Monday, March 30, 2009

Do-It-Yourself Magazines, Cheaply Slick

Philip Chavez binding a MagCloud magazine at Progressive Solutions, which prints about 50,000 pages a month for the service.

The Wall Street Journal - PALO ALTO, Calif. — For anyone who has dreamed of creating his own glossy color magazine dedicated to a hobby like photography or travel, the high cost and hassle of printing has loomed as a big barrier. Traditional printing companies charge thousands of dollars upfront to fire up a press and produce a few hundred copies of a bound magazine.

With a new Web service called MagCloud, Hewlett-Packard hopes to make it easier and cheaper to crank out a magazine than running photocopies at the local copy shop.

Charging 20 cents a page, paid only when a customer orders a copy, H.P. dreams of turning MagCloud into vanity publishing’s equivalent of YouTube. The company, a leading maker of computers and printers, envisions people using their PCs to develop quick magazines commemorating their daughter’s volleyball season or chronicling the intricacies of the Arizona cactus business.

“There are so many of the nichey, maybe weird-at-first communities, that can use this,” said Andrew Bolwell, head of the MagCloud effort at Hewlett-Packard. Samir Husni, a journalism professor at the University of Mississippi who plans to use the technology in his classroom, said, “We’re not talking about replacing the Vanity Fairs of the world. But it’s a nifty idea for a vanity press that reminds me of the underground zines we had in the ’60s and ’70s.

What Happens if the Dollar is Dethroned?

The Wall Street Journal-There could be far-reaching implications for commodities should the U.S. dollar lose its status as the world's reserve currency.

While such a move could mean more demand for commodities as a hard asset, or "store of value," if there were a general distrust of all currencies, there are differing views on whether it would mean less currency-related fluctuations in pricing of commodities and just what the impact might be on producers around the globe.

It also would remain to be seen whether the world would go to the International Monetary Fund's Special Drawing Rights program -- a reserve asset based on the value of a basket of four currencies -- and whether commodity exchanges would automatically follow suit.

Last Wednesday, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner prompted a drop in the dollar when he suggested the U.S. would be "open" to an expansion of the IMF's SDR program, a move China had suggested two days prior. The market initially treated this as consideration for a new global reserve currency, but the greenback quickly recovered as the foreign-exchange market soon dismissed the remark as a misstep. Mr. Geithner himself maintained the dollar would remain the world's dominant currency.

Still, it raises the question of what might happen to commodities if the dollar was no longer king, even though some commodity analysts, such as Logic Advisors principal Bill O'Neill, describe the question as academic more than anything.

"This is an extremely hypothetical situation," said Sterling Smith, vice president with FuturesOne. "I'm not entirely sure it would work all that well."

Commodities such as oil are traded in dollars not only in the U.S. but also on some of the other major exchanges in the world, such as London. This means potential for changes in the supply-demand dynamics whenever the dollar makes a big move. For instance, a weak dollar tends to support commodities by making them cheaper in other currencies and theoretically improving demand, and vice versa.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Lessons From Bonus-Gate

House Approves 90% Tax on Bonuses After Bailouts

House Financial Services Committee members met in the Capitol Thursday to discuss taxing bonuses at some firms.

The New York Times - WASHINGTON — The House overwhelmingly approved on Thursday a near total tax on bonuses paid this year to employees of the American International Group and other firms that have accepted large amounts of federal bailout funds, rattling Wall Street as lawmakers rushed to respond to populist anger.

Despite questions about the legality of the retroactive 90 percent levy, Democrats and some Republicans said the tax on bonuses for traders, executives and bankers earning more than $250,000 was the quickest way to show angry Americans that Congress intended to recoup the extra dollars. Even backers of the measure noted it was an extraordinary step.

The House vote sent some employees into a panic about the prospect of, in effect, having to give up money they might already have spent. And it had regulators fearing it could undermine the Treasury’s efforts to stabilize the financial system if banks tried to flee the bailout program or if other firms refused to participate in coming rescue operations to protect their bonuses, some executives said.

Vikram S. Pandit, chief executive of Citigroup, lobbied against the legislation in a meeting Thursday with the Senate majority leader, Senator Harry Reid, according to an industry official.

But the rush to curb the bonuses by lawmakers, many of whom have previously been torn about limiting executive compensation, reflected Congressional anxiety about heightened public dismay over the bailout. The Senate is expected to consider a similar tax on bonuses but has some differences with the House, which could slow final action.

Scorn Trails A.I.G. Executives, Even in Their Driveways

The New York Times - The A.I.G. executive who was nicknamed “Jackpot Jimmy” by a New York tabloid walked up the driveway toward his bay-windowed house in Fairfield, Conn., on Thursday afternoon. "How do I feel?” said the executive, James Haas, repeating the question he had just been asked. “I feel horrible. This has been a complete invasion of privacy."

Mr. Haas walked on, his pink shirt a burst of color on a slate-gray afternoon. The words came haltingly. "You have to understand,” he said, “there are kids involved, there have been death threats. ..." His voice trailed off. It looked as if he was fighting back tears.

"I didn’t have anything to do with those credit problems,” said Mr. Haas, 47. “I told Mr. Liddy” — Edward M. Liddy, the chief executive of A.I.G., the insurance giant — “I would rescind my retention contract.”

He ended the conversation with a request: “Leave my neighbors alone.”

Too late. Jean Wieson, who has lived down the block for 24 years, had stopped her car in front of Mr. Haas’s house before he arrived home. She was angry about the millions of dollars in bonuses paid to its executives, the credit-default swaps that brought American International Group to its knees, the $170 billion the federal government has spent to prop it up. "It makes me absolutely sick," she said. "It’s despicable. It’s disgusting what these people have done. They should be forced to give every cent back.

A.I.G. Sues its Owner - U.S. Government Asking Taxes Be Returned

Demonstrators marched in New York’s financial district Thursday to protest corporate excesses.

The New York Times - While the American International Group comes under fire from Congress over executive bonuses, it is quietly fighting the federal government for the return of $306 million in tax payments, some related to deals that were conducted through offshore tax havens.

A.I.G. sued the government last month in a bid to force it to return the payments, which stemmed in large part from its use of aggressive tax deals, some involving entities controlled by the company’s financial products unit in the Cayman Islands, Ireland, the Dutch Antilles and other offshore havens.

A.I.G. is effectively suing its majority owner, the government, which has an 80 percent stake and has poured nearly $200 billion into the insurer in a bid to avert its collapse and avoid troubling the global financial markets. The company is in effect asking for even more money, in the form of tax refunds. The suit also suggests that A.I.G. is spending taxpayer money to pursue its case, something it is legally entitled to do. Its initial claim was denied by the Internal Revenue Service last year.

The lawsuit, filed on Feb. 27 in Federal District Court in Manhattan, details, among other things, certain tax-related dealings of the financial products unit, the once high-flying division that has been singled out for its role in A.I.G.’s financial crisis last fall. Other deals involved A.I.G. offshore entities whose function centers on executive compensation and include C. V. Starr & Company, a closely held concern controlled by Maurice R. Greenberg, A.I.G.’s former chairman, and the Starr International Company, a privately held enterprise incorporated in Panama, and commonly known as SICO.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Forget Britney; Media Outrage Hits Big Spenders

Last month, Kenneth D. Lewis took a Bank of America jet from Charlotte, N.C., to New Jersey. ABC News captured the flight.

The New York Times - It could be called “To Catch a Rich Guy.”

The celebrity Web site TMZ and TV shows like “Extra” and “Inside Edition” are expanding their coverage of starlets and Hollywood break-ups to include billion-dollar business scandals and the economic collapse.
A camera crew for “Extra,” the syndicated entertainment show, huddled alongside the BBC and The Associated Press outside the courtroom as Bernard L. Madoff pleaded guilty on Thursday. That night, the show started by calling him “the most hated man in America.” The previous evening, “Inside Edition” profiled one of Mr. Madoff’s victims who testified in court, a 60-year-old woman who lost millions and had to go to work as a maid.

The tabloid media, of course, have always peered into the excesses of the rich and famous with a mix of puritan disapproval and voyeurism. But these outlets and other news organizations are now recording troubling uses of taxpayer money at country clubs, private airports and glamorous retreats and, in so doing, explicitly tapping into a fierce populist anger at corporate America, and even pressuring Congress to hold companies accountable.

TMZ, a Web site better known for unflattering paparazzi shots of Britney Spears and Rihanna, drove mainstream coverage and Congressional outrage with a blog post late last month that exclaimed, “Bailout Bank Blows Millions Partying in L.A.” The site reported that Northern Trust, a bank that received $1.6 billion in taxpayer money, had hosted hundreds of clients and employees at a golf tournament and a series of parties in Southern California. “Your tax dollars, hard at work,” the site wrote.

Northern Trust never sought the bailout funds, but agreed to take them last fall at the behest of the government. Regardless, the photos of Tiffany gift bags and the grainy video clips of Chicago and Sheryl Crow performing for the group angered readers —as well as Congressional Democrats, who demanded in a letter that Northern Trust repay what the company “frittered away on these lavish events.” The bank said it would do so “as quickly as prudently possible,” news that earned four exclamation points from TMZ.

Economic Meltdown No Laughing Matter

Jon Stewart on the "Daily Show" with his guest Jim Cramer who hosts the "Mad Money" show on CNBC. They have been feuding about the economy this week.

The New York Times - It wasn’t a “Brawl Street,” or a thrilla in vanilla. It wasn’t a “Daily Show” friendly feud or even much of a discussion. Mostly, the much-hyped Thursday night showdown between Jon Stewart and Jim Cramer, the mercurial host of “Mad Money” on CNBC, felt like a Senate subcommittee hearing.

Mr. Stewart treated his guest like a C.E.O. subpoenaed to testify before Congress — his point was not to hear Mr. Cramer out, but to act out a cathartic ritual of indignation and castigation.

“Listen, you knew what the banks were doing, yet were touting it for months and months, the entire network was,” the Democratic Senator from Comedy Central said. “For now to pretend that this was some sort of crazy, once-in-a-lifetime tsunami that nobody could have seen coming is disingenuous at best and criminal at worst.”

Congress has — belatedly and showily — gone after the leaders of banks, auto companies and insurance companies for their complicity in the financial meltdown. Mr. Stewart has always had a messianic streak to his political satire, as when he ripped into Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala on “Crossfire” for “hurting America.” He is now focusing on business news cable networks like CNBC, which not only failed to foresee the credit crisis, but, in his view, sided with the bankers and helped inflate the bubble.

And while it’s never much fun to watch a comedian lose his sense of humor, in an economic crisis, it’s even sadder to see supposed financial clairvoyants acting like clowns.

Mr. Stewart made his feelings clear. “I understand you want to make finance entertaining,” he told Mr. Cramer. “But it’s not a game,” he said, using an additional adjective that was bleeped out. “When I watch that I can’t tell you how angry that makes me.”

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Mother Jones Tests Nonprofit Model in Race to Survive the Recession

The New York Times - In its beginning Mother Jones, the leftist magazine founded in 1976 in San Francisco, viewed itself as a defender of independent journalism free from corporate meddling.

Today it sees itself as a defender of journalism itself.

As such, Mother Jones has become a real-life laboratory for whether nonprofit journalism — a topic of the moment in mainstream news media circles — can withstand a deep recession.

Mother Jones, named for the early-20th-century radical labor organizer Mary Harris Jones, is a nonprofit bimonthly that has long sponsored investigative journalism in the tradition of Upton Sinclair. It cemented its reputation with a famous piece in 1977 on the Ford Motor Company’s indifference toward a fuel tank design flaw; the article has come to be known as the “exploding Pinto” story.

Back in the fall, when the economic downturn intensified, and the plight of print publications became more dire, Mother Jones suffered, despite its position of not being in it for the money. Advertising plummeted, down 23 percent in 2008, and some of the big donations the magazine depends on didn’t come through.

While it is not a new idea, the future possibilities of nonprofit, endowed journalism as a cure for the economic problems facing the print industry have recently engendered a lively debate within journalistic circles, in blogs and in articles in The New Yorker and on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times.

“We’ve been hearing from more and more people, ‘How does that work?’ ” Ms. Bauerlein said. “ ‘What’s it like being a nonprofit?’ ”

But as Mother Jones’s example shows, nonprofit publications, while they may initially be more durable in a down economy, are far from impervious to market forces.

Economic downturn hurts job outlook for scholars

The New York Times - Chris Pieper began looking for an academic job in sociology about six months ago, sending off about two dozen application packets. The results so far? Two telephone interviews, and no employment offers.

“About half of all the rejection letters I’ve received mentioned the poor economy as contributing to their decision,” said Mr. Pieper, 34, who is getting his doctorate from the University of Texas, Austin. “Some simply canceled the search because they found the funding for the position didn’t come through. Others changed their tenure-track jobs to adjunct or instructor positions.”

“Many of the universities I applied to received more than 300 applications,” he added.

Mr. Pieper is not alone. Fulltime faculty jobs have not been easy to come by in recent decades, but this year the new crop of Ph.D. candidates is finding the prospects worse than ever. Public universities are bracing for severe cuts as state legislatures grapple with yawning deficits. At the same time, even the wealthiest private colleges have seen their endowments sink and donations slacken since the financial crisis. So a chill has set in at many higher education institutions, where partial or full-fledge hiring freezes have been imposed.

A survey by the American Historical Association, for example, found that the number of history departments recruiting new professors this year is down 15 percent, while the American Mathematical Association’s largest list of job postings has dropped more than 25 percent from last year.

The anticipated wave of retirements by faculty members who are 60-something is likely to slow as retirement savings accounts and pensions wither, administrators and professors say. That means that some students who have finished postdoctoral fellowships and who expected to leave for faculty positions are staying put for another year, which in turn closes off an option for other graduate students coming up the ladder.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Business News Tops Among TV Viewers

Post courtesy of Mary Rogus, OU Faculty.

By David F. Carr -- Broadcasting & Cable, 3/4/2009 2:05:07 PM MT

Amid all the worries about the health of the TV news business, dozens of local newscasts have managed to achieve year-over-year ratings growth of more than 20 percent, according to an analysis by Nielsen and Broadcasting & Cable.

In November, the Associated Press reported that tough economic news is good for evening newscasts, noting that in January the CBS, ABC, and NBC newscasts each captured their highest ratings in years as viewers tuned in for the start of a new presidency and to get the latest on the state of the economy.

We asked whether local newscasts were sharing in that ratings boost, and Nielsen produced a custom ratings report comparing newscasts in 56 metered markets for the “early fringe” time of the evening during November. The chart below is limited to stations that achieved a rating of at least 5 (5% of the total viewing “universe” for their market).

Embarrassing Moments at CNBC

Post Courtesy of Sara Shookman

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Obama Administration Launches Housing Plan

The Wall Street Journal - WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration Wednesday unveiled key guidelines for its housing market rescue plan that should enable loan servicers to immediately start modifying eligible mortgages.

Two weeks ago, the president laid out a clear path forward to helping up to 9 million families restructure or refinance their mortgages to a payment that is affordable now and into the future," Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said Wednesday in a statement. "Today, we are providing servicers with the details they need to begin helping eligible borrowers."

The administration's new housing rescue effort includes a program aimed at reducing the amount homeowners owe per month. Under the program, the lender will have to first reduce monthly payments on mortgages so that the borrowers' monthly mortgage payment is no greater than 38% of his or her income. The program will then match further reductions in monthly payments dollar-for dollar from 38% down to 31% debt-to-income ratio for the borrower.

The modified payments will be kept in place for five years and the loan rate will be capped for the life of the loan, Treasury said in technical documents provided Wednesday morning. After five years, "the interest rate can be gradually stepped-up by 1% per year to the conforming loan survey rate in place at the time of the modification."

Treasury said that in order to reach that 31% debt-to-income ratio level, interest payments will first be reduced down to as low as 2%.

Meanwhile, servicers will receive an upfront fee of $1,000 for each eligible modification meeting guidelines established under this initiative. Servicers will also receive "pay for success" fees, as long as the borrower is successful at staying in the program, of $1,000 each year for three years, said Treasury.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Why a Tsunami Hit the Markets

WSJ's David Gaffen and Heidi Moore discuss the reasons for Monday's stock market free fall that saw the Dow drop below 6800 points.

Bernanke Says Stimulus Will Provide Economic Bo

The Wall Street Journal - WASHINGTON -- U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke on Tuesday appeared to back the White House's efforts to stimulate the economy, saying aggressive action is needed now to avoid an economic calamity.

"By supporting public and private spending, the fiscal package should provide a boost to demand and production over the next two years as well as mitigate the overall loss of employment and income that would otherwise occur," Mr. Bernanke said in prepared testimony to the Senate Budget Committee. (Read the remarks.)

President Barack Obama recently signed a $787 billion stimulus mixing infrastructure spending, aid to states and tax cuts. Approval came almost entirely without Republican support in Congress, making Mr. Bernanke's supportive comments noteworthy since he served for a time as President George W. Bush's top economist in 2005 before becoming Fed chairman.

Mr. Bernanke's latest comments come amid signs that the recession which began in December 2007 is deepening. Gross domestic product plunged at a 6.2% rate last quarter, the Commerce Department said last week, the steepest slide since the early 1980s. And the recent bloodbath on Wall Street brought the Dow Jones Industrial Average to levels not seen in a dozen years on Monday.

Starbucks Addresses the Price Issue, and Breakfast

SEATTLE — When Starbucks begins serving a new line of breakfasts early Tuesday morning, the coffee shop chain is hoping its egg sandwiches achieve more than just the perfect balance of smoky bacon and salty parmesan cheese.

Starbucks is also trying to pull off another balancing act: the meals must be inexpensive enough to draw in frugal customers, yet fancy enough to appeal to those who care more about quality than price.

The $3.95 breakfasts — coffee and an egg sandwich, cup of oatmeal or coffee cake — represent Starbucks’ latest effort to recast itself as an affordable brand. The value meals, which Starbucks calls “breakfast pairings,” save customers $1.20. As part of a broader effort to appeal to the value-conscious, Starbucks is also offering discount cards and training its employees to suggest bags of whole beans and instant coffee to people who are cutting back on $4 lattes.

About those lattes: the company is fed up with the characterization that it only sells $4 specialty drinks. “The $3.95 price point is a backhanded way to go at the four-buck perception — it’s less than four bucks, and it’s not just a drink, but food to go with it,” said Terry Davenport, Starbucks’s chief marketing officer.

Starbucks is adjusting the menus that hang in stores, too. Expensive specialty drinks like Frappuccinos used to be front and center, but new menus will highlight $2 brewed and iced coffees instead. It is teaching servers that the majority of drinks are under $3, so they can tell consumers who complain about pricing.

Thomson Reuters Plans Video-on-Demand Service

Thomson Reuters will announce on Tuesday an ambitious new video-on-demand service for its financial services clients, with thousands of searchable videos and transcripts on a range of topics, hoping to become a one-stop source for business people.The Web-based service, which will be introduced in the next few months, differs significantly from existing sources of financial news video reports. It has no television outlet and no programming schedule — each piece is viewed only on demand — and it will not be open to the general public.

Reporters Fight Over Apple's Steve Jobs Coverage

Reporter Outburst Against Housing Plan Sparks Controversy

The New York Times - Rick Santelli, the CNBC reporter whose on-air suggestion of a “Chicago Tea Party” to protest President Obama’s housing plan sparked an Internet sensation and a smattering of actual protests across the country, found himself on the defensive Monday.

Mr. Santelli published a long blog post on CNBC’s Web site Monday evening denying any affiliation with the “tea party movements that have popped up” since his comments were broadcast. A number of blogs had questioned whether Mr. Santelli had coordinated his on-camera commentary with right-wing groups.

On Feb. 19, during one of his regular live reports from the Chicago Board of Trade, Mr. Santelli mentioned the tea party idea as part of a longer screed about the homeowner assistance plan.

At one point, as the traders around him booed the president’s housing proposals, he asked: “President Obama, are you listening?” The president’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, was, and responded the next day by saying that Mr. Santelli “doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

Since the commentary, which was viewed millions of times on and YouTube, dozens of “tea party” protests have taken place in cities across the country, and some conservative groups are planning a Tax Day Tea Party for April 15.

Mr. Santelli’s televised commentary appeared spontaneous to viewers. However, the Internet domain name was registered in August 2008 — well before his commentary — but not used until afterwards. The registration was first reported by two bloggers for Playboy’s Web site who said it was evidence that Mr. Santelli’s remarks were a “carefully planned trigger” for the protests. (The blog post was removed without explanation Monday.)


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