Opening Bell: 04.24.14

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‘Flash Boys’ Resonates as Survey Finds High-Frequency Concerns (Bloomberg)
More than two-thirds of financial industry participants, 70 percent, say the U.S. equity markets aren’t fair for all, according to a survey conducted by ConvergEx Group LLC, which provides brokerage and trading-related services. Just over half, 51 percent, also said high-frequency trading is harmful or very harmful.

Facebook CFO Ebersman to Step Down Two Years After IPO (Digits)
Mr. Ebersman is leaving June 1 and being replaced by David Wehner, who joined Facebook in 2012 from Zynga to become the company’s vice president of corporate finance and business planning. Mr. Ebersman joined Facebook in 2009, leading the company into its initial public offering in May 2012. The former Genentech finance chief says he is returning back to the healthcare industry, without disclosing where.

Ratings Firms Ride Bond Resurgence (WSJ)
Six years after getting a failing grade for their role in the financial crisis, credit-rating firms are at the top of the class. Riding a global bond boom, the two biggest U.S. firms, Standard & Poor's Ratings Services and Moody's Investors Service, this month are expected to post record first-quarter profits. Fitch Ratings said in its annual filing this month that 2013 was "one of its best years ever."

Investors Embrace 'Catastrophe Bonds' (WSJ)
With the U.S. hurricane season about a month away, insurers are issuing "catastrophe bonds" at the fastest clip since before the financial crisis. Insurers sell the bonds to help cover potential claims from hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and other major insured risks. While losses on so-called cat bonds have been rare over the years, investors can forfeit both interest payments and their principal if disaster costs exceed designated levels, which gives insurers the right to tap the funds. The bonds have floating interest rates and are usually paid off upon maturity in three or four years. Cat-bond issuance in the first quarter more than doubled from the year-earlier period, to $1.2 billion, and second-quarter issuance is expected to hit an all-time high above $3.5 billion, according to Willis Capital Markets & Advisory. More than $2 billion of deals have closed or been announced this quarter, Willis said.

America's First Cat Café is Popping Up in NYC This Week (Eater)
Pet food brand Purina ONE is opening a pop-up cat café at 168 Bowery this Thursday. For those unfamiliar, a cat café is a coffee shop populated with cats for customers to play with. It's all the rage in Japan and Europe, and enterprising cat-lovers in San Francisco, Oakland, Portland, LA, Vancouver, and Toronto are racing to open cafés of their own. But with this pop-up, New York will become the very first North American city to actually get a cat café.

Can Herbalife cure a brain tumor? ABC investigates (CNBC)
Nearly 600 independent distributors of the diet and nutrition sales brand Herbalife were disciplined last year for making medical claims when selling the company's weight-loss shakes and supplements, despite company policies to prevent such tactics, ABC News reported. The internal numbers were revealed by Herbalife after an ABC News undercover investigation found numerous examples of distributors boasting to potential customers that the company's products helped treat maladies ranging from diabetes to heart disease. According to ABC News, a Staten Island, N.Y., Herbalife distributor told a potential customer -- who was an ABC News reporter wearing a hidden camera -- that a woman with a brain tumor became symptom free after starting on Herbalife products. Herbalife executives told ABC News that the company had taken pains to prohibit such tactics.

Buffett: Saying no to pay plans is like 'belching' (CNBC)
Warren Buffett said in his 55 years as a director he has never heard anyone say in a board meeting they were against a pay plan put forward by a company's compensation committee. In a live interview on CNBC, Buffett admitted he had voted for compensation plans that he didn't like. "Taking on a (compensation) committee is a little bit like belching at the dinner table... You can't do it too often. If you do, you find you're eating in the kitchen pretty soon."

New York Financial Regulator Uses Dodd-Frank to Sue Auto Lender (Dealbook)
Dodd-Frank, which was put into place after the financial crisis, contains provisions that prohibit deceptive, abusive or unfair practices by financial companies. It also allows state regulators to enforce those provisions and grants them broader authority than they would have under state law. Mr. Lawsky’s complaint, filed in Federal District Court in Manhattan, contends that the Condor Capital Corporation, a subprime auto lender based on Long Island, siphoned millions of dollars away from the accounts of unwitting borrowers. To do this, the company would shut down borrowers’ access to online accounts after a loan had been repaid, leaving them unable to see whether an insurance payoff, overpayment or other transaction had left excess money behind, according to the suit.

The Dumb Way We Board Airplanes Remains Impervious to Good Data (BusinessWeek)
While airlines policies vary—there is no standard accepted way of loading passengers—any “eye test” indicates that having travelers line up at the gate, only to wait again inside the plane, isn’t efficient. Data back this up: Boeing’s (BA) research showed that boarding a plane was 50 percent slower in 1998 than in 1970. “Boeing believes that these trends will continue,” the study noted, “unless the root causes are understood and new tools and processes are developed to reverse the trend.” From a data-driven perspective, this is nothing short of maddening. There are many ways to board a plane, with “back-to-front”—the chosen boarding process of most U.S. carriers—the slowest. It is so ineffective that timed research shows that simple random boarding ends up being faster.

Now You Can Hire a Prostitute Like You Hire an Uber (Atlantic Cities)
If a German app launched this month succeeds, smartphones could well be the next big marketplace for prostitution. Not unlike Uber for sex workers, the Berlin-based Peppr app uses GPS to connect potential clients with prostitutes in their immediate area. Prostitution is legal in Germany, and the app's declared intention is to save prostitutes from having to pound sidewalks for customers. It was created by Austrian developer Pia Poppenreiter...who came up with the idea after seeing sex workers out of doors on a cold night. "The story always sounds corny, but it's true," she told German start-up magazine Grunderszene. She continued: "On a late autumn day in Berlin, I was on my way with a friend to a bar on Oranienburger Straße. It was cold - I had a skirt on myself - and I saw a sex worker on the street. I thought, "It's crazy that there’s an app for everything, but not for that. Why do they have to stand there in the winter all day?" That thought has never left me."

Related

Opening Bell: 03.02.11

Financial Crisis Amnesia (WSJ) Tim Geithner: "My wife occasionally looks up from the newspaper with bewilderment while reading another story about people in the financial world or their lobbyists complaining about Wall Street reform or claiming they didn't need the Troubled Asset Relief Program. She reminds me of the panicked calls she answered for me at home late at night or early in the morning in 2008 from the then-giants of our financial system. We cannot afford to forget the lessons of the crisis and the damage it caused to millions of Americans. Amnesia is what causes financial crises. These reforms are worth fighting to preserve." IMF Says Threat Of Sharp Global Slowdown Has Eased (Reuters) So that's nice. Life as Libor Traders Knew It Seen as Abusive by Investigators (Bloomberg) Regulators probing the alleged manipulation of global interest rates are focusing on what traders involved in setting the benchmark say were routine discussions condoned by their superiors...“A few hundred people, mostly based in one city and sitting in close proximity to each other, set an index rate for trillions of dollars of securities with little or no oversight,” said Mark Sunshine, chief executive officer and chairman of Veritas Financial Partners, a Florida-based firm that provides loans to businesses and real estate companies. “That cannot continue. The mechanism itself, the oversight and the penalties if violated, are woefully inadequate.” Twitter's Slow Road To IPO (WSJ) In just six years Twitter Inc. has become the world's digital soapbox, amassing more than 100 million monthly users—from everyday people to Lady Gaga to Middle East protesters—who use the service to spread pithy updates and breaking news. Yet despite the service's growing influence on society and culture, the business behind it still has a ways to go until it's ready for an initial public offering. To understand why, travel to Cincinnati, where last June Twitter planted a staffer blocks from Procter & Gamble Co.'s headquarters and assigned him a critical task: Teach the country's biggest advertiser to use Twitter and buy its ads. But when P&G spent $150 million to promote the launch last month of a Tide laundry detergent, the company bought magazine pages, billboard spots and television commercials during the Academy Awards—and no Twitter ads. "All [P&G] brands are asking questions about what to do with Twitter and how to leverage it; nobody really had a clear, lean answer," said the staffer, J.B. Kropp. US Seeks Dismissal Of Lawsuit On AIG Takeover (Reuters) In November, Hank Greenberg's company, Starr International Co, sued the U.S. government for $25 billion, calling the 2008 federal takeover of the insurer unconstitutional. Starr sued the government in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington, D.C., which handles lawsuits seeking money from the government. It brought that lawsuit on behalf of itself and other AIG shareholders...In a filing with the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, the government said although Starr may disagree with the terms to which AIG agreed, any loss resulting from that agreement should be borne by AIG and its shareholders, and not the public. Obama Back On Wall Street (Politico Morning Money) Obama raised just north of $5 million for his re-election campaign and the DNC at four events in NYC last night including a swank dinner ($35,800 per person, $71,600 per couple) at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s ABC Kitchen on East 18th Street. The dinner, the first Wall Street-heavy event since Obama doubled down on his proposed bank tax, was hosted by a handful of the President’s stalwart industry supporters including Robert Wolf, Blair Effron, Mark Gallogly, Marc Lasry and Orin Kramer. Sex Work Among Medical Students On the Rise? (ABC) Sex work among medical students is on the rise, claims a new editorial, published in the journal Student BMJ. The UK-based publication noted that students are likely seeking extreme measures to deal with their financial hardship. One in 10 students knows of another who participated in prostitution to pay their medical student loans, according to the editorial. "Mounting evidence suggests that more university students are engaging in prostitution as a means to pay increasing tuition fees, growing debts, and high living costs," Jodi Dixon, the author of the editorial, wrote. "With escalating debts, students in the United Kingdom may view prostitution as an easy way to get rich quick." Greek Swaps Headed Back to ISDA Committee (Bloomberg) Holders of credit-default swaps on Greek bonds shouldn’t tear up their contracts after yesterday’s ruling against a payout. The International Swaps & Derivatives Association said the swaps hadn’t been triggered by the European Central Bank’s exchange of Greek bonds for new securities exempt from losses taken by private investors. The group will now probably be asked to determine whether collective action clauses, or CACS, being used by Greece to impel investors to participate in a wider exchange of bonds that would trigger the swaps. Madoff moneyman Merkin near $400M AG deal (NYP) After a bitter three-year legal battle, Ezra Merkin, the Manhattan moneyman who funneled more than $2 billion to convicted Ponzi king Bernie Madoff, is nearing a settlement with the New York attorney general that could have him shell out as much as $400 million. Sources said the settlement with AG Eric Schneiderman would recover the bulk of the $470 million in fees the notorious middleman pocketed from investing his clients’ cash with Madoff. Game Changer For Zynga: No Facebook (WSJ) The San Francisco-based company, whose offerings have long been associated with Facebook as well as apps for mobile devices such as Apple Inc.'s iPhone, said a "beta," or prerelease version of what it calls the Zynga Platform, will initially allow customers to play five of its popular titles—"CityVille," "Hidden Chronicles," "Zynga Poker," "CastleVille" and "Words With Friends"—from its website. Zynga said more of its games will become available on the website over time. Cops Ticket Woman For Resting Injured Leg On Seat In Deserted Subway Train (Gothamist) Brooklyn resident Kate Wilson was riding the D train home to Sunset Park around 1 a.m. one morning in February when several police officers entered her subway car at 36th street. The subway car was mostly empty, with plenty of empty seats, and Wilson was resting her right leg—which she had injured in a race that day—on a corner of one seat. What followed was an absurd yet all too familiar encounter with overzealous, quota-filling transit cops and ended with a $50 summons.

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.

Opening Bell: 01.09.13

UBS Says Cleaning Up Its Act After Libor 'Shocker' (Reuters) UBS has yet to fully purge itself of a global interest rate scandal that has cost the Swiss bank its reputation and put it at risk of a wave of costly civil suits, its investment banking chief said on Wednesday. The once-venerable institution was fined a record $1.5 billion last month for manipulating Libor interest rates, the latest in a string of scandals including a $2.3 billion rogue trading loss and a damaging tax avoidance row with the United States. "We are very focused on recovering the honor and standing the organisation had in the past," Andrea Orcel told Britain's Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, set up in the aftermath of the Libor scandal. "I am convinced that we have made a lot of progress. I am also convinced that we still need to do more." [...] Committee member Justin Welby, the incoming Archbishop of Canterbury, asked Orcel if he was the right man to turn UBS around. "I feel I have a high level of integrity," the banker said. Orcel said that UBS was working at simplifying the investment banking business to make it less risky and prone to scandal. The committee, a cross-party panel of lawmakers headed by Conservative MP Andrew Tyrie, is switching its focus to standards and culture after spending most of the past three months assessing structural reform. Tyrie on Wednesday described the Libor rigging as "a shocker of enormous proportions". Button-Down Central Bank Bets It All (WSJ) Switzerland, for decades a paragon of safety in finance, is engaged in a high-risk strategy to protect its export-driven economy, literally betting the bank in a fight to contain the prices of Swiss products sold abroad. The nation's central bank is printing and selling as many Swiss francs as needed to keep its currency from climbing against the euro, wagering an amount approaching Switzerland's total national output, and, in the process, turning from button-down conservative to the globe's biggest risk-taker. JPMorgan Overhaul Widens (WSJ) The shift of Mr. Maclin and the departure of Mr. Staley, who once was seen as a top candidate to succeed James Dimon as chief executive, are the latest steps in a drastic reshaping of J.P. Morgan's executive suite. Many of the new leaders—a group that includes corporate and investment-bank co-heads Mike Cavanagh and Daniel Pinto, co-chief operating officer Matthew Zames and Chief Financial Officer Marianne Lake—are in their 40s. Mr. Cavanagh and Mr. Zames, who were asked last May to unwind a series of botched bets placed by a trader in the bank's Chief Investment Office known as the "London whale," are viewed as front runners for the top job, said people close to the bank. Ackman Braces for Legal Battle Over Herbalife (FBN) If filed, the lawsuit could involve alleged “tortuous interference,” implying Ackman intentionally damaged Herbalife’s business relationships, people close to Ackman said. On Tuesday, a large Herbalife distributor said he was leaving the company and called on other distributors to join him amid the controversy. In a sign of the importance of its distribution channels, Herbalife says in regulatory filings its relationship with and ability to influence distributors are items that can “materially” affect its financial condition. As of late Tuesday, people with knowledge of the matter said no decision on timing or even if a lawsuit will actually be filed had been made. The company has told FOX Business it is weighing legal action against Ackman. Ackman declined to comment on the matter. Herbalife has hired famed attorney David Boies to launch possible litigation against Ackman as well as the investment bank Moelis & Co., as its financial adviser. Goldman Will Report Fund Values Each Day (WSJ) In a reversal of industry practice, Goldman Sachs Group will begin disclosing the values of its money-market mutual funds daily rather than monthly, according to people familiar with the company's plans. Some of the changes will take effect as early as Wednesday...According to people familiar with Goldman's thinking, the company is beefing up its disclosures to satisfy investors' calls for greater transparency on fluctuations in the price of their investments. Brazil prostitutes to learn English ahead of World Cup (AP) Prostitutes in one of Brazil's biggest cities are beginning to sign up for free English classes ahead of this year's Confederations Cup and the 2014 World Cup. The president of the Association of Prostitutes of the city of Belo Horizonte says by telephone that 20 have already signed up for the courses and she expects at least 300 of the group's 4,000 members to follow suit. The association is organizing the classes and seeking volunteer teachers. Prostitution is legal in Brazil. Belo Horizonte will host six World Cup matches and Vieira said Tuesday "it will be important for the girls will be able to use English to let their clients know what they are charging and learn about what turns them on." AIG Cites Duty to Weigh Suing U.S. as Lawmaker Criticism Mounts (Bloomberg, related) American International Group said it has a duty to weigh joining a suit by former Chief Executive Officer Maurice “Hank” Greenberg that claims the insurer’s 2008 U.S. bailout was unconstitutional. “The board of directors has fiduciary and legal obligations to the company and its shareholders to consider the demand served on us,” CEO Robert Benmosche said yesterday in a statement. The board is scheduled to meet today to hear arguments from representatives of Greenberg and the U.S. Lawmakers including Senators Elizabeth Warren and Robert Menendez and Representative Peter Welch said New York-based AIG shouldn’t join the suit. “Taxpayers are still furious that they rescued a company whose own conduct brought it down,” Welch said in a letter to AIG Chairman Steve Miller. “Don’t rub salt in the wounds with yet another reckless decision.” Vow of New Light For 'Dark' Trades (WSJ) Richard Ketchum, chief executive of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, said in an interview Tuesday that the regulator is expanding its oversight of the dark-trading venues, with an eye on whether orders placed in public exchanges are "trying to move prices or encourage sellers that may advance their trading in the dark market." The regulator also is boosting its surveillance of high-speed trading and is increasingly looking at rapid-fire trading across exchanges, he said. "You're going to see more [focus] in those areas in 2013," Mr. Ketchum said. Goldman, Morgan Stanley to Settle on Foreclosures (Reuters) Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley are among a group of banks expected to agree as soon as this week to a $1.5 billion settlement with federal regulators over botched foreclosure claims, two sources familiar with the matter said on Tuesday. The accord would come on the heels of a separate $8.5 billion settlement announced on Monday with 10 bigger mortgage servicers, including Bank of America, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo...Goldman and Morgan Stanley's respective roles in the settlement stems from mortgage-servicing businesses that the two investment banks purchased in the run-up to the subprime mortgage crisis, and have since sold. Goldman had owned Litton Loan Servicing and Morgan Stanley owned Saxon Capital. Taco Bell responds to teen's request for a custom Speedo (LI) The week before Christmas, 15-year-old Ryan Klarner posted on Taco Bell’s Facebook page, introducing himself with a rundown of his swimming and diving achievements before making an offbeat request. “[I]s there any way you guys could make me a customized Speedo that says think outside the buns on the back of it? If you did, that would mean the world to me,” the Illinois teen asked...Klarner said he first came up with the idea a couple of years earlier and decided last month to go ahead and ask, even though he never had asked a company on Facebook for anything before. “I did not expect it to blow up as much as it has. I didn’t really expect to get the Speedo out of it, either,” he said. But last Wednesday, the social media team at Taco Bell wrote back. “What size do you wear? And what’s your address?” “He really wanted something and he went after it,” Tressie Lieberman, director of digital and social engagement, said. When we think people are really extraordinary...then we want to reward them.”

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.”