Opening Bell: 12.2.14

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Russian Woes Worsen as Recession Looms With Banks in ‘Panic’ (Bloomberg)
Speaking a day after President Vladimir Putin said Russia is scrapping a proposed $45 billion pipeline to Europe, the government predicted the economy will contract next year and canceled a bond auction. It was also forced to pledge 39.95 billion rubles ($740 million) to support OAO Gazprombank, at least the third lender to secure a capital injection since U.S. and European Union sanctions curbed their ability to borrow.

Lower Oil Prices Will Help Boost Global Economy, IMF’s Lagarde Says (WSJ)
International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde on Monday said falling oil prices will help boost economies in the U.S. and across much of the globe, a net positive for a world struggling with slowing growth. “It is good news for the global economy,” Ms. Lagarde said at The Wall Street Journal CEO Council annual meeting. Oil prices tumbled to multiyear lows last week after the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries decided to maintain its production quotas, rather than lowering its output target. Lower oil prices are good for most consumers, who pay less for gasoline, but could squeeze energy companies and the economies of some major producers like Russia and Venezuela.

Encouraging Public Service, Through Wall Street’s ‘Revolving Door’ (NYT)
The issue — which some commentators have tagged as part of the revolving door problem between regulators and the industries they cover — moved into the headlines recently when Antonio Weiss, a Lazard banker who has been nominated for under secretary of the Treasury for domestic finance, disclosed that his firm would pay him about $20 million in stock and deferred compensation if he were to win confirmation. Mr. Weiss would not be entitled to that money if he were to leave the firm for a rival bank. “It feels icky,” Ms. Slavkin Corzo told me about the compensation policy. “We are looking at this from a shareholder perspective,” she added, allowing that she’s “open to the other side. We are asking questions. They are fair.”

Fed Leak Tipped Traders to Historic Stimulus Move, Prompted Secret Inquiry (Bloomberg)
Minutes of the FOMC, the 12-member panel that sets monetary policy, are so sensitive that an accidental leak in April 2013 caused a stir. The Fed inspector general was asked to examine how the Board of Governors handled confidential information and released a report to the public detailing weaknesses. More recently, the question of Fed leaks has focused on the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, where an employee passed confidential information to a banker at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. That episode raised concern about ties between government agencies and the financial industry.

$157,000 teddy bear collection headed for auction (UPI)
A teddy bear collector preparing to move from Britain to Hong Kong is putting his $157,000 collection of vintage Steiff bears up for auction. Jena Pang, who named all of the bears in his collection, said the 32 vintage bears from German manufacturer Steiff will be auctioned Dec. 24 by Special Auction Services in Newbury, England, because they wouldn't do well with the humidity when he moves to Hong Kong. The vintage collection, which Pang has been amassing since 2002, includes a 1904 bear considered to be the first teddy bear sold to the public. Similar bears have sold for more than $7,000 in previous auctions. "They are more than just collector's items -- they come with me most places I go, whether it be to dinner, the theatre or away on travel," Pang told The Daily Mail. "I am selling them because I am planning on moving to Hong Kong, and the bears simply wouldn't survive the humidity."

Blackstone selling IndCor Properties to Singapore’s GIC for $8.1B (NYP)
Steve Schwarzman’s Blackstone Group said it would sell its US industrial platform IndCor Properties to affiliates of Singapore sovereign wealth fund GIC for $8.1 billion. As a result of the deal, IndCor will no longer pursue an initial public offering filed in September, Blackstone said in a statement.

Business Roundtable: CEOs Expect Less Capital Spending, More Hiring (RTE)
The Business Roundtable, a group of CEOs, said its CEO Economic Outlook Index declined to a reading of 85.1 in the current quarter from 86.4 in the third quarter. The survey of 129 CEOs measures expectations for the next six months of sales, capital spending and employment. The drop largely reflected lower expectations for business capital spending, though expectations of sales also declined. One bright spot: The executives boosted their forecast for hiring. Overall, company executives said they expect the U.S. economy to grow 2.4% in 2015, matching their expectation for growth in 2014.

For Uber, Airbnb and Other Companies, Customer Ratings Go Both Ways (NYT)
Travelers are often asked to review their hotel, restaurant and car service. But increasingly, it goes both ways. Drivers for Uber and Lyft, for example, rate their passengers from one to five stars at the end of each ride. If a rider receives three stars or fewer, the driver and passenger will not be paired up again. And at OpenTable, the restaurant booking system, customers are banned if they do not show for a reservation too many times. These are among the ways that sophisticated rating systems can turn on the customer, identifying the best and worst among them. Harry Campbell, an Uber driver in Orange County, Calif., says he reserves his lowest rating only for the most egregious cases. He recalled picking up two young women who “didn’t seem that drunk,” only to have one of them vomit in his car. “I was done for the night,” he said. He gave her the lowest rating and charged her for the cleaning fees. Another time, Mr. Campbell said, a passenger asked him to go to an A.T.M. to withdraw money, drive to another part of town and wait five minutes while the passenger disappeared briefly into a run-down house, and then take him to a final destination. “That looked like a drug buy, and I didn’t want to drive that guy again so I gave him a low score,” he said.

Man Accused Of Making Meth In Park Bathroom (HP)
Police in Volusia County, Florida, have arrested a man for allegedly making meth in the bathroom of a local park. Justin Hill, 20, of New Smyrna Beach, was arrested last Tuesday and charged with possession of drug paraphernalia, manufacture of methamphetamine and possession of cannabis. Hill's alleged bathroom meth lab was discovered when a construction worker called 911 around 8 a.m. to report smoke emanating from the men’s bathroom at Detwiler Park. The worker said the smoke smelled like chemicals and acid. He said he saw a man running from the area carrying a bag, the Daytona News-Journal reports. When investigators arrived, they found remnants of a one-pot meth lab in the bathroom, according to the Miami Herald.

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Opening Bell: 06.08.12

Capital Rule Is One Size Fits All (WSJ) The Federal Reserve shocked bankers Thursday by approving a proposal that would force even the smallest lenders to comply with the elaborate international bank-capital standards known as Basel III. The draft requirements would apply to all 7,307 U.S. banks, according to a proposal circulated by the Fed. Many bankers had expected regulators to exempt some small lenders from the new rules, which are aimed at shoring up the biggest global banks whose troubles fueled the financial crisis. While the core Basel III rules will apply to all banks, other aspects of the new regime single out the biggest, most complex banks for tougher treatment than their smaller peers. The Fed, for instance, has embraced slapping a handful of the biggest U.S. banks with a capital surcharge of between 1% and 2.5%. The Fed has yet to introduce the specific proposal. Europe's Vulnerable East Braces for Possible Greek Exit (WSJ) Government officials and central bankers in the European Union's eastern wing say they are in better shape to weather any storm than they were four years ago when the collapse of U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers sparked a global financial crisis. But they are still vulnerable. Investors fearful that Greek elections next week will spark Athens's disorderly departure from the euro have already been selling Polish, Hungarian, Romanian and Czech assets, hitting local currencies and stock markets. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose heavily indebted country is considered especially at risk, said "work has begun" on strengthening defenses "so that such a quake doesn't bring Hungary down on one knee." Euro Breakup Precedent Seen When 15 State-Ruble Zone Fell Apart (Bloomberg) The 1992 Soviet experience tells us “an exit like this is messy and leads to loss of income and inflation, and people are right to be scared of it,” said Harold James, a professor of history at Princeton University. 'Bargain' Bid as Warren Buffett Lunch Auction Goes Into Final Day (CNBC) With just over 24 hours to go, the high bid for lunch with Warren Buffett is just over $200,000. That's around 8 percent of last year's record $2,626,411 winning bid by Ted Weschler, who is now working for Buffett as a Berkshire Hathaway portfolio manager. Ted also won the previous year's auction with a bid of $2,626,311. Bear Stearns Accord Turns Another Page (WSJ) Former top executives at Bear Stearns Cos., including James E. Cayne and Alan "Ace" Greenberg, have agreed to a $275 million settlement of a shareholder lawsuit over the demise of the Wall Street firm four years ago. The deal with investors led by the State of Michigan Retirement Systems puts to an end the last major dispute surrounding the demise of Bear Stearns, whose near-collapse in March 2008 marked the beginning of the worst period of the financial crisis. Mr. Cayne, a former CEO, and Mr. Greenberg, who was Mr. Cayne's mentor and predecessor, and the other former top executives named in the lawsuit won't have to pay any of the settlement, according to people close to them. The money will come from a $9 billion fund set aside by J.P. Morgan Chase. for litigation and other expenses in 2008, when it bought Bear Stearns in a cut-price deal blessed by the government. Woman who allegedly ran down boyfriend after he damaged her iPhone says she still loves him (NYP) Jasmine Diaz told her Bronx Central Booking cellmate that she is still in love with Franklyn Hernandez, her 17-year old boyfriend who she's accused of running down with an SUV after he accidentally damaged her iPhone. “She says she loves him and she feels like s ---t, ” the 21-year-old cellmate, Michelle Rodriguez, said after being released on a shoplifting charge. Diaz, 25, was held without bail after her arraignment on manslaughter and leaving the scene of an accident for allegedly mowing down Hernandez early Wednesday morning a block away from his home on Morris Ave and E. 165th St. “Franklyn jumped in front of the vehicle and I just kept going,” she told investigators, a prosecutor said in court. Wearing a matching blue jean jacket and pants, Rodriguez said Diaz was pensive while awaiting her turn to see the judge. Bernanke Sees Risks To Economy From Europe To U.S. Budget (Bloomberg) Bernanke also warned lawmakers that “a severe tightening of fiscal policy at the beginning of next year that is built into current law -- the so-called fiscal cliff -- would, if allowed to occur, pose a significant threat to the recovery.” Prosecutors Hone Gupta Case (WSJ) Using a variety of charts and graphs, Mr. Barnacle described a repetitive, and potentially damning, pattern: Mr. Gupta would call into meetings by the boards or committees at Goldman or Procter & Gamble Co, where he was also a director, and shortly thereafter a call from one of his associated phone lines would reach out to Mr. Rajaratnam. Harvard Professor: 'Greece Is Beyond Repair' (CNBC) “The best situation for Greece is to leave the euro zone, devalue a new currency, and be able therefore to grow again,” he said. “Letting Greece go will be painful in the short run but will be better for Greece, and for Europe, in the long-run,” said Feldstein, who is also president emeritus of the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research, and also served as chief economic advisor to President Ronald Reagan. Lightbulb eating record holder charged in string of bank robberies (NYP) R.J. Williams, 22, who holds the world record for wolfing down a light bulb in 33 seconds, was busted yesterday after a failed bank robbery attempt in Brooklyn, cops said. Williams, who lives on the Upper West Side, allegedly scored nearly $14,000 after knocking off seven branches in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. He was nabbed when he fled an Apple Bank yesterday in Midwood. Williams had begun to write a note to a teller on a deposit slip at one of the counters when employees started staring at him, police said, because he previously tried to rob the bank on Friday.

Opening Bell: 06.05.12

Germany Pushes EU Bank Oversight (WSJ) Though Berlin has resisted a banking union, Ms. Merkel's initiative shows Germany is willing to talk about an overhaul and is trying to focus the debate on Europe's biggest banks. "We will discuss to what extent we need to put systemically relevant banks under a specific European supervisory authority so that national interests do not play such a large role," Ms. Merkel told reporters ahead of a meeting in Berlin with European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, referring to the June 28-29 summit. Citi Bets That Proof Leads To Profits (WSJ) Seeking a shot in the arm for the ailing banking business, Citigroup Inc. C -2.30% is expanding into a little-known but fast-growing field known as identity proofing—the tedious and time-consuming task of proving people are who they say they are. The third-biggest U.S. bank by assets later this month will begin issuing digital-identity badges to the employees of Defense Department contractors, ranging from makers of high-tech engineering parts to the janitors who clean the bathrooms. Citigroup is the only financial institution that has clearance to sell the identity cards and grab a piece of a market whose annual sales could reach into the billions of dollars. But the badge business is just the beginning. Citigroup's hope is that the contractors will eventually use the plastic on which the badges are issued for more than just identity verification. If companies adopt the technology, their employees will be able to collect paychecks and pay business expenses using the cards—enabling Citigroup to collect fees on all of those transactions. John Paulson Buys Saudi Prince’s $49 Million Aspen Palace (CNBC) The lavish ranch, sold by Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan, was once the most expensive estate ever listed in the U.S., with a price tag in 2006 of $135 million. The property includes a main house with 15-bedrooms, 16-baths, and 56,000-square-feet. It also includes several side buildings, as well as a water treatment plant, gas pumps and other high-tech features. Mr. Paulson’s $49 million purchase included two properties — the 90-acre main property as well as a 38-acre property nearby called Bear Ranch. Bear Ranch and Hala Ranch together might have once fetched more than $150 million in 2006 or 2007, according to Aspen real-estate experts. Blankfein: Nyet to Petersburg leaks (NYP) Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein yesterday squarely disputed his former director Rajat Gupta’s claim that Gupta was permitted to speak about details of a 2008 board meeting with his alleged co-conspirator, hedge-fund titan Raj Rajaratnam. “Did you authorize Mr. Gupta to reveal any of the confidential information discussed at the board meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia?” prosecutor Reed Brodsky asked the CEO. “No,” Blankfein said. The details included directors discussing the possibility of Goldman buying a commercial bank or insurance company, including AIG, in the early days of the mortgage crisis. MF Global Trustee Sees $3 Billion in Potential Claims (Reuters) MF Global Holdings could have more than $3 billion in claims against its former affiliates, Louis Freeh, the trustee overseeing the wind-down of the parent company of the collapsed broker-dealer, said in his first status report. The potential recoveries for the parent company's creditors will come primarily from such claims, Freeh said in his 119-page report that was submitted to the bankruptcy court. Former bath-salts addict: 'It felt so evil' (CNN) The man is strapped onto a gurney and restrained, yet he is singing, making faces and twitching. "You know where you're at?" a paramedic asks him, but Freddy Sharp can't answer. He was, he explained later, off in his own world after overdosing on the synthetic drug known as "bath salts." "I'd never experienced anything like that," Sharp told CNN's Don Lemon. "It really actually scared me pretty bad." He said he was hallucinating about being in a mental hospital and being possessed by Jason Voorhees, the character from the "Friday the 13th" movies. "I just felt all kinds of crazy," said Sharp, now 27, of Tennessee, who says he hasn't used bath salts in months. "It felt so evil. It felt like the darkest, evilest thing imaginable." The drug made national headlines recently after a horrific crime in Miami, where a naked man chewed the face off a homeless man in what has been called a zombie-like attack. Australia Central Bank Cuts Rates to Fight Global Gloom (Reuters) Australia's central bank cut interest rates for a second month running on Tuesday in a bid to shore up confidence at home, just as finance chiefs of advanced economies around the world prepare to hold emergency talks on the euro zone debt crisis. Citing a weaker outlook abroad and only modest domestic growth, the Reserve Bank of Australia cut its cash rate by 25 basis points to 3.5 percent. Burbank Bets On Global Recession With Subprime Conviction (Bloomberg) In the dozen years that John Burbank has run his $3.4 billion Passport Capital hedge fund, he’s never been as negative on global stocks as he is now. Burbank, 48, expects that the U.S. and much of the rest of the world will slide into a recession, and he’s setting up for that event with a big wager that global stocks will fall. Most of his peers are still betting that stocks, especially those in the U.S., are more likely to rise than decline. “You have a great contrarian outcome here that will be obvious in hindsight, just like subprime was,” Burbank said in an interview last month. “I have a lot of conviction about something that others don’t seem to see clearly.” In Facebook, Options Traders Shift to Post-Earnings Bets (WSJ) While June and July bets have been most active since Facebook options began trading last Tuesday—accounting for more than half of the total options outstanding—contracts expiring in August and September have been picking up steam. Downside options that expire after the company's first public earnings report—expected at the end of July, though no date has been set—were the most actively traded Monday. The most popular positions included bets Facebook would fall below $25 a share over the next two to three months. Real life Garfield eats his way to 40-pound frame (NYDN) A tubby tabby named Garfield was dropped off at the North Shore Animal League last week tipping the scales at nearly 40 pounds, and now the no-kill shelter is hoping to turn him into the biggest loser. “He needs to lose at least 20 pounds,” shelter spokeswoman Devera Lynn said. “He’s so big, he’s like a dog. He actually has his own room.” Garfield meanders slowly in smaller spaces. He’s being moved to a foster home Tuesday in hopes that a next of kin claims the orange-and-white kitty. But if that doesn’t happen, the North Shore Animal League has received several applications from folks willing to give him a permanent home. Lynn said they’ll work with an owner to put the cat on a healthier track. “He’s actually outgoing for a cat,” Lynn said. “Once he loses that weight, he’s going to be a rock star.”

Opening Bell: 12.13.12

Banker Bonuses Seen Capped at Twice Salary in EU Compromise (Bloomberg) Negotiators from the European Parliament and Cyprus, which holds the rotating presidency of the EU, brokered the draft agreement during a meeting today, said Sharon Bowles, chairwoman of the assembly’s economic and monetary affairs committee. The deal is contingent on compromises being reached on some other parts of an EU law on bank capital. The accord would cap a banker’s bonus at the same level as fixed salary, while giving room for larger awards with shareholder approval, Bowles said in an e-mail after the meeting in Strasbourg, France. A maximum limit would be set forbidding awards of more than twice fixed pay. Rigged Libor With Police Nearby Shows Flaw of Light Touch (Bloomberg) Every morning, from his desk by the bathroom at the far end of Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc’s trading floor overlooking London’s Liverpool Street station, Paul White punched a series of numbers into his computer. White, who joined RBS in 1984, was one of the employees responsible for the firm’s submissions to the London interbank offered rate, or Libor, the global benchmark for more than $300 trillion of contracts, from mortgages and student loans to interest-rate swaps. Behind him sat Neil Danziger, a derivatives trader at the bank since 2002. On the morning of March 27, 2008, Tan Chi Min, Danziger’s boss in Tokyo, told him to make sure the next day’s submission in yen would increase. “We need to bump it way up high, highest among all if possible,” Tan, known by colleagues as “Jimmy,” wrote in an instant message to Danziger, according to a transcript made public by a Singapore court and reviewed by Bloomberg before being sealed by a judge at RBS’s request. The trader typically would have swiveled in his chair, tapped White on the shoulder and relayed the request, people who worked on the trading floor said. Instead, as White was away that day, Danziger input the rate himself...Events like those that took place on RBS’s trading floor, across the road from Bishopsgate police station and Dirty Dicks, a 267-year-old public house, are at the heart of the biggest and longest-running scandal in banking history. Ex-Bear Stearns Employees to Get $10 Million in Settlement (Bloomberg) The settlement will resolve class-action suits filed beginning in 2008 against Bear Stearns and other defendants by former employees of the bank. The employees, participants and beneficiaries of Bear Stearns’s employee stock ownership plan who held shares of the bank’s common stock, claimed risky investments in subprime mortgages caused them to lose money. Fed Extends Bond Buying To 2013 (WSJ) The Federal Reserve, clarifying its intentions for an economy hobbled by uncertainties, for the first time spelled out the unemployment level it would like to see before it raises short-term interest rates. The Fed said Wednesday, at the conclusion of its last policy meeting of the year, that it would enter 2013 with a plan to purchase $85 billion a month of mortgage-backed securities and Treasury securities, part of a continuing attempt to drive down long-term interest rates to encourage borrowing, spending and investing. Barbara Walters asks Chris Christie if he is too 'heavy' to be President (NYDN) “There are people who say that you couldn’t be president because you’re so heavy,” Walters asked, delicately. “What do you say to them?” “That’s ridiculous. I mean, that’s ridiculous,” Christie retorted. “I mean, I don’t know what the basis for that is.” “I think they’re worried about your health,” she said. “Well, I’ve done this job pretty well," he said, "and I think people watched me for the last number of weeks in Hurricane Sandy doing 18-hour days and getting right back up the next day and still being just as effective in the job, so I don’t really think that would be a problem.” [...] Christie has at times turned his famously sharp tongue on those who make issue of his weight – a problem he notes is shared by a large segment of the U.S. population. During a Washington Post forum in August, he said it was “idiotic” for columnists like Michael Kinsley to suggest that being overweight means he is undisciplined. “It is just one of those last remaining vestiges of prejudice and stupidity in our society that you would draw that direct line between those things,” he said. Jobless Claims Drop (WSJ) Jobless claims decreased by 29,000 to a seasonally adjusted 343,000 in the week ended Dec. 8, the Labor Department said Thursday. Economists surveyed by Dow Jones Newswires expected 367,000 claims. EU, IMF Agree to Lend Greece 49 Billion Euros (Reuters) "Money will be flowing to Greece as early as next week," Eurogroup Chairman Juncker told a news conference after a meeting of ministers from the single currency bloc. "We are convinced the program is back on a sound track." Fraudster to Hedgies: "Sorry" (NYP) Sam Israel, the hedge-fund manager convicted of running a $450 million Ponzi scheme who faked his own suicide to avoid the slammer, apologized for dragging the industry through the mud. “I am deeply ashamed to have disgraced you all by proxy,” Israel told roughly 150 members of the New York Hedge Fund Roundtable in a letter last week. “I am sorry to have tarnished the business I loved and lived for my entire life.” Israel’s message, dripping with self-pity and regret, was delivered at the end of a presentation last Monday at the posh Princeton Club in Midtown, where hedge fund pros had convened to hear from Guy Lawson, the author of a new book on the financial felon. Cola Brand and Lays Team Up for Snack Flavor in China (AdAge) PepsiCo is taking its global Power of One program to jointly promote beverages and snacks a step further in China, with the marriage of two Pepsi brands in a single product: Pepsi-Cola chicken-flavor Lay's potato chips. Cola chicken is a common recipe in China, with chicken wings tossed into a wok and caramelized in soy sauce, spices and cola. In potato-chip form, the flavor is vaguely similar to barbecue with a sugary aftertaste. If there's any hint of Pepsi, it's fleeting and lacks fizz. Richard Lee, PepsiCo's chief marketing officer in China, said the idea came from a brainstorming session involving teams from marketing and R&D, as well as Pepsi ad agency BBDO, Shanghai. Lay's launches a new flavor every year, and this time the goal was fusion. "We thought it would be really cool to have a cola combined with chicken. ... It's a very popular dish in China," said Mr. Lee, who in 2010 became the first person to be put in charge of marketing and portfolio management for both food and beverage brands in China. "Also it would be very cool to involve one of our most-iconic soft drinks," he added..."We want to celebrate a philosophy [that says] you can find happiness all around you,'" Mr. Lee said.