Opening Bell: 01.10.14

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Banks Cuts As Mortgage Boom Ends (WSJ)
A sharp slowdown in mortgage refinancing is forcing banks to cut jobs, fight harder for a smaller pool of home-purchase loans and employ new tactics to drum up business. The end of a three-decade period of falling mortgage rates has slammed the brakes on a huge wave of refinancing by U.S. households. The drop-off has deprived lenders of a key source of income at a time when the growth in loans for home purchases remains weak.

Pimco's Gross Bets on Bonds in 2014 (WSJ)
Mr. Gross, who is co-chief investment officer at Pacific Investment Management Co., said in his monthly investment commentary on the company's website that he expects total return of 3% to 4% for bonds this year, reflecting interest payments and price appreciation. Pimco Total Return, the world's largest bond fund with $237 billion under management, posted a negative return of 1.92% last year, its worst performance since 1994.

Millionaires now have the majority in Congress (CNBC)
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a majority—268 of the 534 members of Congress—had an average net worth in 2012 of $1 million or more, marking the first time millionaires held a majority in Congress. The previous year, only 257 members had millionaire status.

The most (and least) stressful jobs in banking and finance (eFinancial)
1. Investment Banker: The runaway choice for the most stressful job on Wall Street and in all of financial services, finishing in the top three of every ballot. The main reason is that investment bankers are confronted with the two main triggers for career stress: the difficulty of the work coupled with the sheer amount of it, particularly for associates and analysts. “The life of a junior banker is one of the last forms of legalized slavery,” said Roy Cohen, a career coach and author of The Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide. “It is a gruelling survival of the fittest existence defined by all-nighters, no time to eat well or to exercise, and compensation that has remained flat for a number of years.” Within investment banking, the highest levels of stress exist in M&A, said Richard Lipstein, managing director at Wall Street search firm Gilbert Tweed International. “The most stressful job is one where revenue takes longest to be generated,” he said. “In M&A, you need to know the people, get the meeting, bring in the business, convince them to sell and then go out and get it done.” 11. Accounting: Finishing last on every ballot, accounting is “virtually stress-free as long as you like routine and are willing to work long hours on a seasonal basis,” said Cohen. There’s also minimal client-facing and you’re never on an island. “There is always someone in the assembly line with you,” according to Mogilner. Not much else to say.

At least 50 scalded by boiling-to-frozen water trick (LA Times)
Over Monday and Tuesday, the Los Angeles Times counted at least 50 people on social media who reported burning themselves or their friends after trying to turn boiling water into snow. There were also several reports of people going to the hospital to receive treatment for burns. "I'm working in the ER today &this woman just got 2nd degree burns from trying to freeze boiling water into the air!" one user tweeted. Here are a few other cases culled from Twitter: "Blayne and I just did the boiling water thing and I accidentally threw all the BOILING water against the wind and burnt myself." "So I did the thing where you make snow and not all the boiling water froze and now my head is burned."
"I did that boiling water thing except I threw it weird so it came back and burnt my hand." "So I did that boiling water snow thing but the wind whipped it back at me and my hands are STILL burning lol I can't hold anything."

Jury of 7 Women and 5 Men Chosen for Martoma Trial (Dealbook)
The final alternate jurors were chosen late in the afternoon in Federal District Court in Manhattan, capping what was a long and arduous third day of jury selection, and paving the way for opening statements to begin on Friday...Some of the jurors have training in law and finance. One juror said she was an insurance underwriter for the American International Group, while another has a law degree and works at the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. Another juror is an employment and labor lawyer who said his firm’s work included internal investigations for corporations related to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

Apollo raises largest PE fund since financial crisis (Reuters)
Apollo Global Management LLC said on Thursday it had completed fundraising for its latest flagship global private equity fund, amassing $17.5 billion from investors, the most any such fund has raised since the financial crisis. In their hunt for yield amid persistently low interest rates, investors who fell out of love with private equity and its debt-fueled excesses in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis are now increasing allocations to the asset class.

Goldman Sachs Denies Singapore Stock Dump, Countersues (Bloomberg)
Quah Su Ling sued Goldman Sachs International in London, accusing it of breach of contract for selling her shares in Blumont Group Ltd., Asiasons Capital Ltd. and LionGold Corp. and depressing their prices. Goldman Sachs International countersued for $12.3 million it says it’s still owed. Goldman Sachs International sold the shares in an “orderly and measured manner -- consistent with industry practice and accepted standards -- over the course of three weeks,” the bank said in court papers filed in London and made available this week. The lawsuit is Quah’s “attempt to delay or avoid repayment of debt.”

Man crashes into Conn. gas station, steals banana (MFNY)
Police in Connecticut say they're looking for a man who smashed his vehicle into a gas station in Newington, swiped a banana from a shelf and ate it before leaving early Wednesday morning. Nothing else was taken. The store's surveillance video shows a Ford Freestyle with Connecticut license plates backing repeatedly into the store and breaking the glass doors, which set off the burglar alarm at about 2 a.m. The man was gone before police arrived.

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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.