Sunday, November 22, 2009

In recession, one road led back home

Missoula native Melissa Meyer never expected that she would return home to Montana to rethink her future plans. After graduating Summa Cum Laude from George Washington University, moving home has become an unexpected time out to rethink future plans and the various roads she could take in the coming year.

The Washington Post - Her parents redecorated her bedroom soon after she left for college, as sure as everyone else in this town that Melissa Meyer would not be moving back. They took down the photos of Melissa meeting the Dalai Lama and laughing alongside Joe Biden, placing them in the closet. They packed away dozens of high school honor certificates -- valedictorian, class president, outstanding chemistry student -- and stored them in plastic boxes under the bed.

Melissa had always been too big for this town, her father liked to say. She was editor of the school newspaper, an intern in the U.S. Senate and the only student from Sentinel High School's Class of 2005 to attend college on the East Coast. On her rare visits home from George Washington University, longtime friends liked to tease her: "Hey, Melissa, are you president yet?"

So, how to explain this? Each morning, Melissa wakes up in her old bedroom, scans the foreign decor and thinks: This is the guest room now. I am the guest. I am not supposed to be here.

She graduated magna cum laude from the GW Business School in May, applied for 30 jobs at some of the nation's best-known companies, and it went nowhere. After visiting the campus career center and redesigning her résumé, she applied for 10 more jobs. Still nothing. The lease on her Foggy Bottom apartment expired in June. There was no place to go but home, with a collection of rejection letters and a haunting sense of betrayal. For 23 years, she had advanced down America's path to success -- perfect grades, a $200,000 college degree, a folder overstuffed with business cards -- only to have it dead-end back where she started.
"What was the point?" she asks.

For Melissa, that question is the legacy of the recession as she rises one Tuesday morning in early fall and begins her day with the same routine that defined her adolescence. She rummages through the refrigerator, eats leftovers from a dinner party her parents threw the night before and then retreats upstairs to prepare for a fill-in shift at the same job she held throughout high school. After changing into cowboy boots and a skirt, she borrows her parents' car and drives three minutes to work at Rockin Rudy's, a record store with a peace sign hanging at the entrance.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

At Bloomberg, Modest Strategy to Rule the World

Michael R. Bloomberg, right, with Matthew Winkler in 1991. Mr. Winkler has overseen the Bloomberg news operation from its beginning.

The New York Times - PLOPPED in a white leather chair in a small office in Bloomberg L.P.’s Manhattan headquarters, Andrew Lack knows exactly how to articulate the aspirations of this 28-year-old media and technology company.
“We want to be the world’s most influential news organization,” says Mr. Lack, who oversees Bloomberg’s television, radio and dot-com endeavors.
Very clear. The most influential. On the planet.
It’s a goal several other Bloomberg executives have already mentioned to a pair of visitors. And when Mr. Lack, 62, a former head of NBC News, hears his guests wonder if something funny is in his company’s coffee — a special sauce that keeps all Bloombergians marching so efficiently and effectively to the same tune — he looks a tad chagrined.
“Oh, my! I don’t want to sound as if I’m on message,” he says, laughing apprehensively while also sending a “help me” look to a Bloomberg spokeswoman nearby.
These days, truth be told, the entire company is on message. That’s because the data behemoth that Michael R. Bloomberg created and named after himself in 1981, long before he became mayor of New York, finally has the reach, resources and appetites to try snaring the mantle of Most Influential — at least in the rarefied world of business news.
After years of being an underdog pushing its troops to be better and faster, Bloomberg now has an upper hand. Publishing giants like Condé Nast, Time Inc. and The New York Times, with their veteran scribes and rich histories, have laid off people and scaled back. Bloomberg may lack the pedigree and gloss of some of its rivals, but it has one thing they don’t right now: money to throw around.
This year alone, Bloomberg, deploying the cash spouting from its data business, has recruited refugees from The Wall Street Journal and Fortune and opened bureaus in places like Ecuador and Abu Dhabi. Its editorial staff (which includes radio, TV and Web site workers) now numbers 2,200, compared with 1,250 journalists at The Times and 1,900 at Dow Jones (a figure that includes the newswires and the Journal staff).
When the 80-year-old BusinessWeek went on the block, Bloomberg opened its wallet and snatched it away from circling private equity firms in October for just $5 million in cash — a relatively small sum that still represents a big change. For the last decade, Bloomberg has barely bothered to venture outside the realm of high finance; its news was produced to help subscribers to its terminals make more money for themselves.
With BusinessWeek, likely to be renamed Bloomberg BusinessWeek, the company is setting its sights on a much broader audience. That includes Main Street readers and, much more important for Bloomberg, senior executives, government leaders and other global movers and shakers. It’s also trying to revamp its Web site and television programming — long neglected inside the company — into services that appeal to people who don’t trade securities for a living.
At a time when most media companies can barely pay for cake at going-away parties, Bloomberg appears to be rolling in dough.

Monday, November 16, 2009

From Treasury, an Invitation to Financial Bloggers

The New York Times - The Treasury Department opened its doors to economic bloggers this month, and the meeting was productive in at least one respect: as John Jansen of the blog Across the Curve concluded, “After meeting them, I feel I cannot refer to them as Timothy Geithner and his minions” anymore.

Mr. Geithner, the Treasury secretary, was among the senior officials who talked with bloggers at an outreach session on Nov. 2. The two-hour round table was held on background, meaning that the bloggers could describe the sessions, but not attribute quotes to specific officials. Lengthy posts about financial system reforms — and the bloggers’ disagreements with the Treasury’s strategies — ensued.

New-media scribes have gradually made their way inside most governmental institutions over the years, but the meeting was the first for bloggers at the Treasury. Tyler Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason University who has written at the Marginal Revolution blog for six years, said it was the first time he had heard from any Treasury official.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Bills Would Set Limits on Financial Companies to Alleviate Risk

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Glass-Steagall Act, passed in 1933, separating commercial and investment banking.

Wall Street Journal  -  Democrats are advancing proposals in Congress designed to limit the size and complexity of financial companies so that any collapse wouldn't damage the broader economy, a sign that lawmakers are responding to anti-Wall Street sentiment by toughening the administration's rewrite of finance rules.
The proposals would allow the government to break up healthy financial companies, and in some cases, would reassert rigid demarcations within finance that were cleared away in 1999, such as barring commercial banking firms and investment banking firms from merging.
Large financial companies, and even some Obama administration officials, are nervously watching the debate. Lobbyists for large financial-services companies, including J. P. Morgan Chase & Co., Bank of America Corp., Prudential Financial Inc., and MetLife Inc. scrambled in recent days to reach out to Capitol Hill aides, people familiar with the matter said.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Why Health Care Bill Is Good For The Economy

U.S. Unemployment Rate Hits 10.2%, Highest in 26 Years

The Labor Picture: October 2009

Unemployment Rate Grew 0.4 percentage points in Oct.
Sample chart
One month change
+0.4 pts

One year change
+3.6 pts

Number of Jobs 12-month change, in thousands
Sample chart
One month change

One year change

Discouraged WorkersNot looking for work because of the economy, in thousands
Sample chart
One month change

One year change

Duration Length of unemployment, in weeks

1 month change
1 year change
People With Jobs Percentage of people who are employed

1 month change
1 year change
-0.3 pts.
-3.2 pts.
'Hidden' Unemployment In millions

1 month change
1 year change
Part time, but want full-time
Avg. Weekly EarningsFor rank-and-file workers

1 month change
1 year change
DemographicsTeenagers continue to have the highest unemployment rate.

1 month change
1 year change
+0.5 pts.

+0.3 pts.

+0.4 pts.

+1.7 pts.

Education The unemployment rate has risen the most for those with less than a high school diploma.

1 month change
1 year change
Less than high school
+0.5 pts.
+5.1 pts.

High school
+0.4 pts.
+4.7 pts.

Some college
+0.5 pts.
+3.7 pts.

Bachelor's or higher
-0.2 pts.
+1.6 pts.

As the unemployment rate surged to 10.2 percent in October, reaching double digits for the first time in 26 years, it suddenly seemed possible that the nation might yet confront the worst joblessness since the Great Depression.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Forbes Magazine Plans More Layoffs

The New York Times - Forbes magazine said on Monday that it planned to lay off several staff members from the editorial and business sides, a cost-cutting move in response to decreasing advertising revenue.
The announcement was made in an internal memorandum sent Monday afternoon by Steve Forbes, the company’s chief executive and editor in chief of the magazine. “We — and the entire media world — have been hit hard by both the severe recession and the seismic shifts wrought by the Web,” Mr. Forbes wrote. “Given these dramatic events, further layoffs, unfortunately, are necessary across the entire organization.”
Monie Begley, a Forbes spokeswoman, declined to specify the number of layoffs. She said that some people had been dismissed Monday, and she expected layoffs to continue throughout the week.
The layoffs came after other cuts at Forbes over the last year, including dismissing about 100 employees, having employees take five days of unpaid leave, and ceasing matching contributions to its 401(k) program.
Although circulation has been holding relatively steady at Forbes, with reported circulation at 914,000 for the first six months of this year, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, ad pages have not. Ad pages dropped 32.5 percent in the third quarter, according to the Publishers Information Bureau, to just above 300 pages.

Chinese Drywall Found to Differ Chemically

Florida is a center of homeowner complaints that Chinese drywall is causing health problems. A housing development in Boynton Beach, Fla., tries to take advantage of that to bolster its sales.

The New York Times - Federal investigators reported Thursday that imported Chinese drywall that homeowners have linked to health problems and odors had higher levels of some chemicals than its domestic counterparts.

The investigators, however, were unable to link the chemicals, sulfur and strontium, to the health problems and smells in thousands of homes built during the recent housing boom, and said further testing was under way to determine any possible connection.

The preliminary findings are part of a larger study by federal agencies, including the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency, into complaints from nearly 2,000 homeowners that their recently built homes emit odors and cause nosebleeds and respiratory problems. The owners also say their electrical appliances have failed and their wiring has corroded. It has been estimated that more than 60,000 homes could have the imported drywall. Large amounts of Chinese drywall were imported over the last few years when domestic supplies ran short. An estimated seven million sheets made in China were used as a substitute. Most of the complaints come from Florida, Virginia and Louisiana, where the widespread destruction after hurricanes lead to rapid rebuilding of damaged homes.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Gloom Spreads on Economy, but GOP Doesn't Gain

Americans are growing increasingly pessimistic about the economy after a mild upswing of attitudes in September. But Republicans haven't been able to profit politically from the economic gloom, according to a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll.

The survey found a country in a decidedly negative mood, nearly a year after the election of President Barack Obama. For the first time during the Obama presidency, a majority of Americans sees the country as being on the wrong track.

Fifty-eight percent of those polled say the economic slide still has a ways to go, up from 52% in September and back to the level of pessimism expressed in July. Only 29% said the economy had "pretty much hit bottom," down from 35% last month.

But a dark national view of how everybody in Washington is conducting the public's business appears to be preventing Republicans from benefiting from concerns about the direction of the country or the Democrat-led government's handling of the economy, as the minority party often does.

In fact, disapproval of the Republican Party actually has ticked upward, along with the public's general pessimism. Asked which political party should control Congress after next year's midterm elections, Democrats now hold a clear edge over the GOP, 46% to 38%, a month after the Republicans were nearly as popular. In September, the Democratic edge was 43% to 40%.

Monday, October 26, 2009

U.S. Considers Reining In ‘Too Big to Fail’ Institutions

A protester in March of 2008 framed the question that Barney Frank, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner will try to answer this week with proposals to tighten regulation.

 New York Times - WASHINGTON — Congress and the Obama administration are about to take up one of the most fundamental issues stemming from the near collapse of the financial system last year — how to deal with institutions that are so big that the government has no choice but to rescue them when they get in trouble. The White House plan as outlined so far would already make it much more costly to be a large financial company whose failure would put the financial system and the economy at risk. It would force such institutions to hold more money in reserve and make it harder for them to borrow too heavily against their assets.
Setting up the equivalent of living wills for corporations, that plan would require that they come up with their own procedure to be disentangled in the event of a crisis, a plan that administration officials say ought to be made public in advance.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Still on the Job, but Making Only Half As Much

Good example why the economy is likely to sit slow or no growth mode for a long time. Lots of people don't have jobs. Those who do have jobs are earning less. Louis Uchitell talks about how pay cuts are more common than at any time since the Great Depression. - MT

The New York Times - MECHANICSVILLE, Va. — The dark blue captain’s hat, with its golden oak-leaf clusters, sits atop a bookcase in Bryan Lawlor’s home, out of reach of the children. The uniform their father wears still displays the four stripes of a commercial airline captain, but the hat stays home. The rules forbid that extra display of authority, now that Mr. Lawlor has been downgraded to first officer.

He is now in the co-pilot’s seat in the 50-seat commuter jets he flies, not for any failure in skill. He wears his captain’s stripes, he explains, to make that point. But with air travel down, his employer cut costs by downgrading 130 captains, those with the lowest seniority, to first officers, automatically cutting the wage of each by roughly 50 percent — to $34,000 in Mr. Lawlor’s case.

The demotion, the loss of command, the cut in pay to less than his wife, Tracy, makes as a fourth-grade teacher, have diminished Mr. Lawlor, 34, in his own eyes. He still thinks he will return to being the family’s principal breadwinner, although as the months pass he worries more. “I don’t want to be a 50-year-old pilot earning $40,000 a year,” he said, adding that his wife does not want to be married to a pilot with so little earning power.

In recent decades, layoffs were the standard procedure for shrinking labor costs. Reducing the wages of those who remained on the job was considered demoralizing and risky: the best workers would jump to another employer. But now pay cuts, sometimes the result of downgrades in rank or shortened workweeks, are occurring more frequently than at any time since the Great Depression.

State workers in Georgia are taking home smaller paychecks. So are the tens of thousands of employees in California’s public university system. The steel company Nucor and the technology giant Hewlett-Packard have embraced the practice. So have several airlines and many small businesses.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not track pay cuts, but it suggests they are reflected in the steep decline of another statistic: total weekly pay for production workers, pilots among them, representing 80 percent of the work force. That index has fallen for nine consecutive months, an unprecedented string over the 44 years the bureau has calculated weekly pay, capturing the large number of people out of work, those working fewer hours and those whose wages have been cut. The old record was a two-month decline, during the 1981-1982 recession.

“What this means,” said Thomas J. Nardone, an assistant commissioner at the bureau, “is that the amount of money people are paid has taken a big hit; not just those who have lost their jobs, but those who are still employed.”

Bloomberg Buys BusinessWeek From McGraw-Hill

Editor's note: Watch for Bloomberg to dump a bunch of money into money-losing BusinessWeek. The company still needs to be repositioned away from a weekly business magazine, a dying format, if it is going to make money. All the weekly news magazines are in trouble except for The Economist. - MT

The New York Times - Bloomberg is taking another step from the trading floor into the corner office.

The company said Tuesday that it was the winning bidder for BusinessWeek, the troubled 80-year-old title that McGraw-Hill had put on sale this summer.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but the price was said to be near $5 million, plus assumption of liabilities, which were $31.9 million as of April.

The magazine will continue to be a weekly print publication, rechristened Bloomberg BusinessWeek. Decisions have not been made about BusinessWeek’s staff of more than 400 people; Bloomberg will select which of those employees it wants by the end of the year, when the deal closes. Those not selected will receive severance from McGraw-Hill, said a BusinessWeek executive.

The deal is expected to close by the end of the year.

BusinessWeek was in a tough spot financially, and lost more than $800,000 dollars a week last year. Investors had pressured McGraw-Hill to get it off its books. While there was interest from parties in the private equity world, Bloomberg was seen as the preferred buyer.

“We are committed to the partnership,” said BusinessWeek president Keith Fox in an interview. “Bloomberg is acquiring a really powerful brand with strong reach among business professionals.”

Faced with slowing sales of its financial data terminals during the recession that have since improved, Bloomberg had been looking to expand its presence in consumer media. Clients for Bloomberg’s terminals are largely financial professionals, and the purchase of BusinessWeek, with its consumer and executive readers, gives the media company more access to the corporate offices as well.

With its gigantic newsroom of about 2,200 people and its aggressive reporting, Bloomberg has won a growing number of awards, but it is frustrated by its lack of cachet in the journalism world. Reporters and editors have long been frustrated by the lack of access to business executives, and they believed that limited their ability to break news and be a player in larger news coverage.

With the acquisition, Bloomberg adds name recognition and a consumer publication. The company was considering combining the and Web sites and adding the BusinessWeek brand and journalists to Bloomberg TV. The company will continue Bloomberg Markets, a monthly magazine.

Friday, October 9, 2009

E. Coli Path Shows Flaws in Beef Inspection

Stephanie Smith, 22, was paralyzed after being stricken by E. coli in 2007. Officials traced the E. coli to hamburger her family had eaten.

Editor's Note: Great story on the dangers of E coli and how it gets into the food chain because of lax safety inspection. - MT

The New York Times - Stephanie Smith, a children’s dance instructor, thought she had a stomach virus. The aches and cramping were tolerable that first day, and she finished her classes.

Then her diarrhea turned bloody. Her kidneys shut down. Seizures knocked her unconscious. The convulsions grew so relentless that doctors had to put her in a coma for nine weeks. When she emerged, she could no longer walk. The affliction had ravaged her nervous system and left her paralyzed.

Ms. Smith, 22, was found to have a severe form of food-borne illness caused by E. coli, which Minnesota officials traced to the hamburger that her mother had grilled for their Sunday dinner in early fall 2007.

“I ask myself every day, ‘Why me?’ and ‘Why from a hamburger?’ ”Ms. Smith said. In the simplest terms, she ran out of luck in a food-safety game of chance whose rules and risks are not widely known.

Meat companies and grocers have been barred from selling ground beef tainted by the virulent strain of E. coli known as O157:H7 since 1994, after an outbreak at Jack in the Box restaurants left four children dead. Yet tens of thousands of people are still sickened annually by this pathogen, federal health officials estimate, with hamburger being the biggest culprit. Ground beef has been blamed for 16 outbreaks in the last three years alone. This summer, contamination led to the recall of beef from nearly 3,000 grocers in 41 states.

Stephanie Smith’s reaction to the virulent strain of E. coli was extreme, but tracing the story of her burger, through interviews and government and corporate records obtained by The New York Times, shows why eating ground beef is still a gamble. Neither the system meant to make the meat safe, nor the meat itself, is what consumers have been led to believe.

Ground beef is usually not simply a chunk of meat run through a grinder. Instead, records and interviews show, a single portion of hamburger meat is often an amalgam of various grades of meat from different parts of cows and even from different slaughterhouses. These cuts of meat are particularly vulnerable to E. coli contamination, food experts and officials say. Despite this, there is no federal requirement for grinders to test their ingredients for the pathogen.

The frozen hamburgers that the Smiths ate, which were made by the food giant Cargill, were labeled “American Chef’s Selection Angus Beef Patties.” Yet confidential grinding logs and other Cargill records show that the hamburgers were made from a mix of slaughterhouse trimmings and a mash-like product derived from scraps that were ground together at a plant in Wisconsin. The ingredients came from slaughterhouses in Nebraska, Texas and Uruguay, and from a South Dakota company that processes fatty trimmings and treats them with ammonia to kill bacteria.

Using a combination of sources — a practice followed by most large producers of fresh and packaged hamburger — allowed Cargill to spend about 25 percent less than it would have for cuts of whole meat.

Those low-grade ingredients are cut from areas of the cow that are more likely to have had contact with feces, which carries E. coli, industry research shows. Yet Cargill, like most meat companies, relies on its suppliers to check for the bacteria and does its own testing only after the ingredients are ground together. The United States Department of Agriculture, which allows grinders to devise their own safety plans, has encouraged them to test ingredients first as a way of increasing the chance of finding contamination.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Mining Companies Hit Wall on Mountaintop Blasting

The Wall Street Journal - WHITESVILLE, W.Va.—The coal-mining industry is trying to regroup in the wake of a move by the Obama administration to curtail mountaintop mining to extract coal.

Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency said it was holding up 79 permit applications for mining projects in Central Appalachia due to concerns the projects would damage water quality in nearby streams and violate the Clean Water Act. Another 180 applications are pending.

The companies can resubmit the applications, but uncertainty around permit approval makes planning risky.

"They're trying to find a way to kill us a little bit at a time—death by a thousand cuts," said Michael Snelling, head of surface operations for Richmond, Va.,-based Massey Energy Co., which had five permits delayed by the EPA last week. Mr. Snelling said EPA requirements to protect streams might be too burdensome for other projects.

Mountaintop mining involves blasting off the tops and dumping unused rock and dirt into valleys and streams.

The EPA has long had oversight authority over permits that relate to mining's impact on waterways but has challenged few of them--until this year.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Lost Jobs May Never Return

The Wall Street Journal - The U.S. has shed 7.2 million jobs since the recession began in December 2007. How long will it take for the economy to replace them? And where will the jobs come from?

The questions haunt people from the unemployed in San Francisco to officials in Washington. Glenn Atias lost his job as a $100,000-a-year statistician at a market-research firm in the Bay Area last summer when the work was outsourced to India. At 46 years old, he pores over job ads and online postings daily. "I'm stuck watching hundreds of thousands of people in my position grow in ranks each and every month," said Mr. Atias, who lives in Salton City, Calif., in a house worth less than the mortgage.

When unemployment benefits run out, he said, "I literally don't know how I'll pay my mortgage, how I'll pay my health care."

Economists say that when demand picks up -- as it is starting to do -- jobs eventually will follow. History shows that has always been true. But guessing which jobs will be created over the long run is often fruitless. Many of tomorrow's jobs don't exist today.

In 2003, Treasury Department chief economist Alan Krueger, then at Princeton, calculated that a quarter of U.S. workers at the time were in jobs the Census Bureau didn't even list as occupations in 1967.

Determining which fields will become popular is next to impossible. "It is very difficult, without a crystal ball, to know where the economy will be in 10 years," said Susan Wolff, chief academic officer of Columbia Gorge Community College in The Dalles, Ore. "Sometimes we think we're doing a pretty good job if we can guess where the economy is going to be in five years."

Profits for Buyout Firms as Company Debt Soared

Noble Rogers worked at Simmons for 22 years, mostly at a factory outside Atlanta. When the plant closed last year, he was left with a bitter tast.

Editor's note: Great story about the lessons of debt, buyouts and private equity.

The New York Times - For most of the 133 years since its founding in a small city in Wisconsin, the Simmons Bedding Company enjoyed an illustrious history.

Presidents have slumbered on its mattresses aboard Air Force One. Dignitaries have slept on them in the Lincoln Bedroom. Its advertisements have featured Henry Ford and H. G. Wells. Eleanor Roosevelt extolled the virtues of the Simmons Beautyrest mattress, and the brand was immortalized on Broadway in Cole Porter’s song “Anything Goes.”

Its recent history has been notable, too, but for a different reason.

Simmons says it will soon file for bankruptcy protection, as part of an agreement by its current owners to sell the company — the seventh time it has been sold in a little more than two decades — all after being owned for short periods by a parade of different investment groups, known as private equity firms, which try to buy undervalued companies, mostly with borrowed money.

For many of the company’s investors, the sale will be a disaster. Its bondholders alone stand to lose more than $575 million. The company’s downfall has also devastated employees like Noble Rogers, who worked for 22 years at Simmons, most of that time at a factory outside Atlanta. He is one of 1,000 employees — more than one-quarter of the work force — laid off last year.

But Thomas H. Lee Partners of Boston has not only escaped unscathed, it has made a profit. The investment firm, which bought Simmons in 2003, has pocketed around $77 million in profit, even as the company’s fortunes have declined. THL collected hundreds of millions of dollars from the company in the form of special dividends. It also paid itself millions more in fees, first for buying the company, then for helping run it. Last year, the firm even gave itself a small raise.

Wall Street investment banks also cashed in. They collected millions for helping to arrange the takeovers and for selling the bonds that made those deals possible. All told, the various private equity owners have made around $750 million in profits from Simmons over the years.


Monday, September 14, 2009

BusinessWeek, on the Block and Ailing

Editor's Note: BusinessWeek rode high on tech advertising during the 1990s making a lot of money for its owner, McGraw Hill. But during the past ten years, the publication has been squeezed between dailies like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal on one end and monthly and bi-monthly publications Forbes and Fortune on the other end.

The New York Times - Numbers sometimes tell a story. And the figures for BusinessWeek suggest it is having one tough time.

Bids are due Tuesday for the magazine, which McGraw-Hill has owned for 80 years. A handful of potential investors, including Bloomberg L.P., are still looking at the company. But before buyers had a chance to comb through the magazine’s finances, initial interest had been much higher. BusinessWeek lost more than $43 million last year, though that included certain costs like rent and overhead, which a document sent to potential investors suggests McGraw-Hill has been charging too much for. A buyer would also have to assume much of the $31.9 million in debt.

As the thwarted sellers of The Rocky Mountain News and The Seattle Post-Intelligencer have discovered, this year is not a good time to sell news media outlets. Print advertising is down, and readers’ attention is being diverted to the Web. Business magazines, including BusinessWeek and rivals like Forbes and Fortune, have been hit particularly hard, as automotive, financial services and technology advertisers have pulled back their marketing spending.

So far, about six investors appear interested in BusinessWeek, including OpenGate Capital, which bought TV Guide for $1 last year; Warburg Pincus; and Platinum Equity, which is also bidding for The Boston Globe.

Other candidates include Bloomberg; Joe Mansueto, the founder of the ratings firm Morningstar who bought Inc. and Fast Company in 2005; and Bruce Wasserstein, the chairman and chief executive of Lazard, who also owns New York magazine.

But Peter P. Appert, who is an analyst at Piper Jaffray, argued that BusinessWeek’s future was cloudy. “I don’t think the prospect of meaningful earnings recovery is particularly good,” he said.

BusinessWeek executives declined to comment for this article, as did a McGraw-Hill spokesman, Steven H. Weiss. He referred a reporter to a July news release in which McGraw-Hill said it was “exploring strategic options” for the magazine.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

'Fastest Dying Cities' Meet for a Lively Talk

Wall Street Journal - DAYTON, Ohio -- Here's an idea for saving Rust Belt cities: Tell bloggers and radio stations to stop calling your town a basket case.

That was one suggestion from representatives of eight of the 10 cities labeled last year as America's fastest dying. They met at the Dayton Convention Center last weekend to swap ideas about how to halt the long skid that's turned cities like Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo, N.Y., into shorthand for dystopia.

The city representatives lunched on $6 sloppy Joes and commiserated through Power Point strategy sessions: Lure back former residents, entice entrepreneurs and artists, convert blighted pockets into parkland.

What emerged was a sense of desperation over the difficulty of rebounding from both real problems -- declining populations, dwindling tax bases -- and perceived woes.

Valarie McCall expressed frustration at marketing a city that still echoed the image of the polluted Cuyahoga River catching fire. "That was 1969," said Ms. McCall, Cleveland's chief of governmental affairs. "Come on, I wasn't even born then."

Last year, used long-term trends of unemployment, population loss and economic output to devise a list of "America's Fastest Dying Cities." A few months later, Peter Benkendorf was eating chicken tacos when he hatched the idea for the symposium.

Inside G.E., a Little Bit of Enron

The New York Times - A decade ago, General Electric was the shining star of American business. Its longtime chief executive, Jack Welch, was named manager of the century by Fortune Magazine, and its stock seemed always to go up.

It ran a bewildering array of businesses but somehow always managed to make the expected profits. That record was viewed as proof of superior management, and the battle to succeed Mr. Welch in 2001 was watched all over the business universe. When a winner emerged, the losers quickly were hired to run other major companies.

G.E. is different now. The stock has fallen and the aura has dissipated.

This week General Electric agreed to pay $50 million to settle a suit filed by the Securities and Exchange Commission that said the company fiddled with its books repeatedly early in this decade. In at least one case, that allowed it to preserve its reputation for making the numbers. Some of the details are eerily reminiscent of Enron.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Sources say CEO stepping down

For years, has been the envy of the financial press, with Web traffic far surpassing that of competitors such as and

But the site's fortunes have taken a turn for the worse lately, and now someone is apparently answering for it: Jim Spanfeller, president and CEO of and executive vice president of electronic publishing, is stepping down, according to sources. The announcement is expected as soon as Thursday, when the company has a scheduled sales meeting.

Monday, June 29, 2009

State Budget Woes Are Poised to Get Worse

The Wall Street Journal - State budgets look bad now, but they are set to get worse.

The bulk of funds from the federal government's stimulus package will be allocated by 2011, but tax collections aren't likely to be enough to take their place -- even if the economy is recovering.

The drop in tax revenue is set to be deeper and last longer as collections have become more sensitive to business cycles in recent years. At the same time, states face growing health-care costs and the need to replenish pension programs funded by decimated investments. And some of the stimulus funds expand programs that will require state money to sustain them after the federal largesse runs out.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Credit Relief May Not Last Long

The New York Times - The experience of being choked to death can concentrate a person’s attention. When the chokehold is removed, a feeling of relief, perhaps even of exhilaration, is to be expected.allowing a person to breathe may not be enough to restore him to health.

In that regard, 2009 is starting to feel a little like 1980.

Then, as in recent months, a sudden credit contraction choked off economic activity. When the credit squeeze eased, a sense of relief spread. Within a few months, consumer confidence leaped amid expectations that both employment and business conditions would soon improve.

The improvement came, but it did not last long.

When the current credit crisis was at its worst, even financially solid companies could not get short-term financing. Banks did not trust one another, and trade financing dried up. One result was a collapse in inventories, as imports sagged even more than final demand.

Now, thanks to government financing of debts as diverse as mortgages and commercial paper, credit is more readily available. That should provide a lift to orders and at least a temporary boost for countries, including China and Germany, that rely on export markets

Preparing to Sell E-Books, Google Takes on Amazon

The New York Times - Google appears to be throwing down the gauntlet in the e-book market.

In discussions with publishers at the annual BookExpo convention in New York over the weekend, Google signaled its intent to introduce a program by that would enable publishers to sell digital versions of their newest books direct to consumers through Google. The move would pit Google against, which is seeking to control the e-book market with the versions it sells for its Kindle reading device.

Google’s move is likely to be welcomed by publishers who have expressed concerns about Amazon’s aggressive pricing strategy for e-books. Amazon offers Kindle editions of most new best sellers for $9.99, far less than the typical $26 at which publishers sell new hardcovers. In early discussions, Google has said it will allow publishers to set consumer prices.

Google’s e-book retail program would be separate from the company’s settlement with authors and publishers over its book-scanning project, under which Google has scanned more than seven million volumes from several university libraries. A majority of those books are out of print

Low Mortgage Rates Are Going, Going…

The Wall Street Journal - If you're looking for a new 30-year mortgage, last week's events from the financial markets carry a very simple message: Get 'em cheap while you still can.

Rates on conforming 30-year loans jumped dramatically in just a few days, ending the week at an average of 5.27% according to That's still OK by historic standards, but it's a jump from the levels seen just a few weeks ago, when you could get loans at 4.75% or below.

The underlying cause isn't hard to find. Rising government debts, and burgeoning hopes of an economic recovery, are pushing up long-term interest rates on government debt. The yield on the 10-Year Treasury, which was barely 2% near the end of last year, surged to 3.67% late last week before settling back slightly. And that, in turn, pushes up rates on other long-term loans.

What does this mean for you?

This surge in mortgage rates, if it continues, is ominous news all around. It's bad for those trying to refinance an existing mortgage, those looking to buy a new home, and those looking to sell their home. It may also be bad for the stock market, and maybe even for the dollar, too. More on that later.
For those trying to refinance: If you hadn't locked in the rate already, you are probably out of luck. You may be stuck with higher rates.

Ironically, if you were stuck crawling through the refi process when the rates jumped, you may be a victim of new mortgage rules. These were introduced in the last year to prevent another subprime scandal. They have slowed down the loan approval process and have discouraged most lenders from offering rate locks until other steps have been completed. "Lenders are not locking in borrowers' rates until the (home) appraisals are in," says Paul Sapienza, broker at Drew Mortgage in Boston. Until last year you could lock in a rate while you refinanced, or even looked for a new home. "That's over," Mr Sapienza says.

For those looking to buy a new home: Be aware this rate hike -- to 5.25%, from 4.75% recently -- can add quite a bit to your expenses. It will cost an extra $50 a month for someone buying a typical $200,000 residence with an 80% loan.

Dollar's Woes Not Over

The Wall Street Journal - After three months of losses for the U.S. dollar against the euro, what's one more week?

Traders say the dollar, which fell to its lowest level this year on Friday, is likely to continue to trend lower this week as investors sift through a number of key data reports, as well as news from the European Central Bank policy meeting, and react to another round of Federal Reserve Treasury purchases.

The bond purchases may be the key to the dollar's performance in the first part of the week, as they could drive down yields, particularly as the Treasury won't have any note sales this week.

With market rates falling, inflation fears will come to the fore again.

Not that the dollar's chances for a bounce are nil.

"The dollar-positive scenario comes if the Fed allows a bond market selloff to undermine housing," said John Normand, a foreign-exchange analyst at J.P. Morgan Chase. "But officials are unlikely to take this gamble so early in the recovery."

Ultimately, the most vulnerable currency in the near term is the one that is most exposed to quantitative easing.

Given the Fed's commitments on asset purchases, the dollar fits the bill, which will give the euro room to advance after hitting $1.4168 Friday, a level unseen since December

Fed Mortgage Efforts Prove Costly

The Wall Street Journal - The U.S. Federal Reserve's program to keep mortgage rates low by buying securities and Treasury bonds so far has been costly and seems to be having a fleeting impact.

An analysis of the timing of the Fed's purchases of mortgage-backed securities by J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. shows the Fed is "under water" on its portfolio by about 10%, and it would have to take about $5 billion in losses if it were to mark its portfolio to the market.
Since last autumn, the Fed has purchased more than $480 billion, out of an allowance of $1.25 trillion, in mortgage-backed securities and more than $130 billion, of $300 billion, in Treasury bonds to help keep mortgage rates low. Keeping rates low lets people refinance their mortgages to reduce payments and stay in their homes. It also encourages them to consider snapping up bargains in the still-ailing housing market. Many analysts believe the Fed plans to hold these securities until they mature in 10 years or so, with no plans to sell them into the market, so the losses will probably never be realized.

The central bank owns the majority of securities sold in 2009, with interest payments of 4%, 4.5% and 5%, according to J.P. Morgan's research. As interest rates rise, the value of these securities falls because new bonds are backed with higher-interest mortgage loans and thus pay higher coupons.

The Fed has spent about $2,500 per borrower, by J.P. Morgan's analysis -- more than it costs a typical mortgage borrower to refinance their debt. Higher fees and adjustments based on a borrower's credit score or home's value have been an impediment to borrowers looking to refinance a mortgage, damping the refinancing wave the Fed hoped for, analysts say

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Jittery Bond Market Threatens President's Agenda

The Wall Street Journal - WASHINGTON -- Senior Obama administration officials said Friday that policy adjustments necessary to contain soaring budget deficits would be made once an economic recovery takes hold, in response to growing concerns about a run-up in long-term interest rates.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, National Economic Council chief Lawrence Summers and Office of Management and Budget director Peter Orszag said in separate interviews that the administration was acutely aware that rising interest rates pose a threat to the improving U.S. economy.

Yields on 10-year Treasury notes have risen 1.5 percentage points this year as bond traders pull back amid worries about rising federal debt. Higher yields will leave the government with higher interest costs and still higher deficits. They could also push up other forms of interest rates, making borrowing more expensive for many people.

On Thursday, the Treasury Department is expected to announce an auction of roughly $65 billion in three-year, 10-year and 30-year notes and bonds, and the result will be closely watched.

"We're going to do what's necessary," Mr. Geithner said. "That's the only way you're going to get a strong, sustainable recovery." As soon as a recovery takes hold, the administration will reduce the deficit to a sustainable level, he said, adding, "That's difficult, but critically important."

Mr. Orszag said the administration's commitment to fiscal rectitude would become clear in coming weeks when President Barack Obama demands that any health-care plan drafted in Congress be fully paid for. That pledge, he said, "is ironclad, no ambiguity, not up for negotiation."

Additional steps on the deficit may become necessary, he added, and the administration is committed to turning to Social Security next.

"There is not a day that goes by that the president and the economic team do not focus on the long-term commitment to decrease the deficit," Mr. Summers said.

The comments by the administration officials were aimed at calming worries on Wall Street, and indicated concern that rising interest rates might imperil the president's domestic agenda, as they have done to the plans of previous Democratic administrations.

Some officials tried to play down market fears about federal borrowing. The jump in long-term interest rates, both in Treasurys and mortgages, is more a product of technical factors, they argue, than a reaction to Washington's borrowing.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Consumers Are Dealt a New Hand in Credit Cards

The New York Times - At first glance, the sweeping credit card legislation that passed the Senate on Tuesday looks like a huge victory for consumers. The bill, after all, contains relief from penalty fees and certain interest rate spikes.

But for people who pay off their bills each month, and milk the card rewards programs for everything they’re worth, there is some cause for concern.

For months now, the card companies have been threatening to cut rewards programs sharply to make up for revenue lost because of the new restrictions.

My guess, however, is that this talk is just so much saber-rattling.

Card companies want to make money, and big spenders help them do it, even if those cardholders do not go into debt.

First, let’s lay out the things we know will change because of the new legislation. The bill is chock-full of new rules, which will take effect at various points in the year after President Obama signs the final legislation.

¶There are new restrictions on when card companies can increase the interest rate on balances you’ve already run up. The bill says that banks generally must wait until you’re 60 days late in making the minimum payment before applying a penalty interest rate to your existing debt.

¶Card companies will have to give 45 days’ notice before raising their interest rates. There’s also a notice requirement for any significant change to a card’s terms, which may keep companies from surprising customers who have been saving their loyalty points for years with huge alterations in rewards programs.

¶Banks must send out your bill no later than 21 days before the due date. They cannot send it with, say, 14 days to go, hoping that you won’t get a check to the bank in time to avoid a late fee.

¶If the card company gets your payment by 5 p.m. on the due date, it’s on time, according to the new rules. No more of this early morning deadline nonsense, which led to late fees for payments that arrived with the afternoon mail. Also, no more late fees if the due date is a Sunday or holiday and your payment doesn’t arrive until a day later.

¶Let’s say you’re paying different interest rates on the debt on a single card — one for a cash advance, another for a balance transfer and a third for new purchases. Now, when you make a payment over the minimum balance, banks will have to apply it to the highest-interest debt first. I bet you can guess how some banks used to handle this sort of situation.

¶Banks will need your permission before allowing you the “privilege” of spending more than your credit limit and paying a fat $39 fee for that privilege. The card companies should be ashamed that they needed a law to make this “opt in” requirement a reality.

¶If you’re a student, it will become harder to get a credit card. No one under 21 can have a card unless a parent, legal guardian or spouse is the primary cardholder. Students with their own income can submit proof and ask for an exception to the co-signer requirement.

Credit vs. Debit:


U.S. Expected to Own 70% of Restructured G.M.

DETROIT — In better times, many employees of General Motors called their company “Generous Motors” because of its rich benefits.

Now G.M. may stand for something else: Government Motors.

The latest plan for the troubled automaker, which is expected to file for bankruptcy by Monday, calls for the Treasury Department to receive about 70 percent of a restructured G.M.

Including the more than $20 billion that has already been spent to prop up G.M., the government will provide G.M. at least $50 billion to get the company through Chapter 11, people with direct knowledge of the situation said Tuesday. By some estimates in Detroit, tens of billions beyond that amount may be required.

The United Automobile Workers, meanwhile, will hold up to 20 percent through its retiree health care fund, and bondholders and other parties will get the remaining share. Shareholders would be virtually wiped out.

Although it has been clear for weeks that Treasury would have a majority stake of a reconstituted G.M., a 70 percent share — a figure that could still change — is higher than what had been expected.

Stocks of Retailers Surge on Consumer Optimism

After a report showing increased consumer confidence, stocks in the U.S. rose following several days of declines. At the New York Stock Exchange on Tuesday, Glenn Pohs worked on the exchange’s options floor.

The New York Times - After several days of declines on concerns about the government’s borrowing needs and the soundness of the dollar, stock markets rebounded Tuesday on a surprising bounce in consumer confidence. The private Conference Board reported that consumer sentiment rose again in May, hitting its highest levels in eight months.

As traders returned to Wall Street after the holiday weekend, the glints of good news in those numbers were enough to outweigh other figures showing that housing prices continued to tumble as fast as ever. Every sector of the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index was higher, led by financial stocks and consumer-geared companies like McDonald’s, the Home Depot and Lowe’s home improvement chains, and the Walt Disney Company.

The Dow Jones industrial average was up 196.17 points, or 2.37 percent, to 8,473.49, while the S.& P. 500 was 2.6 percent, or 23.33 points, higher at 910.33.

The technology-focused Nasdaq outpaced other indexes, rising 3.5 percent, or 58.42 points, to 1,750.43, on gains among computer makers, search engines and Internet firms as analysts upgraded Apple. Apple, the maker of iPhones and iPods, rose 6.8 percent to $130.78 a share.

Big banks like Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase closed higher, bolstered by optimism that improving consumer sentiment could translate into stability for the financial system. Investors also edged back toward the dollar, a week after they pushed it to its lowest point in five months on concerns about inflation, the expanding supplies of new currency and big federal deficits. The dollar index, which measures the dollar’s performance against six major currencies, was up 0.1 percent.

As the dollar gained ground, gold prices fell moderately.

The jump in consumer confidence also helped the oil markets, where prices settled 78 cents higher, to $62.45 a barrel.

Consumer Confidence Rose Sharply in May

Associated Press - A private research group said Tuesday that consumer confidence in May soared to the highest level since last September amid tentative signs that the economy was improving.

The Conference Board said that its Consumer Confidence Index, which had sharply increased in April, zoomed past economists’ expectations to 54.9, from a revised 40.8 in April.

Economists surveyed by Thomson Reuters were expecting 42.3.

The reading marks the highest in eight months, when the level was 61.4. The levels are also closer to the year-ago reading of 58.1.

The present situation index, which measures how shoppers feel now about the economy, rose to 28.9 from 25.5 last month. But the Expectations Index, which measures shoppers’ outlook over the next six months, climbed to 72.3 from 51.0 in April.

“Looking ahead, consumers are considerably less pessimistic than they were earlier this year, and expectations are that business conditions, the labor market and incomes will improve in the coming months,” Lynn Franco, director of the Conference Board Consumer Research Center, said in a statement. “While confidence is still weak by historic standards, as far as consumers are concerned, the worst is now behind us.”

The upbeat reading was good news for merchants, which are counting on consumers to be in the mood to spend, after confidence plummeted to record lows.

The Consumer Confidence survey — whose responses were received through May 19 from a representative sample of 5,000 households — showed a marked improvement in consumers’ outlook for jobs. The percentage of consumers expecting more jobs in the months ahead increased to 20.0 percent, from 14.2 percent, while those anticipating fewer jobs declined to 25.2 percent, from 32.5 percent. The proportion of consumers anticipating an increase in their incomes edged up to 10.2 percent, from 8.3 percent.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Recession Turns Malls Into Ghost Towns

The Wall Street Journal - CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Malls, those ubiquitous shopping meccas that sprang up in the 1950s, are dwindling in number, with many struggling properties reduced to largely vacant shells.

The long recession is helping to empty out the promenades. Some analysts estimate that the number of so-called "dead malls" -- centers debilitated by anemic sales and high vacancy rates -- will swell to more than 100 by the end of this year.

In the 12 months ended March 31, U.S. malls collectively posted a 6.5% decline in tenants' same-store sales, according to Green Street Advisors Inc., a real-estate research firm. The recent slump was led by an average 7.3% sales drop at Simon Property Group Inc., the operator with the largest number of mall locations.

The industry's woes are worsening. Thinning customer traffic, and subsequent hits to tenants' sales and profits, prompted Standard & Poor's Corp. last month to lower the credit ratings of the department-store sector. That knocked Macy's Inc. and J.C. Penney Co. into junk territory and pushed others deeper into junk. Sears Holdings Corp., a cornerstone tenant at many malls, is expected to close 23 stores this month and next.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Is the U.S. Going Socialist?

Slump Creates Lack of Mobility for Americans

Stranded by the nationwide slump in housing and jobs, fewer Americans are moving, the Census Bureau said Wednesday.

The bureau found that the number of people who changed residences declined to 35.2 million from March 2007 to March 2008, the lowest number since 1962, when the nation had 120 million fewer people.

Experts said the lack of mobility was of concern on two fronts. It suggests that Americans were unable or unwilling to follow any job opportunities that may have existed around the country, as they have in the past. And the lack of movement itself, they said, could have an impact on the economy, reducing the economic activity generated by moves.

Joseph S. Tracy, research director of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, said the lack of mobility meant less income for movers and the people they employ and less spending on renovation and on durable goods like appliances. But, Dr. Tracy said, the most troubling prospect is that people were no longer able to relocate for work.

“The thing that would be of deeper concern is if job-related moves are getting suppressed and workers are not getting re-sorted to the jobs that best use their skills,” he said. “As the labor market started to improve, if mobility stays low, you can worry about the allocation of workers.”

Weak Housing Data Has a Bright Spot

The Wall Street Journal - New-home construction in the U.S. fell to a new low last month. But an increase in the construction of single-family homes suggests the slump in home building is drawing to a close.

In April, the pace of construction starts fell to an annual rate of 458,000 new homes, a 12.8% drop from March. That was the lowest level since 1959, when the Commerce Department began tracking the figures.

The decline was wholly the result of a sharp drop in ground-breaking for apartment buildings and other multifamily dwellings. Single-family home construction rose 2.8% to 368,000 in April, after rising slightly in March as well.

The increase in the single-family figures adds to evidence that residential construction has begun to recover. The National Association of Home Builders said Monday that its measure of home-builder sentiment increased for a second month in May. New-home sales appear to be turning upward.

Steve Temkin, owner of T&M Building in Torrington, Conn., has started to see business pick up. After weekends when hardly anyone came by, foot traffic in his model homes is back up, and he just made the first two sales in nearly a year in one of his new projects. To adjust to the weak market, he is building smaller homes starting at about $220,000 -- in places where prices once started at more than $350,000.

Home Depot Girds for Continued Weakness

The New York Times - ATLANTA — When the collapse of Lehman Brothers froze the credit markets last September, Carol Tome quickly ordered hundreds of Home Depot’s store managers to transfer all their spare cash to headquarters — literally cleaning out their registers and each store’s safe.

Then Ms. Tome, the chief financial officer, took other emergency steps to make sure Home Depot would not have to borrow another nickel from the nation’s dysfunctional lenders. Within days, she and her boss, Frank Blake, the chairman and chief executive, had slashed capital spending and suspended a stock buy-back program, saving millions of dollars.

“We no longer needed short-term loans to operate,” Ms. Tome said at the time. And that has remained the case.

The era of operating easily on borrowed money is over, at least for now, for businesses as well as consumers. That in turn is changing the way companies operate, with profound effects on the economy. Unable to borrow on favorable terms, many companies have retrenched and some have gone into survival mode. But their caution has costs: Not only could it prolong the recession, but it could put them at a disadvantage to more aggressive competitors when the economy revives.

While Home Depot has emerged from the credit crisis strong enough to borrow at attractive rates now, it has chosen not to do so. Mr. Blake has charted a course away from expansion, one that he holds out as a template for running a big company in postrecession America. In his view, the hard times and the less generous credit are restricting consumption and undermining the corporate expansion that drove economic growth in recent years. The best response, he decided, is to focus on Home Depot’s most profitable core business: the existing retail outlets.

Wall Street Journal Article on Home Depot's Plight:

Shell Investors Revolt Over Executive Pay Plan

Editor's Note: We are seeing a revolt against pay packages - but it is occurring in Europe, not in the U.S. Will this same anger show up among U.S. investors?

The Wall Street Journal - Royal Dutch Shell PLC, Europe's largest oil company, suffered a stunning rebuke Tuesday when investors shot down its executive-compensation plan, in the latest display of shareholder anger over big paychecks and boardroom excesses amid the economic crisis.

Shell is the largest among a growing group of British companies whose shareholders have voted down compensation plans in advisory votes, including Royal Bank of Scotland Group, Bellway PLC and Provident Financial PLC.

Large numbers of shareholders, though not a majority, voted against compensation plans at miner Xstrata PLC, oil major BP PLC, and Pearson, owner of the Financial Times.

The Shell vote, although nonbinding, shows how the economic downturn has inspired a new activism among shareholders, particularly in Europe, and a greater willingness to challenge board decisions, especially those perceived as rewarding failure.

In a charged meeting at Shell's headquarters in The Hague, which was broadcast live in London to U.K.-based shareholders, a succession of investors lined up to excoriate the board of the Anglo-Dutch company for awarding performance-based shares to executives despite the company's failure to reach its own internal targets.

Investors gasped in disbelief when results of the vote were displayed.

European investors are angry over bonuses that are relatively modest by U.S. standards. At Exxon Mobil Corp., the largest U.S. oil company, Chief Executive Rex Tillerson received a 2008 compensation package valued at $23.9 million, including $1.87 million in salary, a $4 million bonus and stock grants initially valued at $17.6 million, according to the company's latest proxy.

Bond Yields May Signal a Recovery

The gap between short- and long-term Treasury rates is approaching a record as the U.S. economy shows signs of recovery and the government floods the market with new debt.

The gap between two- and 10-year Treasury yields was as wide as 2.360 percentage points at one point Tuesday, the most since the 2.619 points hit in November and nearing the August 2003 peak of 2.747 points. The gap ended Tuesday at 2.352 points, as the 10-year note fell 9/32 point, or $2.8125 for every $1,000 invested, to 99 to yield 3.243%, while the two-year note rose 1/32 point to 99 31/32, lowering its yield to 0.891%. Prices and yields move inversely.
[Treasury Yields]

Strategists said the gap could exceed three points. Two-year yield is expected to remain anchored by the Federal Reserve's interest-rate target of 0% to 0.25%. But the yield on the 10-year note is expected to rise amid a surge of new government debt and as investors sell existing government debt as they look to move out of these safe investments. Until the Fed starts to reverse its stimulative monetary policies and starts raising interest rates, the curve is likely to remain steep.

Investors profit from a steepening yield curve by buying two-year notes and selling 10-year notes. The steeper the curve, the bigger the profit potential. Banks benefit as they can borrow funds at cheap short-term rates and invest in higher-yielding long-term assets.

Yield curve explained:

Credit-Card Fees Curbed

The Wall Street Journal - Sweeping new restrictions on credit-card companies would ban extra fees and fluctuating rates and arm tens of millions of consumers with more information on their debts.

Starting in February 2010, a Senate bill passed Tuesday would ban practices such as charging consumers to pay by phone and sudden surges in interest rates. Payments above the minimum due would be applied to balances with the highest interest rates. Information once relegated to tiny print must be made clearer, and consumers will soon be told how long it would take to pay off a balance if they pay only the minimum due.

The credit-card overhaul is set to become the first major legislative change to financial regulation outside housing since the emergency bank bailout enacted last fall, and it's not the last expected this year. Tuesday's 90-5 vote followed pressure from the White House on card issuers to improve fairness and transparency for the three-fourths of U.S. households that use credit cards. The measure is likely to pass the House in the coming days, and President Barack Obama is expected to sign it into law next week.

For consumers, the legislation aims to change habits -- perhaps leading them to make fewer big-ticket purchases with credit cards -- by clarifying the cost of using card debt. Several provisions in the legislation are geared toward forcing consumers to recognize how much they're paying in interest. Card issuers would also have to provide information on consumer-counseling and debt-management services.

Consumers also wouldn't face a retroactive interest-rate increase on existing balances unless payments are 60 days overdue. Even after that rate increase, a consumer could get the old rate reinstated by paying on time for six months.

The legislation bans a practice known as double-cycle billing, in which a late-paying consumer is assessed interest on a prior month's balance that had been paid in full, in addition to the late balance. Issuers also will have to send bills 21 days before the due date and provide at least 45 days' notice before changing any significant terms on a card.

Monday, May 18, 2009

What's Trump Worth? It Keeps Changing

The Wall Street Journal - It's one of the great mysteries of the business world: How much is Donald Trump really worth?

The world famous real-estate developer and television personality has consistently said it's in the billions. A 2005 book citing anonymous sources said it was between $150 million and $250 million. Mr. Trump sued the writer for defamation. He alleged damage to his reputation that caused him to lose out on future deals in locales from Philadelphia to Kiev.

A hearing in that case will take place Monday in a state court in Camden, N.J. As part of the proceedings, the Donald, as he's known to fans and detractors alike, has provided under oath the secrets to how he values his wealth and treasure. In one case, he says, he does "mental projections."

"My net worth fluctuates, and it goes up and down with markets and with attitudes and with feelings, even my own feeling," he told lawyers in the December 2007 deposition.

The deposition, marked "Confidential," comes to light at a time when some of Mr. Trump's projects, including several condominium developments that bear his name, are struggling. Among the problems are anemic sales, lawsuits, sharp declines in value and troubles with creditors.

In a telephone interview Sunday, Mr. Trump disputed that these are tough times for him. "We have a lot of cash right now. We're starting to buy things," he said while taking a break from playing golf at a Trump course in Bedminster, N.J. He said he stood by the statements he made in the deposition.

In the deposition, given to lawyers representing the book's author, Timothy O'Brien, and its publisher, a unit of French-based Lagardere SCA, Mr. Trump described his public persona. "I'm not different from a politician running for office," he said.
Trump on Business Operations

In the deposition, Mr. Trump said that his 2007 estimate of his net worth -- over $4 billion -- is "a very conservative number, in my opinion." He also said $6 billion is a good number, counting his brand value. (In the interview Sunday, he said he was worth $5 billion, not counting brand value.)

Mr. Trump was asked whether he has ever exaggerated in statements about his properties. "I think everybody does," he said in the deposition. "Who wouldn't?"

A follow-up question: Does that mean he inflates the value of his properties in general, nonfinancial public statements? "Not beyond reason," he said in the testimony.

The deposition reveals he told his bankers and New Jersey casino authorities in 2004 and 2005 that he was worth approximately $3.6 billion. In 2005, Deutsche Bank evaluated his net worth as part of underwriting a $640 million construction loan it made to Mr. Trump's Chicago condo and hotel project. The bank said his worth was $788 million, according to information presented by the author's lawyers present during Mr. Trump's deposition.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

It May Be Time for the Fed to Go Negative


WITH unemployment rising and the financial system in shambles, it’s hard not to feel negative about the economy right now. The answer to our problems, however, could well be more negativity. But I’m not talking about attitude. I‘m talking about numbers.

Let’s start with the basics: What is the best way for an economy to escape a recession?

Until recently, most economists relied on monetary policy. Recessions result from an insufficient demand for goods and services — and so, the thinking goes, our central bank can remedy this deficiency by cutting interest rates. Lower interest rates encourage households and businesses to borrow and spend. More spending means more demand for goods and services, which leads to greater employment for workers to meet that demand.

The problem today, it seems, is that the Federal Reserve has done just about as much interest rate cutting as it can. Its target for the federal funds rate is about zero, so it has turned to other tools, such as buying longer-term debt securities, to get the economy going again. But the efficacy of those tools is uncertain, and there are risks associated with them.

In many ways today, the Fed is in uncharted waters.

So why shouldn’t the Fed just keep cutting interest rates? Why not lower the target interest rate to, say, negative 3 percent?

At that interest rate, you could borrow and spend $100 and repay $97 next year. This opportunity would surely generate more borrowing and aggregate demand.

Wal-Mart Says Its Market Share Is Rising

Wal-Mart, the giant discount chain and unofficial barometer of consumer spending, posted flat year-over-year earnings in its most recent quarter — an accomplishment in this economy.

Most retailers — even discount stores, which have been faring relatively well — are not expected to report year-over-year sales growth in the first months of their fiscal year.

Several chains, including Bon-Ton, Saks, Sears and Dillard’s, are not even expected to make a profit, according to Retail Metrics, a research firm.

For the three months ended April 30, Wal-Mart, the country’s largest retailer, had a profit of $3.02 billion, or 77 cents a share, compared with $3.02 billion, or 76 cents a share, for the period a year ago. In earlier reports, Wal-Mart had warned that results would be hurt by currency exchange rates.

SEC Poised to Charge Mozilo With Fraud

The Wall Street Journal - The Securities and Exchange Commission staff is readying civil fraud charges against Countrywide Financial Corp. co-founder Angelo Mozilo, in what would be the highest-profile government legal action against a chief executive connected to the financial crisis.

The SEC staff sent a so-called Wells notice to Mr. Mozilo several weeks ago alerting him to the potential charges, people familiar with the matter said. Mr. Mozilo's lawyers could still persuade the SEC's commissioners that there isn't sufficient evidence to bring a case.

David Siegel, a lawyer for the 70-year-old Mr. Mozilo, declined to comment on the investigation and said there is no "fair basis" for any allegations against the former Countrywide chief executive.

The charges the SEC is considering include alleged violations of insider-trading laws and alleged failure to disclose material information to shareholders, according to people familiar with the matter.


Watch videos at Vodpod and more of my videos

Search This Blog

Blog Archive Video What's News US

NYT > Business

CNBC Top News and Analysis