Opening Bell: 05.02.14

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Criminal Charges Against Banks Risk Sparking Crisis (Bloomberg)
Stung by lawmakers’ criticism that multibillion-dollar settlements have done too little to punish Wall Street in the wake of the financial crisis, prosecutors are considering indictments in probes of Credit Suisse Group AG and BNP Paribas SA, a person familiar with the matter said. Even after talking with financial regulators about ways to mitigate damage -- such as ensuring banks keep charters -- prosecutors might not fully understand consequences for the market, according to industry lawyers and bankers who are following the case. Bank clients -- including trustees, fiduciaries and pension funds -- could be forced to cut ties with a financial institution labeled a criminal enterprise, the lawyers and bankers said, asking not to be named because they weren’t authorized to talk publicly. Counterparties also might think twice before entering into billion-dollar transactions with such firms. Damaging a bank’s business could lead to broader fallout across the financial industry, just as Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.’s collapse in 2008 prompted investors to withdraw from other firms on concern its exit would set off a wave of losses.

U.S. Looks Into Wagers, Pro and Con, on Herbalife (Dealbook)
Three federal agencies and one billionaire hedge fund manager have placed Herbalife under the microscope, scrutinizing whether the diet-supplements company is a pyramid scheme. But Herbalife is not the only one under investigation. Some federal authorities are pursuing other inquiries that might expand the regulatory gaze from Herbalife to the traders who traffic in the company’s stock. The authorities have trained their focus on traders with contrasting views of Herbalife, according to people briefed on the matter who spoke only on condition of anonymity. As one group wagered that Herbalife was a pyramid scheme — William A. Ackman, the billionaire hedge fund manager, has staked a $1 billion bet on that belief — other investors expected the company to emerge unscathed. Neither side has been accused of wrongdoing. Still, a number of well-timed bets for and against Herbalife caught the eye of the Securities and Exchange Commission and the F.B.I., the people briefed on the matter said, raising questions about possible insider trading, disclosure violations and market manipulation.

Yellen’s Fed Resigned to Diminished Growth Expectations (Bloomberg)
Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen and her colleagues have lowered their sights on how fast the economy needs to expand to meet their goal of cutting unemployment. No longer are they saying growth must accelerate from the 2 percent to 2.5 percent pace it has generally averaged since the recession ended. Instead, they are stressing the importance of preventing the expansion from faltering. Exhibit number one: the Fed chief herself. Yellen said on April 16 that a key question facing the central bank is what “may be pushing the recovery off track.” Contrast that with her comments on March 4, 2013, of the importance of seeing “a convincing pickup in growth.”

EBay Settles No-Poaching Antitrust Case (NYT)
The deal, announced by the Justice Department on Thursday, follows the pattern of the department’s 2010 settlement against Google, Apple, Intuit and other Silicon Valley companies over similar accusations. Like those companies, eBay is prevented from entering into anticompetitive hiring agreements for five years. A related case against eBay filed by the California attorney general’s office was also settled. EBay agreed to pay $3.75 million to the state, a sum it said would cover civil penalties, lawyers’ fees, administration of the settlement and compensation to those who worked at eBay and Intuit. Secret deals not to hire a competitor’s employees were common in Silicon Valley in the latter part of the last decade, and Steve Jobs of Apple was a major instigator and enforcer of the agreements. EBay is not a competitor of Intuit, which develops tax preparation software, but both embraced a hands-off relationship.

Macquarie Group Profit Jumps 49% as Trading Revenue Climbs (Bloomberg)
Profit for the year ended March 31 rose to A$1.27 billion ($1.17 billion), the Sydney-based firm said in a statement today. That beat the gain of as much as 45 percent the firm forecast on March 24 and compared with profit of A$851 million a year earlier. The bank’s shares fell the most in two weeks as it forecast similar earnings for the year to March 2015.

T0pless Woman Dances With 12,000 Bees (HP)
The Portland, Oregon-based beekeeper describes her bee dances as "a duet among many." "These 12,000 bees push with their powerful wings from each side of my body, I resist and then I let go and flow and move with them," she writes on her website." It is a deep meditation and I feel the hive mind surround me, hold me, and expand my body on a cellular level." In order to attract the bees to her topless body, Mapelli anoints her body with a special pheromone oil that is equivalent to the scent of 100 queen bees. The bees usually stay on her body for about two hours at a time. Mapelli says she's been stung more than 100 times since her first bee dance in 2001, but that doesn't bother her. “I just want people to understand that they don’t need to fear nature,” she said.

Britain's Austerity Finally Leads to Economic Growth (BusinessWeek)
Figures released on April 29 show the economy expanded 0.8 percent in the first quarter, up from 0.7 percent in the fourth. That performance puts Britain on track to have the fastest-expanding economy among the Group of 7 developed nations this year. The economy grew at an annual rate of 3.1 percent as of the end of the first quarter.

Steven Cohen Leaves Robin Hood Board After a Decade (Bloomberg)
Steven A. Cohen, who closed his hedge-fund firm SAC Capital Advisors LP this year to settle allegations of insider trading, is stepping down as a director of the Robin Hood Foundation after 10 years on the board. Cohen, 57, who now manages his personal wealth at Point72 Asset Management LP, will join the Robin Hood emeritus board, he said in a letter to Barry Sternlicht, chairman and CEO of Starwood Capital Group LLC and chairman of the charity’s board.

Poker-Playing JPMorgan VIX Trader Wien Joining Och-Ziff (Bloomberg)
Wien, 29, will trade equity-index derivatives at New York-based Och-Ziff, he said yesterday in an e-mail to clients and co-workers. He joined JPMorgan, the biggest U.S. bank, in 2012 to trade options and futures on the VIX, as the Chicago Board Options Exchange Volatility Index is known. In his e-mail, Wien thanked JPMorgan colleagues for the two-year experience. “I also appreciate greatly all of your advice and encouragement regarding the best ways to lose a few pounds as well as to improve my fashion sense,” Wien wrote. “Rest assured that while I haven’t necessarily heeded any of that advice to date, I assure you that I will at some point.”

Twitter stock slumps 50 percent as Goldman, Deutsche Bank still say `buy' (Reuters)
Much more accurate calls were made by Wells Fargo, Atlantic Equities and Macquarie Research, whose analysts advised clients to get out of the high-flying stock about the time it peaked in December.

Warren Buffett Wants Lower Hotel Prices for Berkshire's Annual Meeting in Omaha (WSJ)
Ahead of the annual shareholder meeting for his Berkshire Hathaway Inc. this weekend, the chief executive and famed investor complained of "price gouging" by local hotels when setting rates for the gathering. Making matters worse—at least in the eyes of hotel operators—is that Mr. Buffett urged his acolytes to consider saving a few bucks by booking rooms through Airbnb Inc., the online startup that has become a scourge of the hospitality industry. The kerfuffle comes amid a Midwestern rite of spring, when tens of thousands of Berkshire shareholders descend on Omaha—and hotels in the area charge some of their highest prices.

Block-Long Sinkhole Devours Cars In Baltimore (AP)
Officials say a block-long sinkhole opened up in a residential neighborhood in northeast Baltimore, sucking in several cars and forcing the evacuation of several houses. The fire department tweeted on its official Twitter account that a sinkhole opened up Wednesday afternoon in the first block of 26th Street. The sinkhole opened next to railroad tracks used by CSX. The block of rowhouses was being evacuated and a building inspector has been called. The fire department said no injuries had been reported.

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Opening Bell: 03.13.13

Ackman Applauds Call For Herbalife Investigation (AP) The National Consumers League said that it wants the FTC to investigate the claims against Herbalife as well as the vitamin and supplement products company's responses. Ackman alleged in December that Herbalife was a pyramid scheme and made a bet the stock would fall, arguing that the company makes most of its money by recruiting new salespeople rather than on the products they sell. Herbalife disputes that. In a statement late Tuesday, Pershing Square Capital Management's Ackman said that he was pleased that the NCL was requesting an FTC investigation and believes it will show that the company is a pyramid scheme. On Wednesday, Herbalife said in a statement that "We regret that the National Consumers League has permitted itself to be the mechanism by which Pershing Square continues its attack on Herbalife." Troika, Cyprus In Talks To Shrink Bailout Package (WSJ) Officials from the troika of lenders—the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund—are working with the Cypriot government to bring the headline figure for the bailout package to about €10 billion ($13.03 billion), two officials said. The aid package had been earlier expected to be as much as €17 billion—with just shy €10 billion of that going for bank recapitalizations. Big Sugar Set For Sweet Bailout (WSJ) The U.S. Department of Agriculture is considering buying 400,000 tons of sugar—enough for 142 billion Hershey's Kisses—to stave off a wave of defaults by sugar processors that borrowed $862 million under a government price-support program. The action aims to prop up tumbling U.S. sugar prices, which have fallen 18% since the USDA made the nine-month operations-financing loans beginning in October. The purchases could leave the price-support program with an $80 million loss, its biggest in 13 years, said Barbara Fecso, an economist at the USDA, in an interview. U.S. Tax Cheats Picked Off After Adviser Mails It In (Bloomberg) Everybody knows the danger of sending things inadvertently in an e-mail. Beda Singenberger’s case shows you also have to be pretty careful when you mail things the old-fashioned way. Over an 11-year period, federal prosecutors charge, Swiss financial adviser Singenberger helped 60 people in the U.S. hide $184 million in secret offshore accounts bearing colorful names like Real Cool Investments Ltd. and Wanderlust Foundation. Then, according to a prosecutor, Singenberger inadvertently mailed a list of his U.S. clients, including their names and incriminating details, which somehow wound up in the hands of federal authorities. Now, U.S. authorities appear to be picking off the clients on that list one by one. Singenberger’s goof has already ensnared Jacques Wajsfelner, an 83-year-old exile from Nazi Germany, and Michael Canale, a retired U.S. Army surgeon, court records show. Another customer, cancer researcher Michael Reiss, pleaded guilty, though his court records don’t mention the list. White Pressed On Past Representing Banks (WSJ) Since 2002, President Barack Obama's pick to become chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission has worked for the law firm Debevoise & Plimpton LLC, where she often represented large corporations and banks. Members of the Senate Banking Committee, often from the president's own party, pressed her to guarantee that her law-firm work wouldn't stop her from taking on Wall Street's wrongdoers. "What have you done [in] the last decade that ordinary investors can look at and be assured that you will advocate for them?" Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio) asked Ms. White. Wearing a bright red jacket, her hands neatly folded on the table before her, Ms. White said her work at Debevoise "hasn't changed me as a person." Killer Ukrainian dolphins on the loose (JustinGregg) After rebooting the Soviet Union’s marine mammal program just last year with the goal of teaching dolphins to find underwater mines and kill enemy divers, three of the Ukrainian military’s new recruits have gone AWOL. Apparently they swam away from their trainers this morning ostensibly in search of a “mate” out in open waters. It might not be such a big deal except that these dolphins have been trained to “attack enemy combat swimmers using special knives or pistols fixed to their heads.” Dimon’s Extra $1.4 Million Payout Hangs on Fed Decision (Bloomberg) That’s how much extra income Dimon could get from his stake of about 6 million shares if his New York-based bank raises its payout as much as analysts predict. The sum dwarfs the combined $73,300 of new annual dividends at stake for his CEO peers at Bank of America Corp., Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Wells Fargo & Co., based on forecasts compiled by Bloomberg. Bankers will find out whether they get any boost tomorrow when the Fed announces which capital plans at the 18 largest U.S. lenders won approval. Regulators have pressed firms since the 2008 credit crisis to give executives more stock and less cash to align their interests with those of shareholders. CEOs are poised to get a windfall if payouts increase and shares rise -- or to suffer with their investors if results sputter. BofA Ordered to Pay Ex-Merrill Banker Jailed in Brazil (Bloomberg) Sao Paulo’s 26th labor court said it was “incontrovertible” that the imprisonment was because of his position as a junior financial consultant at Merrill Lynch, now a division of Charlotte, North Carolina-based Bank of America, according to a document published in the nation’s official Gazette earlier this month. Caiado wasn’t convicted of any wrongdoing. Caiado, 42, was jailed in June 2006 in a Curitiba federal prison over allegations he helped Merrill’s clients make illegal overseas money transfers. His arrest was part of an investigation that resulted in indictments of 18 bankers at Credit Suisse AG and UBS AG in Brazil. Merrill fired Caiado nine months later, saying the dismissal was part of a restructuring. Carlyle Group Lowers Velvet Rope (WSJ) In the latest effort by private-equity firms to broaden their customer base, Carlyle Group is letting some people invest in its buyout funds with as little as $50,000. The move comes as other large firms—known for offering exclusivity to big-money clients—have broadened their investment offerings in search of fresh sources of funds. KKR, for example, recently began offering mutual funds investing in bonds, with minimum investments set at $2,500. Blackstone Group launched a fund last year that for the first time lets affluent individuals invest in hedge funds and has told regulators it plans to offer another fund, though it hasn't disclosed many details about the forthcoming offering. Greenland Votes for Tougher Rules for Foreign Investors (WSJ) Voters in Greenland have elected a new ruling party that has pledged to toughen up on foreign investors looking to take advantage of the nation's wealth of natural resources. The Social Democratic Siumut party collected 43% of the votes in an election held Tuesday, enabling the party to leapfrog the ruling Inuit Ataqatigiit, which over the past four years has worked to open up the secluded country to mining companies and others capable of advancing industry. Greenland is believed to have a vast supply of untapped rare-earth minerals, oil, gas and other resources. Blankfein On Trader Talent Hunt At Morgan Stanley (NYP) The Goldman Sachs CEO is taking dead aim at Morgan Stanley’s most prized assets — its best and brightest employees — after his rival decided to defer pay for senior bankers. Blankfein, as a big game hunter, recently landed 13-year Morgan Stanley veteran Kate Richdale, head of its Asia Pacific investment banking business. The CEO’s talent hunt is continuing, sources said. Goldman currently is in selective talks with other Morgan Stanley bankers and has also lured a handful of traders from the bank. Golfer Survives Fall Into Course Sinkhole (AP) Mark Mihal was having a good opening day on the links when he noticed an unusual depression on the 14th fairway at Annbriar Golf Club in southern Illinois. Remarking to his friends how awkward it would be to have to hit out of it, he went over for a closer look. One step onto the pocked section and the 43-year-old mortgage broker plunged into a sinkhole. He landed 18 feet down with a painful thud, and his friends managed to hoist him to safety with a rope after about 20 minutes. But Friday's experience gave Mihal quite a fright, particularly after the recent death of a Florida man whose body hasn't been found since a sinkhole swallowed him and his bedroom. "I feel lucky just to come out of it with a shoulder injury, falling that far and not knowing what I was going to hit," Mihal, from the St. Louis suburb of Creve Coeur, told The Associated Press before heading off to learn whether he'll need surgery. "It was absolutely crazy."

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.”

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: 10.22.12

Some Investors Open to Higher US Tax to Shave Deficit (Reuters) In recent weeks, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein and JPMorgan Chase's Jamie Dimon became the latest Wall Street heavyweights to say they would be willing to pay more in exchange for a deal to balance the country's books. AIG's Benmosche On Why Capitalism Still Works (NYM) As its vaguely omnipotent name suggests, American International Group contained a little of everything: a small bank, an airline-leasing company, and a terrifyingly vast array of international companies that underwrote everything from cows in India to satellites orbiting the Earth. To the emergency team that came in following the crises, the impulse was to get rid of everything, to disassemble this Frankenstein monster once and for all. This was the idea behind Project Destiny. Benmosche had a different one. “Say you’re sitting there, you have gangrene,” he says to me one morning, before I’ve even had coffee. “And I don’t have any instruments. All I have is an ax. And I’ve gotta grab the ax and cut that sucker off. But the ax is dull. And it makes a mess. That’s what they did, in the beginning. They whacked that sucker off. And they kept hacking. But there was value in the body that was left. The body could produce things. And it owed people. What are you going to do, kill the body? Want it to be so ugly and deformed that it could never live? No! What you do is you clean it up, make it more cosmetic. Maybe we can help them get a prosthesis. Maybe they can run in the Olympics one day, like a double amputee, as we saw. Can you imagine that? A double amputee running in the race.” Goldman Bonus System Corrupted In 2005, Smith Book Says (Bloomberg) Before 2005, the company determined workers’ annual awards “not just on how much business you’d brought in, but also on how good you were for the organization,” Smith, a former vice president, writes in “Why I Left Goldman Sachs: A Wall Street Story.” “From 2005 until the present day, the system has become largely mathematical: you were paid a percentage of the amount of revenue next to your name,” a figure that could vary from 5 percent to 7 percent, wrote Smith, 33, without saying how he learned about such a change. “The problem with the new system was that people would now do anything they could -- anything -- to pump up the number next to their name.” 129 Minutes With Goldman Turncoat Greg Smith (NYM) Why I Left Goldman Sachs may disappoint those who hoped for a collection of sordid Wall Street bacchanalia. Smith saw no financial crimes in progress at the bank, and his tales of Goldman life are mostly anodyne workplace micro-dramas told with wide-eyed breathlessness. The book’s most lurid revelation is that Smith once saw Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein naked at the company gym. With the book done, Smith says he’s looking forward to resuming a normal life, possibly as a speaker and pundit. Among other things, he’d like to meet a woman. “I’m not anti-capitalism at all,” he says. “I want Goldman to be admired. I just don’t like this notion that ethics and capitalism are different things.” Argentina orders evacuation of ship seized by hedgie Paul Singer as collateral for unpaid bonds (AP) Argentina announced the immediate evacuation Saturday of about 300 crew members from the ARA Libertad, a navy training ship seized in Africa nearly three weeks ago as collateral for unpaid bonds dating from the South American nation's economic crisis a decade ago. Only the captain and a few other members of the crew of 326 sailors will remain on the three-masted tall ship, a symbol of Argentina's navy. Girl, 9, in black and white costume shot as relative mistakes her for skunk (NYDN) A 9-year-old girl was shot outside a Halloween party Saturday night in Western Pennsylvania, taking a bullet to the shoulder from a male relative who mistook her for a skunk. The condition of the girl wasn’t released Sunday, but police in rural New Sewickley Township said she was alert and talking as she was flown to a hospital in Pittsburgh, 30 miles away. Neither the girl nor her relative was identified. She was spotted on a hillside around 8:30 p.m. wearing a black costume and black hat with a white tassel, according to the Beaver County Times. The relative who accidentally injured her was carrying a shotgun. Police Chief Ronald Leindecker said the man wasn’t under the influence of alcohol, and was unsure whether he would be charged. Prince Alwaleed Praises Pandit for Citigroup Crisis Handling (Bloomberg) Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal praised Vikram Pandit for his handling of the financial crisis while chief executive officer at Citigroup, saying he helped position the bank for further growth. “Many companies like HSBC, Barclays and Standard Chartered shrank and went back to their roots,” Alwaleed, the largest individual investor in Citigroup, said today at a conference in Dubai. “Citigroup never blinked on that. It’s the only global bank at the moment and really the potential is there,” 57-year- old Alwaleed said, adding that Pandit did a “good” job as CEO. West Coast Will Be In 'Colossal' Mess In 5 To 10 Years, Says Marc Faber (CNBC) Faber argued that the political systems in place in the West would allow the debt burden to continue to expand. Under such a scenario of never-ending deficits, the Western world would rack up huge deficits. One day, the system would break, he said. “Eventually, you have either huge changes occurring in a peaceful fashion through reforms, or, usually, through revolutions,” he said. The U.S. is getting closer to such a revolution, he said, as is Europe. Vampire Pong: Ex-Goldman Banker Takes On A Pro (Fortune) Halfway through a recent match, set up by Fortune between Smith and Wally Green, one of the top pros in the country, Smith crouches, leans his head toward the table and serves. The pro swings and misses. Ace....Smith brought own paddle in a soft vinyl case to the match, which was held at Spin, a club in New York. The best part of Smith's game is his serve, which is a deceptive spinning wonder that appears to be going much faster than it is. His first serve of the match, like a number of others, goes right by Green. Smith is up 1-0. "That's a very good serve," says Green. Baby Walrus Adapts To Life In Brooklyn (NYT) A team of 15 is caring for him around the clock. His favorite toy is a plastic bucket. He has taken swimmingly to a large pool. And on Friday, he had his first taste of solid food — surf clams. “He’s hitting every milestone we’re hoping to see,” said Jon Forrest Dohlin, director of the New York Aquarium in Coney Island, Brooklyn, part of the Wildlife Conservation Society. “He still has some issues with his bladder, but they are trending in the right direction. Behaviorally, he’s doing great and we’re feeling good about his progress.” He was describing Mitik, or Mit for short, one of two walrus calves separated from a herd in the Arctic Ocean and orphaned in Alaska in July. The Alaska SeaLife Center took them in and found new homes for each. (The other walrus, Pakak, went to the Indianapolis Zoo.) The New York Aquarium, eager for a young companion for its two older walruses, stepped up, flying a staff member, Martha Hiatt, to Alaska to work with Mit for a month. On Oct. 11, Ms. Hiatt, the aquarium’s behavioral husbandry supervisor, along with a veterinarian, accompanied Mit on a FedEx cargo jet from Anchorage to Newark. The walrus, believed to be about 16 weeks old, stayed in his crate during the six-hour flight. “It was loud,” Ms. Hiatt said of the trip. “He pretty much sang to us the entire time. We stayed with him, talked to him and hosed him off now and then.” [...] much of Mit’s day consists of play, which helps his development and encourages his cooperation during medical procedures and feedings. One of his favorite activities is to scoop up a giant white bucket with holes through it. “He loves to run around with that on his head and vocalize,” Ms. Hiatt said.