Opening Bell: 10.24.14

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Airbnb valued at $13B ahead of staff stock sale (FT)
Airbnb's valuation is set to rise to $13 billion, up from $10 billion earlier this year, as it prepares an employee stock sale, according to people familiar with its plans. The valuation would make the accommodation site second only to Uber in the rankings of Silicon Valley's most valuable private companies, at a time when some venture capitalists are becoming concerned about the rate at which start-ups are spending capital. Airbnb, which overhauled the design of its site and apps this summer, is without a chief financial officer after the departure of Andrew Swain last month, which may make an initial public offering unlikely in the near term.

Paul Allen To Give $100 Million To Tackle Ebola Crisis (NYT)
The billionaire Paul G. Allen said on Thursday that he would donate $100 million to the fight against Ebola, which has killed almost 5,000 people so far and crippled Western Africa. The amount roughly quadruples his earlier commitment of about $26 million to nonprofit groups and government agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, making him one of the largest individual donors in the Ebola crisis. “Everybody feels called sometimes to really pursue a certain thing that resonates with them, and this has resonated with me,” Mr. Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft, said in a telephone interview on Thursday. He said when he first began hearing about the Ebola outbreak in July, he had a “nagging sense” that it could spiral out of control. “We’re up against an extremely tough opponent here,” he said. “The exponential nature of the growth of this disease is really a challenge — we’ve already seen in the U.S. where one case quickly became two.”

KKR Signals Buying Opportunities Amid Volatile Markets (WSJ)
Echoing sentiments from other private-equity executives, one of the top lieutenants to KKR co-founders Henry Kravis and George Roberts on Thursday said recent whipsawing markets could work to the firm’s advantage. “We like investing in complex situations when other investors may be nervous,” said Scott Nuttall, head of KKR’s global capital and asset management group, during a Thursday earnings call with analysts. “We’re hopeful this environment will lead to more opportunities. So, if the world gets difficult, we’ll be ready to capitalize.”

Unused vacation days at 40-year high (CNBC)
U.S. workers are using only 77 percent of their paid time off, according to the research group's report released Tuesday. And the decline is not just tied to recent economic worries; use of vacation days are at their lowest point in the past four decades. In 2013, U.S. workers took an average of 16 days of vacation compared with 20.3 days in 2000, according to the report.

Thirty-one banks prepare for Fed tests (FT)
Global banks will have to show how they can withstand a spike in oil prices, a rise in the US unemployment rate and an increase in risky corporate loans as part of the 2015 Federal Reserve stress tests. Passing the stress tests and related capital planning review is a top priority for banks, because this determines whether they can pay additional dividends or buy back shares. Companies that fail the test, which is aimed at showing how a bank would deal with a crisis situation, can also take a reputational hit. Citigroup suffered an embarrassing blow when it failed to pass the last review, and executives are determined not to repeat that mistake in 2015. The US units of HSBC, Royal Bank of Scotland and Santander, which took the tests for the first time last year, also failed. Fed officials have warned they will continue to raise the bar on expectations for banks, putting additional pressure on them. Thirty-one banks will participate in the 2015 capital planning scenarios, including Deutsche Bank for the first time. It is already under pressure from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, which has told it in a private letter that its regulatory reports were “low quality, inaccurate and unreliable”.

Supermarket Says Sorry For Selling Hitler Coffee Creamer (AP)
A leading Swiss supermarket chain is apologizing for what it calls an "unforgivable blunder": distributing mini-containers of coffee cream bearing portraits of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Migros, which also sells electronics and household goods, says it is immediately withdrawing boxes containing hundreds of the coffee cream containers and is breaking all ties with Karo-Versand, the small Swiss company that designed the collectible series of 55 different motifs — including likenesses of the German and Italian fascist dictators. In a statement Wednesday, Migros described the incident as an internal failure and vowed to "tighten our controls for these products drastically" to ensure no more such mistakes.

Herbalife ‘spiked’ Venezuelan profits: Ackman (NYP)
Herbalife “inflated” its profits over the past 12 months by as much as 22 percent by using outdated exchange rates on sales to Venezuela, a new report claims. The maker of nutritional shakes priced product shipped to its Venezuelan distributors at a 25-to-1 bolivar exchange rate but used an outdated official exchange rate of 6.3-to-1 to record the sales, thus overstating its profits, the report — commissioned by Herbalife nemesis and Pershing Square Capital CEO Bill Ackman — alleges. While the practice is not illegal, investors believe Herbalife will soon be forced to change the way it books its Venezuelan sales to the latest official rate of 50-to-1. Herbalife isn’t saying when or if it will change the rate at which it books its Venezuelan sales. The Los Angeles company will report third-quarter results on Nov. 3. “The hyper revenue growth and reported ‘profits’ that Herbalife has generated in Venezuela are a total fiction,” said Ackman, who has bet $2 billion that the company is a pyramid scheme.

Grubhub Profit Rises 400% as More Become Customers (Reuters)
The online food delivery company GrubHub reported a more than 400 percent increase in quarterly profit as more people ordered meals from it. GrubHub said the number of active diners using its services grew 50 percent to 4.6 million from a year earlier. GrubHub’s revenue rose 51 percent to $61.9 million from a year earlier, and net income rose to $6.5 million, or 8 cents a share, in the third quarter ended Sept. 30, from $1.2 million, or 1 cent a share, a year earlier. Analysts expected an average adjusted profit of 6 cents a share on revenue of $57.4 million, according to Thomson Reuters.

Warren Buffett Puts Wind in Berkshire’s Sails (WSJ)
Warren Buffett is synonymous with his hometown of Omaha, Neb., but for a glimpse into the future of his investment empire, look east…to Iowa. In the neighboring Hawkeye State, the Berkshire Hathaway Inc. chairman has sunk billions into wind-farm projects, part of a big gambit on renewable energy by a utility company he acquired in 2000 and has built into one of the country’s largest power suppliers. Through a majority-owned subsidiary, Berkshire Hathaway Energy, Mr. Buffett plans to double the $15 billion already committed to renewable-energy projects through early this year, and he is on the hunt for more utility acquisitions. Charles T. Munger , Mr. Buffett’s longtime business partner and Berkshire’s vice chairman, last month predicted that the company would be “the biggest utilities business in the United States” in a few years.

New Manager of Pimco’s Flagship Fund Sticks to View on Low Interest Rates (Dealbook)
In one of his first public appearances since he succeeded Bill Gross last month as the fund’s lead manager, Scott A. Mather emphasized that there would be no changes to Pimco’s house view that interest rates would remain low in a weak global economy. In such an environment, Pimco has argued, there is a strong case to made for investing in riskier securities, be they high-yield corporate bonds in the United States or debt securities issued by Mexico or Brazil. The Total Return fund also has large holdings in inflation-protected Treasury bonds, which are very actively traded and provide a substantial liquidity cushion for the portfolio.

Italian couple get stuck in frolic at sea (The Local)
...the amorous couple were making the most of a warm day, and a practically deserted beach, when they decided to take a dip in the ocean at Porto San Giorgio to express their love. But their lovemaking came to an embarrassing end when the man was unable to extricate himself from the woman due to suction, the newspaper said. They remained in the water until they caught the attention of a woman walking along the beach, who gave them a towel after they struggled back to the shore. A doctor was called and they were taken to a hospital emergency room. There the woman was given an injection usually used to dilate the uterus of pregnant women, in order to untangle the couple.

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Opening Bell: 02.05.13

Barclays CEO Vows To Improve Bank's Ethics (WSJ) Chief Executive Antony Jenkins said Tuesday he is "shredding" the legacy of the bank's self-serving culture by improving its ethics and moving beyond the misconduct issues that have cost it billions of pounds. Mr. Jenkins told a U.K. parliamentary group that his efforts so far include changing the way employee bonuses are calculated and abolishing commissions on financial-product sales. He said the changes would take time to produce results, but that ultimately he wants to eliminate a culture that at times has been "too short-term focused, too aggressive and on occasions, too self-serving." "Our resolve and intent behind this is absolute," Mr. Jenkins said. McGraw-Hill, S&P Sued by U.S. Over Mortgage-Bond Ratings (Bloomberg) The U.S. Justice Department filed a complaint Monday in federal court in Los Angeles, accusing McGraw-Hill and S&P of mail fraud, wire fraud and financial institutions fraud. Under the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act of 1989, the U.S. seeks civil penalties that can be as high as $1.1 million for each violation. Earlier today, the company’s shares tumbled the most in 25 years when it said it expected the lawsuit, the first federal case against a ratings firm for grades related to the credit crisis. “It’s a new use of this statute,” Claire Hill, a law professor at the University of Minnesota who has written about the ratings firms, said in a phone interview today from Minneapolis. “This is not a line to my knowledge that has been taken before.” Dell Nears $25 Billion Deal To Go Private (WSJ) Late Monday, Mr. Dell was in talks with Microsoft Corp and private-equity firm Silver Lake Partners to offer shareholders between $13.50 and $13.75 a share, said people familiar with the matter, about a 25% premium to Dell's stock price in January before the possibility of a deal became public. The buyout, if approved by shareholders, would be the largest such deal since the financial crisis. It also would be an admission by Mr. Dell that he wasn't able to pull off the changes needed to improve his company's revenue and profit under Wall Street's glare. The buyout would give Mr. Dell the largest stake in the company, ensuring that the 47-year-old is the one who gets to oversee any changes. Gross: Beware 'Credit Supernova' Looming Ahead (CNBC) The head of the Pacific Investment Management bond giant has issued an ominous forecast in which he worries that the global central bank-induced credit bubble "is running out of energy and time." As a result, investors will have to get used to an atmosphere of diminishing returns and portfolios that will hold more hard assets like commodities and fewer less-tangible financial assets like stocks. "Our credit-based financial markets and the economy it supports are levered, fragile and increasingly entropic," Gross said in his February newsletter. Obama to Meet With CEOs of Goldman, Yahoo, Other Firms (Reuters) President Barack Obama will meet with chief executives from 12 companies including Goldman Sachs Group's Lloyd Blankfein and Yahoo's Marissa Mayer on Tuesday to discuss immigration and deficit reduction, according to a White House official. "The president will continue his engagement with outside leaders on a number of issues, including immigration reform and how it fits into his broader economic agenda, and his efforts to achieve balanced deficit reduction," the official said Monday. Other chief executives include Arne Sorenson of Marriott International, Jeff Smisek of United Continental Holdings, and Klaus Kleinfeld of Alcoa. A Billion-Dollar Club And Not So Exclusive (NYT) an unprecedented number of high technology start-ups, easily 25 and possibly exceeding 40, are valued at $1 billion or more. Many employees are quietly getting rich, or at least building a big cushion against a crash, as they sell shares to outside investors. Airbnb, Pinterest, SurveyMonkey and Spotify are among the better-known privately held companies that have reached $1 billion. But many more with less familiar names, including Box, Violin Memory and Zscaler, are selling services to other companies. “A year from now that might be 100,” said Jim Goetz, a partner at Sequoia Capital, a venture capital business. Sequoia counts a dozen such companies in its portfolio. It is part of what he calls “a permanent change” in the way people are building their companies and financers are pushing up values. The owners of these companies say the valuations make them giddy, but also create unease. Once $1 billion was a milestone, now it is also a millstone. Bigger expectations must be managed and greater uncertainty looms. Donald Trump to sue Bill Maher after bet feud (Politico) Donald Trump filed a lawsuit Monday in California against liberal comic Bill Maher, suing him for $5 million after Trump says Maher did not follow through on a $5 million public bet he made on “The Tonight Show.” “I don’t know whether this case will be won or lost, but I felt a major obligation to bring it on behalf of the charities,” Trump said in a public statement first obtained by POLITICO. Last month, Maher said on NBC to Jay Leno that he would pay $5 million to Trump’s charity of choice if he provided a birth certificate proving that he’s not “spawn of his mother having sex with orangutan.” It was similar to an offer Trump made to President Barack Obama during the presidential campaign season, in which Trump wanted Obama to release his college records. Trump’s statement continued: “Bill Maher made an unconditional offer while offer while on The Jay Leno Show and I, without hesitation, accepted his offer and provided him with the appropriate documentation. Money-Market Funds Best By Excess Cash (WSJ) Money-market funds have a high-quality problem: investors are entrusting them with too much cash. The flood of money is prompting the funds, which buy short-term, top-rated debt, to seek higher returns in investments that until recently were seen as too risky, including French bank debt. Investors plowed $149 billion into U.S.-based money-market funds between the start of November and Jan. 30, bringing total assets under management to $2.695 trillion, close to the most since mid-2011, according to the Investment Company Institute. Knight Capital Group to Cut Workforce by 5 Percent (Reuters) Knight Capital, which recently agreed to be bought for $1.4 billion by Getco, will lay off 5 percent of its global workforce as part of efforts to restructure the automated trading firm, according to a regulatory filing released on Monday. FTC Corrects Language On Herbalife (NYP) The Federal Trade Commission yesterday corrected an earlier statement regarding a “law enforcement investigation” into Herbalife. In response to a Freedom of Information Act request by The Post, the FTC said some complaints against the company were withheld because the information was “obtained through a law enforcement investigation.” The agency said yesterday that the language in its letter accompanying the FOIA request was incorrect and it should have said that the exemption from disclosure was related to “foreign sources.” FTC spokesman Frank Dorman defined “foreign sources” as government entities, including law enforcement agencies, and the exemption relates to information-sharing between the FTC and these foreign government agencies. The FTC said that it “may not disclose any material reflecting a consumer complaint obtained from a foreign source if that foreign source has requested confidential information.” The agency said it could not confirm, or deny, an investigation into the nutritional supplements company. Hedge Fund Mogul, Swiss Villagers Clash Over Ski Slopes (Bloomberg) Since hotelier Tobias Zurbriggen can remember, the business of running Saas-Fee has been a local affair. Now, the Swiss ski resort neighboring the Matterhorn is feeling the heat from a New York-based financier. Edmond Offermann, a nuclear scientist turned millionaire working for hedge fund Renaissance Technologies LLC, invested 15 million Swiss francs ($16.4 million) in 2010 to revive Saas- Fee’s struggling ski-lift company. “It’s like a hobby, which completely got out of control,” Offermann, 53, said in an interview from Long Island, New York. He wants to shake things up by managing hotels and the ski-lift operator in one company controlled by a single chief executive. JPMorgan Joins Rental Rush For Wealthy Clients (Bloomberg) The firm’s unit that caters to individuals and families with more than $5 million, put client money in a partnership that bought more than 5,000 single family homes to rent in Florida, Arizona, Nevada and California, said David Lyon, a managing director and investment specialist at J.P. Morgan Private Bank. Investors can expect returns of as much as 8 percent annually from rental incomeas well as part of the profits when the homes are sold, he said. Man Allegedly Tries To Walk Out Of Costco With 24 Quarts Of Oil — Strapped To His Body (CBS) Jorge Sanchez, 35, was spotted about 4:30 p.m. trying to leave a Burbank Costco without paying for the oil. Store employees gave chase and officials said they lost Sanchez after he jumped a fence at the west side of the Costco parking lot. Burbank Police Sgt. Darin Ryburn told CBS2/KCAL9 reporter Andrea Fujii that nine of the 24 quarts were recovered during the foot chase. Authorities said Sanchez walked into the Costco and went straight to the oil aisle. He allegedly grabbed a couple of cases and emptied them. Said Ryburn, “He proceeded to hide the quarts of oil in his pants, socks, and in his shirt.” Sanchez was later apprehended near Beachwood Drive and Monterey Avenue, about eight blocks from the store. Officials said he was arrested on suspicion of burglary charges. Margo Martin was a witness to the apprehension. “All of a sudden, I hear ‘Get down on the ground’ and there is this man laying in our driveway.” Witnesses thought the man was running funny and weren’t sure why. Witness Manuel Atlas said, “He looked kind of heavy and out of shape.” Police said Sanchez was also running funny because he still had 15 quarts of oil strapped to him. Police said he used a bungee cord to strap the bottles down.