Friday, November 30, 2007

Bernanke Adds to Rate-Cut Hints

By SUDEEP REDDY (Wall Street Journal)

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, in a signal he is open to cutting interest rates, said the latest bout of turbulence in financial markets may put more strain on the economy. The housing downturn and related mortgage turmoil are adding "greater than usual" uncertainty to the economic outlook, Mr. Bernanke said, in prepared remarks last night in Charlotte, N.C. "These developments have resulted in a further tightening in financial conditions, which has the potential to impose additional restraint on activity in housing markets and in other credit-sensitive sectors."

Fed officials are increasingly paving the way for a rate cut at their Dec. 11 meeting, barring a significant improvement in either market conditions or economic data. To determine their next move, Mr. Bernanke said Fed policy makers would be closely watching a stream of data arriving in the next two weeks -- including readings due out today on personal income and spending and next week's report on the November job market.

"I expect household income and spending to continue to grow, but the combination of higher gas prices, the weak housing market, tighter credit conditions, and declines in stock prices seem likely to create some head winds for the consumer in the months ahead," he said. He also reiterated worries that surging costs of food and energy, along with the weak dollar, could raise the public's inflation expectations and erode price stability. Inflation has remained relatively tame in recent months.

Mr. Bernanke's comments echoed remarks by Fed Vice Chairman Donald Kohn on Wednesday that led markets to conclude the Fed would cut interest rates to offset the risks posed by mortgage-related troubles in the credit market. Investors expect the Fed to cut interest rates by at least a quarter percentage point next month from the current 4.5%, and markets are putting the odds of a half-point cut at 50%. Further easing, especially putting a larger cut on the table, could draw opposition from some policy makers. But Fed officials are grappling with an economy struggling under the weight of tighter lending standards and a depressed housing market.

The Commerce Department said yesterday that new-home sales rose 1.7% in October, but the median price of a new home in October was down 13% from a year earlier, to $217,800. Many economists expect economic growth this quarter to come in below 1%, and some are forecasting a slight contraction. Underscoring the spreading weakness, new claims for unemployment insurance last week rose a seasonally adjusted 23,000, to 352,000 -- their highest level since February -- an indication the labor market is beginning to deteriorate. The four-week average of new claims, a more accurate gauge of the underlying trend, increased 5,750, to 335,250, the highest level since March, the Labor Department said.

Yesterday, the government raised its estimate of the economy's growth pace in the third quarter to an annualized 4.9%, a full percentage point above its previous estimate. But that did nothing to change assessments that growth is grinding nearly to a halt this quarter. The revision of the third quarter's gross-domestic-product growth, which was widely anticipated, reflects upward revisions in the tally of exports and inventories, which could portend production cutbacks. The third-quarter economy was "helped by the fact that the credit crunch was barely under way when the majority of this growth data was collected," said economist Rob Carnell of ING Bank. He said more-timely data "indicate a much broader weakening of the economy and also few signs of inflation outside food and energy."

The Commerce Department also reported a decline in a measure of corporate profits in the third quarter, with cash flow falling for the third quarter in a row. The Fed's favored inflation gauge -- the price index for personal-consumption expenditures other than food and energy -- was up an unrevised 1.8% in the third quarter from last year, higher than the second quarter's 1.4%, but within the comfort zone of some Fed officials.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Fannie, Freddie loan limits kept at current level

by Neil Adler Contributor (Baltimore Business Journal)

The regulator for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac said Tuesday that the maximum conforming loan limit in 2008 for single-family mortgages purchased by the two mortgage-finance companies will remain at this year's level of $417,000 for one-unit properties in most of the U.S.

Higher limits apply to Alaska, Hawaii, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands, as well as to properties with more than one unit.

The conforming loan limit determines the maximum size of a mortgage that Washington, D.C.-based Fannie Mae or McLean, Va.-based Freddie Mac may buy or guarantee. Both companies purchase residential mortgages and also package loans into mortgage-backed securities for sale to other investors.

By law the maximum conforming loan limit is based on the October-to-October change in the average house price in the Monthly Interest Rate Survey of the Federal Housing Finance Board. This board reported the decline in the average price was $10,685, or 3.49 percent, from $306,258 in October 2006 to $295,573 in October 2007. The combined two-year decline is now 3.65 percent.

"While the house price survey data used in determining the conforming loan limit show a decline over the past year, as previously announced and consistent with the proposed new conforming loan limit guidance, the level will remain at $417,000 for the third straight year," James Lockhart, director of the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight, which regulates Fannie Mae (NYSE: FNM) and Freddie Mac (NYSE: FRE), said in a statement.

U.S. lawmakers have sought to increase the conforming loan limit for the two mortgage finance giants, with the hope that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac could provide some liquidity to the mortgage market, which continues to struggle from the fallout in the subprime sector.

Citigroup to sell $7.5 billion stake to Abu Dhabi

By Dan Wilchins and James Cordahi

NEW YORK/DUBAI (Reuters) - Citigroup Inc is selling up to 4.9 percent of itself for $7.5 billion to the Gulf Arab emirate of Abu Dhabi, giving the largest U.S. bank fresh capital as it wrestles with the subprime mortgage crisis and the resignation of its chief executive.

The capital injection will shore up Citi's balance sheet, which has been hurt by some $6.8 billion of writedowns and losses in the third quarter, and the potential for another $11 billion in the fourth quarter. Citi is paying a high price for the capital injection by selling mandatory convertible securities to Abu Dhabi which pay a fixed coupon of 11 percent. That is above the average yield on U.S. junk bonds, which is 9.4 percent according to Merrill Lynch data. Analysts at Royal Bank of Scotland said in a note that Citigroup was paying a "high price," but that the convertible notes would help boost the bank's core capital.

The sale to the $650 billion Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, the world's largest sovereign wealth fund, may also signal the freefall in U.S financial stocks is close to ending, analysts said. "Citi is big, it's widely followed, and when people see confidence in it, it should mean something," said Bo Brownstein, an analyst covering financial stocks at Cambiar Investors in Denver, Colorado. The dollar rose against the yen on the news, and Japanese bank stocks also rallied. In Tokyo trading, Citi shares fell 4.2 percent for the day, but had been trading even lower before news of the Abu Dhabi deal.

Family ruled Abu Dhabi -- whose citizens number no more than 400,000 -- will be Citi's largest shareholder. The investment reflects the increasing financial might of oil-producing countries, which have benefited from a five-fold increase in the price of crude oil during the last six years.

Gulf investors have announced more than $70 billion of foreign acquisitions this year, more than in the previous two years combined.

Dubai International Capital, a private equity firm owned by the ruler of Dubai, said on Monday it made a "substantial investment" in Sony Corp (Tokyo:6758.T - News), while a separate Abu Dhabi entity earlier this month bought a $622 million stake in U.S.-based chip maker Advanced Micro Devices Inc.

Gulf investors such as the state-owned Investment Corporation of Dubai have expressed interest in taking advantage of plummeting U.S. financial stock prices to buy. Shares of Citigroup have plunged 42.5 percent during the last five months. Merrill Lynch & Co, which wrote down $8.4 billion of assets in the third quarter, is down 40.6 percent during the same period. Abu Dhabi Investment Authority manages the surplus revenues of the government of Abu Dhabi, the world's sixth-largest oil exporter. Standard Chartered estimated in September its assets were worth $650 billion. Both Dubai and Abu Dhabi are members of the United Arab Emirates federation. Sir Win Bischoff, Citi's interim chief executive said in a statement on Monday: "This investment, from one of the world's leading and most sophisticated equity investors, provides further capital to allow Citi to pursue attractive opportunities to grow its business."

State-run funds are keen for stakes in global banks, which can benefit from the development of emerging markets, a person familiar with the funds said. Citi operates in over 100 countries, and has boosted its investments in emerging markets over the last 12 months.


Acquisitions in general have taken up some $25 billion of Citi capital over the last year, according to CIBC World Markets analyst Meredith Whitney. Combined with writedowns in the third quarter and expected future writedowns, Citi may have to cut its dividend to replenish its capital, Whitney wrote on October 31. She estimated that Citi would need another $30 billion of capital. Citi said on November 4 it does not plan to cut its dividend. On the same day, Citi said it may take $8 billion to $11 billion of additional writedowns in the fourth quarter, and that its chief executive Charles Prince was resigning. Citi is also taking early steps to cut staff and reduce costs, according to press reports. Citi said earlier this year it was cutting about 5 percent of its staff, or 17,000 jobs.

On Monday, Citi shares closed at $29.80 on the New York Stock Exchange, falling below $30 for the first time in more than five years amid mounting concerns of further losses and writedowns. Citi's market value has fallen by more than $100 billion this year. U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, who opposed Dubai Ports World's plan to purchase assets at six U.S. ports and raised questions about Borse Dubai's plans to swap stakes with Nasdaq, said the Citi transaction will bolster the bank's competitiveness and "help preserve New York's status as the world's financial center."

After conversion, Abu Dhabi's stake would be larger than the current holding of Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who is one of Citi's largest shareholders. Prince Alwaleed acquired his Citi stake in 1991 when the bank struggled with Latin American loan losses and the U.S. real estate market collapse, and his shares in the banks were worth some $6 billion earlier this month. Last month, Bear Stearns Cos Inc and China's CITIC Securities Co agreed to swap stakes and form a broad alliance. Bear Stearns had also been battered by the subprime mortgage crisis, and many investors had hoped its tie-up with a foreign bank would include a cash infusion.


The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority will have no special rights of ownership or control over Citi and no role in the management or governance of the bank, including no right to name board members. The investment group is buying mandatory convertible securities that can be converted into Citi stock in 2010 and 2011 at prices ranging from $31.83 to $37.24 per share. The number of shares it receives will adjust based on Citi's share price, with a higher share price giving the investor fewer shares. The securities will also pay a fixed coupon of 11 percent per year, payable quarterly. That may seem steep, but after accounting for the fact that 60 percent of that coupon is tax-deductible, the coupon rate is similar to the dividend rate on Citi's shares, a person familiar with the matter said. The investment is expected to close within the next few days, Citi said. Saeed al-Hajeri, executive director the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, could not immediately be reached for comment.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Fannie and Freddie pullback would devastate economy

By Patrick Rucker - Analysis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - If anyone thinks the current U.S. housing downturn is bad now, things would get far worse if Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac to suddenly stop buying mortgages, a move that would drive up the costs of home loans and devastate the economy. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the nation's two largest sources of mortgage finance respectively, recently reported combined losses of $3.5 billion. Borrowing costs have skyrocketed and investors have erased billions of dollars in each company's equity market capitalizations. Few think the two companies are likely to pull out of the housing market, even temporarily. However, if the stream of home loan failures were to force the companies to suspend new mortgage investments, the market for mortgage bonds would "freeze up," said Tom Sowanick, chief investment officer of Clearbrook Financial LLC in Princeton, New Jersey.

Already, the housing slowdown has subtracted about 1 percentage point from growth in inflation-adjusted gross domestic product so far this year. Taking Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac out of the home loan business would flatten the already listless real estate market, said Robert MacIntosh, chief economist with Eaton Vance Management in Boston. "It would be devastating," he said. "Why would anyone consider buying a house if the two biggest ultimate credit givers and lenders to the housing industry shut down?"

While Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac do not offer credit directly to borrowers, they do buy home loans and repackage them as investments for Wall Street. The companies also buy mortgages to hold in their money-making investment portfolios. Both steps make the market more liquid by taking long-term investments off a lender's books.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac own or guarantee a combined $4.8 trillion of U.S. home mortgage loans of more than 40 percent of the total outstanding. That size, in part, explains why Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are likely to survive the current housing and credit downturns. Another factor is that these companies were relatively cautious during the recent housing boom and did not make big bets on the risky subprime market, which involves borrowers with damaged credit. While Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac expect the number of failing mortgages on their books to double, that still represents less than 0.12 percent of the home loans they guarantee for investors. And maybe most importantly, the companies benefit from their status as government-sponsored enterprises, which many investors treat as a guarantee of a federal bailout if either were to stumble.

Fannie and Freddie also have credit lines to the Treasury Department, which have never been tapped, fostering the perception that they are wards of Uncle Sam. The companies are simply so large and risk-averse that they set a standard for the industry that would be hard to replicate if they were to step away from the market, said Jim Vogel, who tracks the companies for FTN Financial in Memphis, Tennessee. "They are like the U.S. Treasury of the mortgage market," said Jim Vogel, who tracks the companies for FTN Financial in Memphis, Tennessee. "The general mortgage-backed security trades on the spread set in the Fannie and Freddie market."

If Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were to step away from the mortgage investments, it would not only send the mortgage market into a devastating tailspin, but the broader market as well, which is why many observers say it simply will not happen.

"It would aggravate the liquidity crunch. The psychological impact would be huge. The GSEs have been seen as the backstop buyers for all types of mortgage paper," said Wan-Chong Kung, senior portfolio manager at FAF Advisors at Minneapolis. But most agree with MacIntosh when he says: "It would be devastating -- but I don't think that would happen at all, there is no chance of that." And any move away from the mortgage market would destroy their stock prices -- both of which are already trading at around 10-year lows. "Fannie Mae and Freddie stocks would collapse because there would be no growth prospects," for the companies, Sowanick added.

Dan Fuss, vice-chairman of Loomis Sayles, which manages $100 billion in fixed-income assets, said he doesn't believe Fannie and Freddie will stop buying mortgages. And he points out: "You need a public policy response to the housing crisis."

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Feds Urge Vigilance on Toy Safety


Despite a record number of recalls this year, potentially dangerous toys remain on store shelves days before the start of the busy holiday shopping season, consumer groups warned Tuesday. Federal regulators, under fire for lax enforcement, urged shoppers to be vigilant.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has worked closely with Mattel Inc and other manufacturers on recalls of millions of toys tainted with lead and other products, yet two consumer investigations released Tuesday cited possible violations, including sales of toys with small parts that could pose a choking hazard.

"Why is it we are the ones that are getting this information out to parents, and not the government and not the toy companies?" asked Charles Margulis, of the Center for Environmental Health.

In CPSC's annual toy safety message, Nancy Nord, acting head of the CPSC, sought to reassure parents that the agency was doing all it can to remove unsafe toys. She noted the Chinese government recently had signed agreements to help prevent lead-painted toys from reaching the U.S.

"Toys today are undergoing more inspection and more intense scrutiny than ever before," said Nord, citing CPSC's "daily commitment to keeping consumers safe 365 days a year."

Vallese left the door open to the possibility of several more CPSC recalls before year's end, declining to say if most dangerous toys had already been removed from store shelves given the recent spate of toy recalls. "When we find violations, we will announce them," she told The Associated Press.

Joan Lawrence, a vice president of the Toy Industry Association, said more recalls were probable given recent manufacturer retesting of products. "That's why it's so important for consumers to pay attention to recall notices," Lawrence said.

Among the biggest toy hazards cited by CPSC:

_Riding toys, skateboards and inline skates that could cause dangerous falls for children.

_Toys with small parts that can cause choking hazards, particularly for children under age 3.

_Toys with small magnets, particularly for children under age 6, that can cause serious injury or death if the magnets are swallowed.

_Projectile toys such as air rockets, darts and sling slots for older children that can cause eye injuries.

_Chargers and adapters that can pose burn hazards to children.

The series of announcements Tuesday, coming three days before the start of the busy shopping season, helped cap a year of harsh congressional criticism of CPSC enforcement following a number of recalls involving millions of lead-tainted toys and other products - the highest number of recalls ever due to product defects. The agency's staff has dropped from almost 800 employees in 1974 to an all-time low of about 400 employees now.

Both the House and Senate are now considering legislation to overhaul the product safety system by substantially increasing CPSC's budget, raising the cap on civil penalties for violations and giving the CPSC authority to provide quicker notice to the public of potentially dangerous products.

The measures also seek to ban officials at federal regulating agencies from taking trips financed by industries they oversee. Both Nord and her predecessor as chairman, Hal Stratton, accepted free trips worth thousands of dollars at industry expense.

In its 57-page annual survey released Tuesday, U.S. PIRG agreed that toys with small magnets as well as small parts that pose choking hazards create significant risks.

Between 1990 and 2005, at least 166 children choked to death on children's products, accounting for more than half of all toy-related deaths at a rate of about 10 deaths per year, the group said. Several times this year potentially dangerous toys were sold without the required warning labels of possible choking risks while the CPSC also has been slow to issue public warnings, U.S. PIRG said.

"The Consumer Product Safety Commission is a little agency with a big job it simply cannot do," said Ed Mierzwinski, the group's consumer program director. "Congress must give it the tools it needs to do that big job better."

In a four-day investigation of toys it purchased at stores such as Target Corp, Wal-Mart Stores Inc and The Disney Store, the Center for Environmental Health found that 9 out of the 100 toys it purchased had high lead levels of 900 parts per million or more.

Another six toys had levels higher than 100 parts per million, the approximate trace level that some consumer groups would like to see as the limit whether in paint, coatings or any toys, jewelry or other products used by children under 12.

On Monday, California Attorney General Jerry Brown sued 20 companies in state court, including Mattel Inc. and Toys "R" Us, claiming they sold toys containing "unlawful quantities of lead." The move follows major recalls of toys, lunch boxes, children's jewelry and other goods during the last year by CPSC.

Freddie Mac Posts a $2 Billion Loss


Turmoil in the housing sector continued to reverberate today across several parts of the industry, reinforcing the mood among investors that the downturn has not yet reached its bottom.

Freddie Mac, the big mortgage finance company, posted a $2 billion loss for the third quarter and warned that it might not have enough capital on hand to cover the mandatory reserves for its mortgage commitments. The company has been battered by a rising wave of foreclosures tied to subprime mortgage defaults and is now “seriously considering” cutting its stock dividend.

Freddie’s misfortune is particularly rattling because the company is considered to be protected by an implied government guarantee. There was no mention in this morning’s earnings release about an infusion of federal capital, though the company said it would seek counsel from Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers for its short-term efforts to shore up its reserves.

Shares of the company plummeted 29 percent, to $26.50, its lowest level in 11 years. Shares of its sister firm, Fannie Mae, dropped 25 percent.

“Without doubt, 2007 has been an extremely difficult year for the country’s housing and credit markets,” Richard F. Syron, the chairman and chief executive of Freddie Mac, wrote in a statement.

Mr. Syron was not alone in his lament. D. R. Horton, the nation’s largest home builder, reported a $50.1 million loss in its fiscal fourth quarter as the housing downturn pummeled its inventory, goodwill and land-use contracts. Lower demand and tighter lending standards have cut back the company’s business and caused many clients to cancel contracts.

“We expect the housing environment to remain challenging,” Donald R. Horton, the company’s chairman, said in a statement.

The subprime debacle also claimed another high-profile casualty: H&R Block’s chairman and chief executive, Mark Ernst, who said today he would resign amid the company’s difficulties with subprime exposure. Mr. Ernst had come under fire for the bungled sale of the Option One Mortgage Corporation, a company subsidiary that took heavy losses on risky loans.

His replacement as chairman will be Richard C. Breeden, the former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, who was recently elected to H&R Block’s board after sharply criticizing Mr. Ernst. The chief executive slot will be temporarily filled by Alan M. Bennett, a former top executive at Aetna, the insurance company.

Home building data released today suggested that housing troubles will only worsen. Groundbreaking permits fell 6.6 percent in October to their lowest level in over 14 years, a sign that builders are cutting back on residential home projects. Permits have dipped nearly 25 percent since last October, to a seasonally adjusted 1.18 million annual rate, the Commerce Department said.

New residential construction grew slightly last month, rising 3 percent, to a 1.23 million annual pace. It was the first increase in four months, but the increase came mostly from a 44 percent leap in multifamily homes, like condominiums.

Construction of single-family homes dropped again last month, and over all, housing starts remain near the lowest level since the recession of the early 1990s. “With mortgage financing further constrained and inventories of unsold homes quite high, the near to medium term outlook for housing starts is not good,” Joshua Shapiro, chief United States economist for MFR, wrote in a research note.

That would be unfortunate for Freddie Mac, whose mortgage-related securities rapidly lost their value as the subprime market began to collapse. The company was forced to write down about $2.7 billion in assets related to credit guarantees and derivatives. Freddie lost $3.29 a share in the third quarter, compared with a loss of $1.17 a share a year earlier. The company also said it did not expect earnings to improve in the fourth quarter.

“We’re not happy about this,” Mr. Syron told investors and shareholders on a conference call today. “We don’t expect you to be happy about it.”

HP profit jumps 28%

By John Boudreau (Mercury News)

Hewlett-Packard, the world's leading computer maker, reported a 28 percent spike in profit for the most recent quarter as sales of laptops rose nearly 50 percent and international business soared.

The Palo Alto-based computer and printer company reported earnings of $2.2 billion, or 81 cents a share, compared with earnings of $1.7 billion, or 60 cents a share for the same period a year ago.

HP's computer division had a 30 percent revenue jump to $10.1 billion for the quarter ending Oct. 31. Shipments were up 31 percent. Meanwhile, HP's software business doubled in revenue, reaching $698 million. Software sales got a boost from the company's acquisitions, including Mercury Interactive.

For the fiscal year, the company reported revenue of $104.3 billion, a 14 percent jump from the previous year and the first time HP has racked up $100 billion in annual sales.

"We had a strong quarter characterized by double-digit growth across all our regions," HP Chairman and Chief Executive Mark Hurd said in a conference call with analysts. "We did this while continuing to make progress on our cost structure. I am confident we can continue to execute with discipline and produce another year of strong financial returns."

As fears of an economic slowdown spooked the markets, analysts probed Hurd about his economic forecast. While declining the role of economist, the CEO of the world's largest information technology products company eased some concerns with an upbeat fiscal 2008 guidance.

The company predicts earnings, excluding one-time charges, of 80 cents a share in the first quarter, which is 3 cents higher than what analysts had forecast. HP expects sales of $27.4 billion to $27.5 billion, also higher than the $27 billion analysts were expecting. The company expects revenue for fiscal year 2008 to be $111.5 billion.

Hewlett-Packard also announced it was setting aside an additional $8 billion for share repurchases, indicating the company believes its share to be undervalued.

Overall, analysts viewed the company's financial snapshot as a hopeful sign, particularly after Cisco Systems reported weak sales to U.S. corporations a week and a half ago.

"Obviously, the concern that the IT spending environment would come to a screeching halt is alleviated," said Pacific Crest Securities analyst Brent Bracelin. "HP is the largest IT supplier in the world and its comments are that things are healthy and spending continues to be healthy."

Hewlett-Packard, though, is not as reliant on the U.S. market as other tech companies. For the fourth quarter, the company reported that nearly 70 percent of its revenue came from overseas.

"They are the most global company among large hardware companies," observed American Technology Research analyst Shaw Wu. "Being more international is an advantage these days."

While the PC sales were impressive, HP's Imaging and Printing Group represented 42 percent of the company's $2.63 billion in operating profit for the fourth quarter, almost twice that of the Personal Systems Group, which includes PCs.

"Their performance in the last three years has been two-pronged," said Michael Cuggino, president of Permanent Portfolio Fund in San Francisco, who overseas $1.5 billion in investments, including shares of Hewlett-Packard. "On the one hand, they are reducing excess costs and infrastructure. HP was a bloated organization for a while. At the same time, they've been growing revenue and gaining market share. When you look at PCs and services, they've been doing a great job."

Still, Hewlett-Packard will continue to face multiple battles with giants like IBM and Dell, which is "having a midlife crisis," Cuggino said.

Cost-cutting can take a company only so far, he added.

"The real challenge going forward is going to be less about streamlining operations and more about achieving sustained revenue growth in the face of pretty tough competition."

Shares of HP were up 83 cents, or 1.7 percent, to $50.27 in after hours trading.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Crude Futures Trade Flat

By MATT CHAMBERS (Wall Street Journal)

NEW YORK – Crude-oil futures were little changed in quiet trading Monday, supported by colder-than-normal temperatures in the U.S. Northeast and uncertainty about the dollar, whose weakness has helped crude to recent records.

Light, sweet crude for January delivery on the New York Mercantile Exchange was recently up 3 cents at $93.87 a barrel. Prices rose as high as $95.15 in early screen trading. Brent crude on the ICE futures exchange rose 2 cents to $91.64 a barrel.

Temperatures in the U.S. Northeast, the world's biggest heating oil market, are forecast to be lower than normal going into December, according to National Weather Service climate predictions.

"A lot of the strength seems to be coming from the colder weather, and the OPEC (heads of state) meeting at the weekend" is helping, said Phil Flynn, an analyst at Alaron Trading Corp. in Chicago. "The reasons for today's early rise aren't that solid and I think we could see a fall later in the day."

Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries' heads of state met over the weekend, but declined to discuss any future production increases to ease higher prices. While there was no mention in the official communique to the dollar, Venezuela and Iran have pushed OPEC to discuss a possible oil currency basket and sought to include a mention of the weakening dollar in the communique.

"A concerted bid to change the OPEC (currency) peg could leave Saudi Arabia in direct conflict with extreme OPEC factions," Mike Fitzpatrick, vice president of risk management at MF Global in New York, said in a research note. Crude "prices also seem to be getting a lift overnight by some OPEC members declaring oil prices to still be undervalued due to the weak dollar."

Large speculators, such as hedge funds and investment banks, slashed their net bets on a gain in futures prices in Nymex crude to its lowest level since August in the week ended Nov. 13, according to the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission.

The speculators cut their net long position in futures to 27,566 from 105,816 a week earlier, according to the CFTC's weekly Commitments of Traders report, released Friday. The net long position is the difference between the number of short positions, or bets on a fall.

Analysts were divided on the implications for crude markets. While some saw a distinct change in sentiment from the large speculators that could drive prices lower, others thought it left more room for them to come back on the long side and push prices higher.

"Combined with the drop in open interest from last week's December contract expiration, (the cut in net longs) provides the market with ample room for the re-establishment of long positions going forward," Addison Armstrong, an analyst at TFS Energy Futures in Stamford, Conn. said in a research note. Open interest, or the number of futures contracts not expired or closed, declined Wednesday and Thursday ahead of Friday's expiration of December crude.

Front-month December reformulated gasoline blendstock, or RBOB, fell 64 points, or 0.3%, to $2.369 a gallon. December heating oil rose 52 points, or 0.2%, to $2.5923 a gallon.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Marvel pops comics online, hopes fans pay

Robert MacMillan (Reuters)

NEW YORK, Nov 13 - Spider-Man may spin a good yarn in comic books, but Marvel Entertainment Inc hopes that he finds the World Wide Web equally comfortable. The publisher said on Tuesday that it will start a Web site that will feature access to thousands of its comic books and the famous heroes who populate them, from Spider-Man and the X-Men to the Fantastic Four and The Avengers. Marvel will charge subscriptions -- $4.99 a month if people sign up for a year, or $9.99 a month if they don't.

"This is a major new piece of my overall publishing plan," Dan Buckley, president of Marvel Publishing, said in an interview.

"It's a different entertainment experience, online versus reading a book." Marvel plans to offer access to 2,500 comics, Buckley said. It will make 250 available for free to entice people to pay up, but for a limited time, a company statement explained. The Digital Comics Unlimited site then will add 20 additional books a week, including a mix of new and vintage comics.

Among the older titles will be the first 100 issues of "Amazing Spider-Man" and "The Fantastic Four," as well as the initial 66-issue run of "Uncanny X-Men" and the first 50 issues of "The Avengers." It will feature other super heroes like the Incredible Hulk, Wolverine and the Silver Surfer. It will also include the first appearances of villains Dr. Octopus, Sandman, Lizard and Dr. Doom, not to mention the first appearance of Spider-Man's black costume.

New titles will include Joss Whedon's "Astonishing X-Men," "The House of M," "Young Avengers" and "Runaways." To present the titles in a quality format, Marvel has recolored and redigitized some of its offerings. The move to the Internet is unlikely to account for a major portion of Marvel Publishing's sales, Buckley said, but it will be an important addition. It sells its magazines at newsstands, though he said the business has been contracting in the past 10 years. What has been performing well is the hobby business, he said, with some 2,500 shops across the companies that attract collectors and other fans. Titles must be in print for at least six months before they will go online, Buckley said. Marvel's move runs contrary to newspaper and magazine publishers, which have been moving toward not charging people and supporting themselves through advertising. Buckley said the nature of the content is what makes Marvel's plan different.

"Our comic book distribution and our comic book properties aren't part of the mass medium where you can it for free easily," he said. Dennis Webb, owner of the Comics and Cards Collectorama in Alexandria, Virginia, doubted that it would attract a mass audience used to reading and collecting their comics in print. "I think most of them like to buy their own comics and read them where they want to go," he said. "I don't think they want to have it just online because if they're really a collector, they're going to want the actual collection."

The EU Delays Google's Ad Buy

European officials want more time to review the proposed DoubleClick deal, and critics in the U.S. hope the FTC is paying attention

by Catherine Holahan (Business Week)

Sheer size has helped Google (GOOG) dominate much of the world's $30 billion online advertising market. But the search giant's massive reach is proving to be a liability in Europe. On Nov. 13, the European Union's antitrust authority held off on approving Google's proposed $3.1 billion acquisition of online ad company DoubleClick, opting instead to subject the transaction to further review.

The European Commission's move, which extends the decision deadline until Apr. 2, is a setback for a deal that would broaden Google's already considerable ability to determine ad placement not only on its own search engine—the world's largest—but also across untold sites across the Web. Google may have to jump through additional hoops to win approval for the deal, whereas rivals Microsoft (MSFT), Yahoo! (YHOO), and Time Warner's (TWX) AOL are moving ahead with similar acquisitions that have already passed EU muster (, 10/1/07). "We can't just treat this as just another competition case," Sophia In't Veld, a Dutch member of the European Parliament, says in defense of the decision.

Approval Still Likely

Google was quick to cry foul. "We are obviously disappointed by the European Commission's decision to extend its review of our acquisition of DoubleClick," Google Chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt said in a statement. "We seek to avoid further delays that might put us at a disadvantage in competing fully against Microsoft, Yahoo, AOL, and others whose acquisitions in the highly competitive online advertising market have already been approved."

The Google deal will most likely also get a green light—but not before European officials take measures to prevent the enlarged company from exerting undue control over the market. "It could lead to additional conditions being placed on the combined company's actions, which could compromise Google's efforts to fully exploit the DoubleClick value," analysts at securities firm Stifel Nicolaus wrote in a Nov. 13 note. Only 3% to 4% of mergers reviewed by the EU in the last several years have been subjected to the second level of scrutiny, according to the Stifel analysts.
Pleased Opponents

Opponents of the merger are hoping the additional review will influence the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, which is also examining the deal. Like the EU, the FTC has approved comparable deals by Microsoft, Yahoo, and AOL. "The European Commission decision has sent a friendly European wind to prop open the doors at the FTC," says Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, one of the 35-plus groups urging the commission and the FTC to impose restrictions on the merger. Other opponents include the International Advertising Assn., the World Federation of Advertisers, and Google competitors Microsoft, Yahoo, and

The concern is that Google would amass too much data on its users and their online habits. It already has a vast storehouse of information on what people using its Web search tool are looking for, and it uses that information to place ads alongside users' search results. The fear is that owning DoubleClick would improve Google's ability to use that data to place targeted ads on other sites, too. To date, the information DoubleClick collects on clients' site visitors is owned by the clients and is not shared.

Targeting + Reach = Ad Dollars

Google's girth is the primary reason it has attracted more opposition than its competitors. Google already has the most popular search engine in the U.S. and much of Europe, and it controls more than 75% of the $8.3 billion U.S. search advertising market, according to a recent eMarketer report. Google also owns YouTube, the largest video site on the Web, potentially giving it access to a significant slice of the nearly $2 billion online video advertising market. And it has deals to serve ads on some of the Web's most popular sites (, 8/8/06) including the leading social site, News Corp.'s (NWS) MySpace.

Google isn't alone in expanding its sphere of influence with such partnerships. During the past few years, the fight for online ad dollars has become a battle of bulk. Audiences have become scattered across the Web due largely to the emergence of sites such as MySpace and Facebook, which let users create countless pages of their own content for public consumption. Little wonder that Internet companies are clamoring for advertising alliances with social networks. Microsoft, for example, recently paid $240 million for a stake in Facebook (, 10/25/07) that enables it to serve ads on the site.

But the most important way online ad giants have sought to increase their influence is through the acquisition of ad networks. Because these networks serve ads on sites across the Web and often monitor the kinds of sites visited by unique computers, they are able to promise marketers large audiences comprising people likely to be interested in what they are selling, or at the very least give marketers information about the people who have responded to their campaigns. It's that power, and the potential to increase it, that spurred Microsoft to buy aQuantive for $6 billion and Yahoo to shell out about $1 billion for Right Media and BlueLithium.
Privacy Concerns

If the deal is approved, DoubleClick's large network of participating Web sites could expand Google's already extensive ability to serve ads off its own site—and render rivals incapable of competing with the Goliath for ad dollars. Why would a marketer bother, for example, to work with a small ad network that can only deliver ads to a relatively small audience on less popular sites, when it can buy the ability to reach a million members of its target market on premier Web sites across the Internet?

Further complicating the issue is the possibility that Google eventually could gain access to the user data DoubleClick collects for clients—information Google could use to better target ads to specific consumers on sites across the Web. "The Google-DoubleClick merger is truly unique because you are merging the global search leader with the company that delivers billions of data-collecting cookies to the world's largest corporations," says Chester, of the Center for Digital Democracy. "We have to be concerned about the creation of these private ministries of information…[this] handful of data-collecting giants could ultimately collude with the government and business."

Chester's privacy concerns also apply to recent acquisitions made by Microsoft, Yahoo, and AOL. But so far, those companies' individual shares of the online advertising pie have been too small to attract regulatory scrutiny. Google will argue it shouldn't be singled out for providing a search advertising product that Web surfers and publishers alike want to use. After all, users can switch to another search engine at any point. For that matter, so can advertisers. But with Google serving as the one-stop shop for ads placed nearly anywhere on the Web, why would anyone want to?

Philippine Bombing May Have Been Triggered by Cell Phone

By Douglas Bakshian (VOA News)

Philippine police suspect a bomb at the House of Representatives that killed a congressman and two other people Tuesday night may have been triggered by a cell phone. In the aftermath of the explosion, the entire security force at the Philippine Congress has been changed. Douglas Bakshian reports.

Police say initial indications are that the bomb was in a motorcycle at an entrance to the House of Representatives, and investigators have found parts of a cell phone that may have been used to trigger the device. Metro Manila Police Chief Geary Barias told ABS-CBN television that a person at the scene may have detonated the bomb.

"On site. In other words the device was under the control of the suspect. He would say when the bomb gets off," said Barias.

There was no immediate explanation of how a bomber was able to penetrate security in the building. Avelino Razon is director-general of the Philippine National Police, or PNP. He says security in the House and Senate has been changed, from one police unit to another, until the authorities have a better idea of what happened.

"We have relieved the entire PSOP security force and changed them with a company of PNP-SAF effective this morning," Razon said. "And that also goes with the contingency force in the Senate."

Congressman Wahab Akbar of the southern island of Basilan was killed in the blast. He is a former Muslim rebel who supported a military campaign against Islamic militants of the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group on Basilan.

The region is known for violent political disputes, and authorities say Akbar had many political foes and had received death threats. However, no one has claimed responsibility for the blast, and no suspects have yet been arrested or identified.

Members of Congress went back to work Wednesday in a sign that they will not be intimidated by the violence. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has put Manila and the region around the capital on a state of alert.

Oil detours from road up to $100

By Wailin Wong (Chicago Tribune)

Consumers feared it, speculators rooted for it, and markets waited anxiously for its arrival. But this week, the specter of $100-a-barrel oil appears to have receded.

On Tuesday, the December contract for light, sweet crude oil on the New York Mercantile Exchange fell $3.45, to $91.17 a barrel, backing further away from the historic $100 level that it had threatened to breach last week.

The price of crude has surged since late August, hitting a string of record highs as the dollar dropped to historically low levels against other world currencies.

The main catalysts for oil's price decline Tuesday were a monthly report by the International Energy Agency, which lowered its forecast for fourth-quarter oil demand, and a hint from Saudi Arabian Oil Minister Ali Naimi that the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries might discuss increasing production when it meets next month.

Traders also played a role, since oil's flirtation with $100 was driven not only by current events but also by the activity of speculators eager to seize on sky-high commodities prices.

"A key reason why prices have spurted so quickly to high levels was there were a lot of financial investors in the market," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's in West Chester, Pa. "There is a lot of options trading and other financial activity related to energy. That drove prices up, and that is now weighing on prices, at least temporarily."

In active and frothy financial markets, participants tend to become fixated on tidy benchmarks -- 14,000 points for the Dow Jones industrial average, for example. The magic number for oil was $100 a barrel, a level that was as tantalizing as it was hard to puncture.

Dave Kirsch, manager of the market intelligence service at consulting firm PFC Energy in Washington, described the attitude among many traders as, "It's never hit 100 before; wouldn't it be cool?"

Kirsch also said he believes the International Energy Agency had overestimated oil demand in its projections, which are crucial data for markets. The Paris-based agency revised its view on the fourth quarter on Tuesday, saying there are "strong indications that high prices are depressing demand" and reducing its projection for the period by 500,000 barrels a day, to 87.14 million barrels.

High prices may persist

But although oil prices have retreated from $100, they are likely to remain at elevated levels that will continue to nag at consumers. Economists note that unease over the U.S. economy, which is grappling with a battered housing sector and volatile financial markets, will persist whether crude is at $90 or $100.

The consequences of high oil prices are "a little more like termites as opposed to something more dramatic," said Carl Steidtmann, chief economist at Deloitte Research in New York. "It just slowly eats away at the foundation of consumer spending, and that will obviously continue to happen."

Steidtmann noted that high energy costs are helping push up the cost of food, while many consumers also are getting squeezed because of higher mortgage payments and less access to credit.

"Consumers have a lot on their plate right now," he said.

Gasoline prices have ticked upward but not at a pace that mirrors the meteoric ascent in oil. Zandi estimates that each additional dollar in crude prices translates to a 4-cent increase at the pump. According to data from AAA and the Oil Price Information Service, the average national gasoline price on Tuesday was $3.105 a gallon, up from $2.761 a month ago. The average price in Illinois is $3.185 a gallon, with Chicago at $3.208.

Gasoline use stable

Gasoline demand has remained relatively steady despite the price increases, with the onset of fall bringing an expected seasonal drop-off in consumption. Nicole Niemi, a spokeswoman for AAA in Illinois, said any lifestyle changes, such as trading in a sport-utility vehicle for a more fuel-efficient car, likely happened when gas prices topped $3 a gallon.

"It's not a rash, major change at the moment," Niemi said. "It will depend on how long prices stay at $3 and how far they continue to climb."

The crucial period will come in spring, when driving season begins and gasoline demand generally swings upward, pushing prices higher.

If the economy remains on shaky footing, elevated oil prices in the spring will be "difficult for consumers to overcome, given the severity of the housing downturn and a weakening job market and ups and downs of the stock market," Zandi said. "It's going to be very hard for the economy to overcome."

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

FCC chief proposes to relax media ownership ban

By Peter Kaplan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The head of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday proposed that the agency relax its ban on the cross-ownership of newspapers and broadcast stations in the 20 biggest U.S. cities. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said the "relatively minor" rule change would help bolster the newspaper industry by allowing owners in the top markets to buy a TV or radio station. The plan is less ambitious than a 2003 FCC proposal to scale back the ownership restrictions, which was struck down by the federal courts. Martin said it was the only change he would seek.

"I think this is a balanced approach," Martin said. Martin outlined the proposal first in a column published in Tuesday's edition of the New York Times. The agency issued a formal announcement later on Tuesday morning.

"A company that owns a newspaper in one of the 20 largest cities in the country should be permitted to purchase a broadcast TV or radio station in the same market," Martin wrote his newspaper column. "But a newspaper should be prohibited from buying one of the top four TV stations in its community." Long-standing FCC rules restrict media cross-ownership and ban ownership of a newspaper and a TV or radio station in the same market, unless the FCC grants a waiver.

Consumer groups and Democrats on the FCC have expressed reservations about easing ownership rules, fearing that more consolidation in the industry would eliminate independent voices and degrade local news coverage.

If cross-ownership limits were eased or lifted, it could help some investors, such as real estate tycoon Sam Zell, who is leading a proposed leveraged buy-out of media group Tribune Co. Zell wants the FCC to reaffirm waivers that allow Tribune to cross-own daily newspapers and broadcast outlets in some markets.

Martin said the proposal would strike a balance between protecting the quality of local news coverage while preventing too much concentration of ownership. Allowing cross-ownership would not be a problem in the 20 biggest markets, Martin said, because there are a large number of outlets for news and opinion in those markets. Martin recently said he wants the agency to wrap up its examination of media ownership and reach a decision by December 18 on whether to ease limits on how many media outlets a company may own in a single market.

However, two senators have threatened to introduce bipartisan legislation that would impose a 90-day delay on any FCC decision to ease media ownership rules. The bill planned by Sens. Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, and Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican, would require the FCC to study the issue for at least 90 more days.

(Reporting by Peter Kaplan; Editing by Brian Moss)

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Home Depot Has Profit Decline on U.S. Housing Slump (Bloomberg)

By Mark Clothier and Mary Jane Credeur

Nov. 13 (Bloomberg) -- Home Depot Inc., the largest home- improvement retailer, reported lower profit and cut its full- year earnings forecast after the U.S. housing slump reduced sales of kitchen cabinets and appliances.

Home Depot said it will take a ``cautious stance'' on completing its $22.5 billion share buyback because of the volatility of credit markets and housing sales. Third-quarter revenue of $19 billion missed the $19.3 billion average estimate of analysts in a Bloomberg survey. Chief Executive Officer Frank Blake is spending more than $2 billion this year to improve customer service and the appearance of stores in a bid to reverse market-share losses to Lowe's Cos. Sales have declined for two straight quarters amid the worst housing slump in more than a decade.

``It'll take Blake about five or six quarters to turn the corner,'' said Burt Flickinger, managing director of Strategic Resource Group in New York. Net income fell to $1.1 billion, or 60 cents a share, in the quarter through Oct. 28, from $1.5 billion, or 73 cents a year ago, Atlanta-based Home Depot said today in a statement. Revenue a year earlier was $19.6 billion. Excluding the sale of its HD Supply unit, Home Depot said profit was 59 cents a share. On that basis, earnings met the average estimate by analysts in a Bloomberg survey.

Home Depot lowered its full-year earnings forecast from continuing operations to a decline of as much as 11 percent. Previously, it expected a drop of 7 percent to 9 percent.

`Continue to Deteriorate'

``We are facing a tough environment as housing indicators continue to deteriorate,'' Blake said in the statement. ``Our financial performance in the third quarter reflects these tough conditions.'' Sales at stores open at least a year fell 6.2 percent, the sixth straight decline. David Schick, an analyst with Stifel Nicolaus & Co., estimated a 6 percent drop. The company has bought back $10.7 billion, or about half, of the $22.5 billion in shares that it plans to repurchase. The buyback is being paid for with proceeds from the HD Supply sale, cash and bonds. Home Depot said it will take a ``cautious stance'' on completing the remainder of the buyback because of volatility in the credit markets and the ``challenging'' housing market. Home Depot added 43 cents, or 1.5 percent, to $28.89 at 8:22 a.m. before the start of regular New York Stock Exchange trading. The shares are down 29 percent this year before today, headed for their third straight annual decline. Sales of previously owned U.S. homes dropped in September to an annual rate of 5.04 million, the fewest since records began in 1999, the National Association of Realtors said Oct. 24. Housing starts fell to a 14-year low. Eleven analysts who cover Home Depot suggest buying the stock, while 10 say ``hold'' and one says ``sell,'' Bloomberg data show.

----With reporting by Ken Prewitt in New York.

Monday, November 12, 2007

IBM, Cognos, and the End of Best-of-Breed

The software giant's $5 billion acquisition of Cognos shows how difficult it is becoming for midsize software companies to survive on their own

by Steve Hamm (Business Week in New York)

One of the hottest segments of the tech industry, business intelligence software, is less and less a separate category of products as one major player after another gets scooped up by larger companies. The latest move was IBM's (IBM) announcement on Nov. 12 that it will buy Cognos (COGN) of Ottawa, Canada, for $5 billion. This followed SAP's (SAP) deal to buy Business Objects (BOBJ) last month for $7 billion, and Oracle's (ORCL) acquisition of Hyperion Solutions for $3.3 billion in April.

The software industry, once populated by hundreds of so-called best-of-breed companies, is now dominated by a handful of giants, including Microsoft (MSFT), IBM, SAP, and Oracle, with vast portfolios of products. It's very difficult for midsize companies to compete against the giants because large corporations prefer to buy their technology from a few strategic suppliers rather than a lot of smaller companies. Two other independents, BEA Systems (BEAS) and Sybase (SY), are seen as likely takeover targets. "In some sectors it’s really hard to find the independent, best-of-breed companies anymore, says analyst Paul Hamerman of market researcher Forrester Research (FORR). "Longer term, the industry will regenerate itself, and new ideas will incubate,”.

For IBM, the Cognos acquisition is a continuation of a "growth through mergers-and-acquisitions" effort it launched in February, 2006. Since then, IBM has bought 23 software companies as part of its Information on Demand strategy, which combines software and services to help corporations get the most out of all the data they gather about customers and their own business operations. "Customers want better and deeper integration (of their software programs), higher performance, and more real-time analysis of data," says Steve Mills, senior vice-president and group executive of IBM Software Group.

Good News For Shares
Cognos is a good match for IBM because the two companies have been working together closely for more than 15 years and their technology is compatible. Both have standardized the Java programming language, and Cognos has integrated its executive dashboard and business data analysis programs with IBM's DB2 database and its WebSphere technology for weaving together complex run-the-business applications. Mills says IBM will quickly merge Cognos into its existing operations and sell its products through IBM's software salesforce, which is more than 10,000 strong.

Cognos has long been one of the top companies in the business intelligence arena. The company reported net income of $115.7 million in fiscal 2007 on an 11.6% increase in sales, to $979.3 million. Its stock closed Nov. 9 at $53 per share, so IBM's offer of $58 per share represents a modest 9.5% premium. Cognos' shares rose more than 8% on the news, to more than $57 each. IBM's stock fell, dropping 5% to about $100 a share.

What's Around the Corner?

There are now only a handful of strong best-of-breed business intelligence software companies. They include SAS Institute, which is private, and Teradata (TDC), which spun out from NCR (NCR) last year and is publicly traded.

But, in the software industry, there's always something disruptive coming. In this case, it's QlikTech, a company started in Sweden that now has its headquarters in Radnor, Pa. It has radically different technology from the rest. It loads all of the data to be analyzed into a computer's memory chips so query results can be seen nearly instantly. Its tools are much less expensive than those of Cognos and Business Objects, and are designed to be used by many people within a company, not just executives or business analysts. "We make a big part of (the larger company's) current offerings obsolete," claims QlikTech chairman Mans Hultman.

Asked about QlikTech's claims, IBM's Mills acknowledged that its technology is attractive to customers, but says Cognos and IBM together offer a much broader and deeper array of capabilities. Will QlikTech be one of the next business intelligence companies on the auction block? Given the way this industry is consolidating, don't bet against it.

Friday, November 9, 2007

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