Water Cooler Finance: Everything Old Is News Again

By Tara Struyk | April 26, 2010 AAA
Water Cooler Finance: Everything Old Is News Again

This week's news reads like a case of déjà-vu as age-old stories resurfaced for another round in the headlines. Financial fraud, the real estate market, Greece's financial failure and Obama's move to reform the U.S. financial system loomed large. And guess what? The latest version of the iPhone was leaked to the public.

IN PICTURES: 5 Investing Statements That Make You Sound Stupid

"It Fell Out of My iPants"
When a hapless Apple (Nasdaq:AAPL) engineer left an iPhone 4G prototype in a San Francisco area bar, it dominated tech news headlines and fuelled endless speculation. The phone ended up in the hands of tech blog Gizmodo (for $5,000), which proceeded to disassemble, photograph and catalog its specs to the delight of iPhone fans - and the media. Was this a publicity stunt, a hoax or just a gaffe by a tipsy employee? Whatever it was, the party ended abruptly when Apple's attorney asked Gizmodo to give the device back. Like, now. (For more on this market, see Dial Into Cell Phone Profits.)

SEC 1, Goldman 0 ... Or Is It the Other Way Around?
After a week of posturing and denials, Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS) is looking like the underdog in the ongoing fraud lawsuit filed against it by the SEC. Goldman's stock had plunged 14% by Friday, as investors backed away from what appears to be the losing side in the litigation. Goldman is on the hook for its role in selling synthetic CDOs that the SEC alleges were doomed to fail, betting and profiting on their failure and then (and surprisingly, this is the only illegal aspect) failing to disclose this conflict of interest to investors.

However, the muckraking at Goldman's also unearthed some other dirt on the mega-bank. On Friday, The Wall Street Journal reported that a Goldman Sachs director tipped off notorious hedge fund billionaire Raj Rajaratnam about a $5 billion investment by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK.A). The deal marked a major turnaround for Goldman Sachs, but the government is still investigating whether Goldman Director Rajat Gupta gave inside information to Rajaratnam. (For more insight, see Defining Illegal Insider Trading.)

The SEC was fighting to keep its head up amidst some scandal of its own when the Commission's inspector general reported that 33 SEC employees had been caught viewing explicit or pornographic material using government computers. It looks like even the regulators aren't above getting caught with their pants down.

Obama Rolls Out More Anti-Bank Rhetoric
The Goldman Sachs fallout did appear to provide President Obama with an in to knock Wall Street's "reckless practices" yet again. The president's push for financial reform has been part of his platform since his election, but he is gaining ground on pushing financial regulation legislation through Congress. Obama's latest speech on Thursday was filled with battle imagery, pitting his legislation against financial industry lobbyists and the "withering" economic elite.

Although critics fear that the new rules would increase the possibility of future bank bailouts and put unnecessary restraints on the free markets, President Obama argued that it would be business as usual for banks whose business models didn't depend on "bilking people". (To read up on both sides of the regulatory debate, see Bank Regulations: Good Or Bad?)

Greece Is (Still) Broke
In other news, Greece is still struggling under a huge budget deficit as it has been for months, but on Friday it took the unprecedented step of asking the European Union and the IMF for a bailout. It's clear Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou was left with little choice but to eat crow after a week of financial blows to the Mediterranean country: Greek bonds were downgraded and hover only a few points above "junk" status; market interest rates for Greek bonds shot up above those of many emerging countries, and the cost of insuring Greek debt soared. All of this occurred after Europe's statistical service announced that the 2009 Greek deficit was actually 13.6% of GDP, rather than the 12.7% originally reported.

Papandreou referred to his country's economy as a "sinking ship" that can only be buoyed by $60 billion from the EU and the IMF. However, the funds are loans - complete with 5% interest rate - so they could serve to anchor Greece's progress (or lack thereof), rather than help it move forward. (To learn more, read How Countries Deal With Debt.)

Buy or Rent?
As the ravaged real estate market begins to recover, the age-old debate between buying and renting a home has resurfaced in the news. The gap between monthly rent and mortgage payments hit its lowest level in nearly 20 years thanks to falling home prices and low interest rates, making the discussion more relevant than ever. The gap is determined by looking at the rent ratio, which is calculated as a home's purchase price divided by the annual cost of renting a similar abode.

According to the New York Times, a score above 20 suggests you should consider renting. The calculation is especially relevant in the face of the federal First Time Homebuyers' Tax Credit, which expires at the end of April, and the prospect of rising interest rates. Of course, these calculations are based on the monthly cost of renting compared to buying, and fail to take into account the equity that homeowners can build up. This logic has been lost among reports of the huge number of underwater homeowners, many of whom used nontraditional mortgages to buy bigger homes than they could comfortably afford with no money down. (Find out how much house you can safely buy in Mortgages: How Much Can You Afford?)

The Bottom Line
The key themes that re-emerged in the news this week have been popping up again and again for months. It's unlikely that the real estate debate will disappear for long, or that we'll hear the end of banks with less-than-honest intentions. As for Apple, it's moved on from its iPhone debacle and is now dominating tech headlines with news of the April 30 iPad release.

Don't miss what happened last week in the financial world. Check out Water Cooler Finance: Buffett's Bank Fraud And Financial Eruptions.

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