negatively affecting co-workers at B&B Catching Services Inc. was nothing but hearsay. According to court filings, Spickler worked at B&B in Dornsife for nearly five years. His former employer claimed his attitude started going downhill after he and co-workers were told in May 2012 that their bonuses would be reduced because of a downturn in business. Spickler's alleged poor attitude resulted first in his demotion from a crew chief post. His employers claimed he started refusing orders, cut up a company gas card and spoke ill of the firm to fellow employees. He was warned that he could be fired if he didn't change his ways, B&B officials claimed.

Critics say Sears CEO aims for liquidation (NYP)
Hedge-fund tycoon Eddie Lampert insisted Thursday that he’s bent on a “transformation” of Sears Holdings as its chairman and CEO, envisioning a high-tech retailer that more deftly serves its shoppers. “We are proactively transforming our business to a member-centric integrated retailer,” he said, as Sears’s third-quarter loss widened to $534 million on a 6.6-percent sales drop. Critics say these strategies are gimmicks to mask Lampert’s plan to milk the company’s cash for as long as he can before finally liquidating the chain. Sears also said it’s still looking to sell stores and spin off assets including Lands’ End and its Auto Centers to shore up fast-dwindling cash reserves. “Sears is going the way of the Titanic, and Eddie is busy selling off the deck chairs,” said Robin Lewis, CEO and managing editor of the Robin Report.

Bank of America Intern’s 5 A.M. E-Mail Before Death Worried Mom (Bloomberg)
“It may be that Moritz had been working so hard that his fatigue was a trigger for the seizure that killed him,” Coroner Mary Hassell said at the inquest today. “But that is only a possibility.” The plight of Erhardt prompted Bank of America to set up a panel of senior managers to “review all aspects of this tragedy,” the bank said following his death. Erhardt was found unconscious at Claredale House, a student residential facility in East London. He was pronounced dead at the scene at 8:34 p.m. after being treated by paramedics. “Moritz had a natural cause of death, though it’s not so natural that a young man should die like this,” Hassell said. Erhardt’s parents told the coroner that their son contacted them the day before his death in a 5 a.m. e-mail. “My wife noticed in his last week that he didn’t get enough sleep,” Hans-Georg Dieterle, his father, said. “We thought this might be a risk in terms of his epilepsy.”

Party City Planning 2014 IPO (Reuters)
Party City, the largest US party goods retailer acquired just over a year ago by buyout firm Thomas H. Lee Partners for $2.69 billion, is preparing for an initial public offering, according to people familiar with the matter. Thomas H. Lee is working with banks including Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley on a plan that could see shares of the 800-unit chain begin trading publicly in the first half of 2014, those people said. The full syndicate of underwriters has yet to be finalized so plans are fluid, according to the sources, who asked not to be identified because the discussions between Party City and the banks are confidential.

Miss Italia Finalist Busted In Milan For Drug Trafficking (NYDN)
Samantha Scarlino, 32, was detained in a Milan hotel this week after being accused of delivering cash from Italy to drug cartel bosses in Peru. The stunning Scarlino was part of a gang that allegedly tried to import vast quantities of the narcotic into Europe — and Scarlino reportedly was nose-deep in a 1,100-pound exchange. Scarlino was a finalist in the 1999 edition of the beauty pageant when she was 17. The busty TV star and film actress was among 22 people nabbed in the drug sting. Cops are still hunting a 60-year-old from Milan who they believe is the king-pin, according to the Corriere Del Mezzogiorno.

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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: 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.