Gold hits record near $1,150/oz as dollar slips

November 18, 2009

Wed Nov 18, 2009 5:13am EST

By Jan Harvey

LONDON (Reuters) – Gold hit a fresh record high near $1,150 an ounce on Wednesday, boosting precious metals across the board, as a dip in the dollar index added to momentum buying as prices broke through key technical resistance levels.

In non-U.S. dollar terms, gold also climbed, hitting multi-month highs when priced in the euro, sterling and the Australian dollar.

Spot gold hit a high of $1,147.45 and was at $1,146.05 an ounce at 0948 GMT, against $1,141.50 late in New York on Tuesday.

U.S. gold futures for December delivery on the COMEX division of the New York Mercantile Exchange also hit a record $1,148.10 and were later up $7.10 at $1,146.40 an ounce.

“Yesterday the market took a breather and tested below $1,130 very quickly, (but) a few physical related bargain hunters were lined up to grab the dip,” said Afshin Nabavi, head of trading at MKS Finance in Geneva.

The market is being underpinned by fresh interest in gold from the official sector, he said, after a recent major bullion acquisition from India and smaller buys by the central banks of Mauritius and Sri Lanka.

The acquisitions underlined gold’s appeal as a portfolio diversifier, especially in an environment where further dollar weakness was expected, analysts said.

The dollar eased back on Wednesday from its biggest rise in three weeks in the previous session, as traders awaited U.S. inflation data due at 1330 GMT.

The dollar index, which measures the U.S. currency’s performance against a basket of six others, was down 0.37 percent, while the euro/dollar exchange rate firmed.

Other commodities also climbed, with oil rising back toward $80 a barrel and copper to 13-1/3 month highs near $7,000 a tonne. Both are being lifted by the weak dollar.

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U.S. bailout program increased moral hazard: watchdog

October 21, 2009

Wed Oct 21, 2009 1:30am EDT
By David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. government’s $700 billion financial bailout program has increased moral hazard in the markets by infusing capital into banks that caused the financial crisis, a watchdog for the program said on Wednesday.

The special inspector general for the U.S. Treasury’s Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) said the plan put in place a year ago was clearly influencing market behavior, and he repeated that taxpayers may never recoup all their money.

The bailout fund may have helped avert a financial system collapse but it could reinforce perceptions the government will step in to keep firms from failing, the quarterly report from inspector general Neil Barofsky said.

He said there continued to be conflicts of interest around credit rating agencies that failed to warn of risks leading up to the financial crisis. The report added that the recent rebound in big bank stocks risked removing urgency of dealing with the financial system’s problems.

“Absent meaningful regulatory reform, TARP runs the risk of merely reanimating markets that had collapsed under the weight of reckless behavior,” the report said. “The firms that were ‘too big to fail’ last October are in many cases bigger still, many as a result of government-supported and -sponsored mergers and acquisitions.”

ANGER, CYNICISM, DISTRUST

The report cites an erosion of government credibility associated with a lack of transparency, particularly in the early handling of the program’s initial investments in large financial institutions.

“Notwithstanding the TARP’s role in bringing the financial system back from the brink of collapse, it has been widely reported that the American people view TARP with anger, cynicism and distrust. These views are fueled by the lack of transparency in the program,” the report said.

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Bailed-out bankers to get options windfall: study

September 2, 2009

Wed Sep 2, 2009 11:14am EDT
By Steve Eder

NEW YORK (Reuters) – As shares of bailed-out banks bottomed out earlier this year, stock options were awarded to their top executives, setting them up for millions of dollars in profit as prices rebounded, according to a report released on Wednesday.

The top five executives at 10 financial institutions that took some of the biggest taxpayer bailouts have seen a combined increase in the value of their stock options of nearly $90 million, the report by the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies said.

“Not only are these executives not hurting very much from the crisis, but they might get big windfalls because of the surge in the value of some of their shares,” said Sarah Anderson, lead author of the report, “America’s Bailout Barons,” the 16th in an annual series on executive excess.

The report — which highlights executive compensation at such firms as Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS), JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM), Morgan Stanley (MS), Bank of America Corp. (BAC) and Citigroup Inc. (C) — comes at a time when Wall Street is facing criticism for failing to scale back outsized bonuses after borrowing billions from taxpayers amid last year’s financial crisis. Goldman, JPMorgan and Morgan Stanley have paid back the money they borrowed, but Bank of America and Citigroup are still in the U.S. Treasury’s program.

It’s also the latest in a string of studies showing that despite tough talk by politicians, little has been done by regulators to rein in the bonus culture that many believe contributed to the near-collapse of the financial sector.

The report includes eight pages of legislative proposals to address executive pay, but concludes that officials have “not moved forward into law or regulation any measure that would actually deflate the executive pay bubble that has expanded so hugely over the last three decades.”

“We see these little flurries of activities in Congress, where it looked like it was going to happen,” Anderson said. “Then they would just peter out.”

The report found that while executives continued to rake in tens of millions of dollars in compensation, 160,000 employees were laid off at the top 20 financial industry firms that received bailouts.

The CEOs of those 20 companies were paid, on average, 85 times more than the regulators who direct the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp, according to the report.

(Reporting by Steve Eder; editing by John Wallace)


Apple, Dell, HP laptop owners sue Nvidia over faulty graphics

July 27, 2009

Five plaintiffs join forces to demand class-action lawsuit
By Gregg Keizer
May 11, 2009 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld – Owners of Apple (AAPL), Dell (DELL) and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) laptops have combined their lawsuits against Nvidia (NVDA) in an attempt to force the graphics chip maker to replace allegedly flawed processors, according to court documents.

If granted class-action status, the case could involve millions of laptop computer owners, the plaintiffs said.

The five plaintiffs, including a Louisiana man who bought an Apple MacBook Pro a year ago, filed an amended complaint last week in a San Francisco federal court, accusing Nvidia of violating consumer-protection laws.

Nvidia admitted to the problem in July 2008, when it said some older chipsets that had shipped in “significant quantities” of notebooks were flawed. In a subsequent filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the company argued that its chip suppliers, the laptop makers and even consumers were to blame.

Nvidia later told the SEC that it would take a $196 million charge to pay for replacing the graphics processors.

Apple, Dell and HP have all told users that some of their laptops contain faulty Nvidia chipsets. Apple, in fact, essentially said that Nvidia had misled it. “Nvidia assured Apple that Mac computers with these graphics processors were not affected,” Apple said in a support document posted last October. “However, after an Apple-led investigation, Apple has determined that some MacBook Pro computers … may be affected.”

Although Apple promised it would repair any defective MacBook Pro for two years after its purchase date, whether it was in warranty or not, HP and Dell first issued BIOS updates designed by Nvidia that boosted fan speed. The increased fan speed was intended to ward off chip failure. Later, however, both companies also extended warranties for the affected laptops, and in some cases offered free repairs.

The plaintiffs in the combined lawsuit said that anything other than a replacement of the flawed chips was insufficient. “This is a grossly inadequate ‘remedy,’ as it results in additional manifest defects, including, without limitation, further degraded battery life, system performance and increased noise in the Class Computers,” the complaint read.

“Worse, this ‘remedy’ fails to solve the actual problem. Instead, this measure only ensures that the Class Computers will fail after the OEM’s express warranty period expires, potentially leaving consumers with a defective computer and no immediate recourse,” the lawsuit continued. “Finally, even after this purported ‘update,’ video and system performance is still degraded due to unacceptably high heat and part failures.”

Todd Feinstein of Louisiana was the one plaintiff who had purchased an Apple laptop. After buying a MacBook Pro in April 2008, the computer ran hot, periodically shut down without warning and displayed only gray or black at times, Feinstein said.

He sent a letter to Nvidia in September 2008 demanding that the company fix his MacBook. “Nvidia has failed to respond,” he said in the complaint.

Other plaintiffs who live in California, Illinois, New Jersey and New Mexico bought Dell or HP notebooks.

The lawsuit requests the case be granted class-action status, and if it prevails, that Nvidia replace the faulty chips and pay unspecified damages.

Last September, a New York law firm sued Nvidia, accusing the company of breaking U.S. securities laws by concealing the existence of a serious defect in its graphics chip line for several months before admitting the problem. That case has been put on hold awaiting a decision by an appellate court.


Investors dump brokers to go it alone online

July 24, 2009

Fri Jul 24, 2009 12:31pm EDT

By Rachel Chang

NEW YORK, July 24 (Reuters) – The collapse of Lehman Brothers (LEH) last September marked the start of a downward spiral for big investment banks. For a smaller fraternity of Internet brokerages, it has set off a dramatic spurt of growth.

Since the start of the financial crisis, $32.2 billion has flowed into the two largest online outfits, TD Ameritrade Holding Corp (AMTD) and Charles Schwab Corp (SCHW), company records show.

By contrast, investors have pulled more than $100 billion from traditional full-service brokerages like Citigroup Inc’s Smith Barney (C) and Bank of America-Merrill Lynch (BAC).

Of course, Americans still keep more of their wealth with established brokerages. According to research firm Gartner, 43 percent of individual investors were with full-service brokers last year, compared with 24 percent with online outfits.

And while figures for 2009 are not yet available, the flow of investors in the past 10 months has clearly been in the direction of the online brokerages, according to analysts both at Gartner and research consultancy Celent.

Joining the exodus is Ben Mallah, who says he lost $3 million in a Smith Barney account in St. Petersburg, Florida, as the markets crashed last year.

“I will never again trust anyone who is commission-driven to manage my portfolio,” said Mallah. “If they’re not making money off you, they have no use for you.”

This trend, a product of both the financial crisis and the emergence of a new generation of tech-savvy, cost-conscious young investors, is positioning online outfits as increasingly important in the wealth management field.

The numbers reflect a loss of faith in professional money managers as small investors dress their wounds from the hammering they took over the last year, the Internet brokerages say.

“There has been an awakening,” said Don Montanaro, chief executive of TradeKing, which reported a post-Lehman spike in new accounts of 121 percent. Investors now realize they alone are responsible for their money, he said.

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How Do I Know You’re Not Bernie Madoff?

June 15, 2009

by Paul Sullivan
The New York Times
Monday, June 15, 2009

Tony Guernsey has been in the wealth management business for four decades. But clients have started asking him a question that at first caught him off guard: How do I know I own what you tell me I own?

This is the existential crisis rippling through wealth management right now, in the wake of the unraveling of Bernard L. Madoff’s long-running Ponzi scheme. Mr. Guernsey, the head of national wealth management at Wilmington Trust, says he understands why investors are asking the question, but it still unnerves him. “They got their statements from Madoff, and now they get their statement from XYZ Corporation. And they say, ‘How do I know they exist?’ ”

When he is asked this, Mr. Guernsey says he walks clients through the checks and balances that a 106-year-old firm like Wilmington has. Still, this is the ultimate reverberation from the Madoff scandal: trust, the foundation between wealth manager and client, has been called into question, if not destroyed.

“It used to be that if you owned I.B.M., you could pull the certificate out of your sock drawer,” said Dan Rauchle, president of Wells Fargo Alternative Asset Management. “Once we moved away from that, we got into this world of trusting others to know what we owned.”

The process of restoring that trust may take time. But in the meantime, investors may be putting their faith in misguided ways of ensuring trust. Mr. Madoff, after all, was not charged after an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission a year before his firm collapsed. Here are some considerations:

CUT THROUGH THE CLUTTER Financial disclosure rules compel money managers to send out statements. The problem is that the statements and trade confirmations arrive so frequently, they fail to help investors understand what they own.

To mitigate this, many wealth management firms have developed their own systems to track and present client assets. HSBC Private Bank has had WealthTrack for nearly five years, while Barclays Wealth is introducing Wealth Management Reporting. But there are many more, including a popular one from Advent Software.

These systems consolidate the values of securities, partnerships and, in some cases, assets like homes and jewelry. HSBC’s program takes into account the different ways firms value assets by finding a common trading date. It also breaks out the impact of currency fluctuation..

These systems have limits, though. “Our reporting is only as good as the data we receive,” said Mary Duke, head of global wealth solutions for the Americas at HSBC Private Bank. “A hedge fund’s value depends on when the hedge fund reports — if it reports a month-end value, but we get it a month late.”

In other words, no consolidation program is foolproof.

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Countrywide’s Mozilo charged with fraud

June 4, 2009

Thu Jun 4, 2009 7:41pm EDT

By Gina Keating and Rachelle Younglai

LOS ANGELES/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Angelo Mozilo, who built the largest U.S. mortgage lender, was charged with securities fraud and insider trading on Thursday, making him the most prominent defendant so far in investigations into the U.S. subprime mortgage crisis and housing bust.

Mozilo, 70, co-founder of Countrywide Financial Corp (CFC), was accused by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission with making more than $139 million in profits in 2006 and 2007 from exercising 5.1 million stock options and selling the underlying shares.

The sales were under four prearranged stock trading plans Mozilo prepared during the time period, the SEC said.

The accusations were made in a civil lawsuit filed by the SEC in Los Angeles on Thursday.

The SEC said that in one instance, the day before he set up a stock trading plan on September 25, 2006, Mozilo sent an email to two Countrywide executives that said: “We are flying blind on how these loans will perform in a stressed environment of higher unemployment, reduced values and slowing home sales.”

Those executives, then Countrywide President David Sambol, 49, and Chief Financial Officer Eric Sieracki, 52, were charged by the SEC with knowingly writing “riskier and riskier” subprime loans that they had a limited ability to sell on the secondary mortgage market.

The SEC said that all three executives failed to tell investors how dependent Countrywide had become on its ability to sell subprime mortgages on the secondary market. All three were accused of hiding from investors the risks they took to win market share.

At one stage, Countrywide was writing almost 1 in 6 of American mortgages. The lawsuit said that by September 2006, Countrywide estimated that it had a 15.7 percent share of the market, up from 11.4 percent at the end of 2003.

“While Countrywide boasted to investors that its market share was increasing, company executives did not disclose that its market share increase came at the expense of prudent underwriting guidelines,” the lawsuit said

Bank of America Corp (BAC) bought Countrywide last July 1 for $2.5 billion, less than a tenth of what it had been worth in early 2007.

“TWO COMPANIES”, EARLY WARNING SIGNS

“This is a tale of two companies,” the SEC’s director of enforcement, Robert Khuzami, told reporters. “One that investors from the outside saw. It was allegedly characterized by prudent business practices and tightly controlled risk.”

“But the real Countrywide, which could only be seen from the inside, was one buckling under the weight of deteriorating mortgages, lax underwriting, and an increasingly suspect business model,” Khuzami said.

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