Water Cooler Finance: Crying Over Spilled Oil, And Buffett Goes To Court

It was a rough week for just about everyone, as several crises failed to be resolved. Oil continues to spill from a damaged BP rig into the Gulf of Mexico, the economic crisis in Europe continues to unfold and, not surprisingly, the economic situation in the U.S. continues to look tenuous. Thankfully, there were a couple of stories that presented the "silver lining" to this week's grim news.

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Tech Giants Square Off
On Wednesday, Apple (Nasdaq:AAPL) surpassed Microsoft (Nasdaq:MSFT) in market capitalization to become the largest tech company in the world - and the second largest U.S. company overall. According to Thomson-Reuters Datastream, the last time Apple surpassed its rival was in December 1989, so this latest tech coup was a long time coming. Apple's introduction of the iPad tablet computer, which, as of May 31, had sold 2 million units in its first 59 days of sales, is believed to be a contributing factor in its most recent surge. Certainly, Apple's remarkable recovery from its near-collapse in the late '90s is one of the greatest corporate turnarounds yet, and it's leaving tech bloggers with plenty to argue about this week. (For more on this, see Apple Now King Of The Mountain.)

"Top Kill" Trouble
BP's (NYSE:BP) latest attempt to stem the ongoing flow of oil from a deep-sea oil well failed late last week, leaving BP's engineers to come up with yet another prospective solution. Meanwhile, the level of pollution continues to escalate, as an estimated 12,000-19,000 barrels of oil flow into the Gulf of Mexico on a daily basis.

And what's rising right along with it? Costs – and the question of who will pay them. According to CNN, the impact on local communities and the economy is being estimated to be between $14 and $100 billion – depending on just how big the spill gets, and whether the oil washes ashore. The pollution is likely to impact tourism, shipping and fishing, the most important industries in the region. But in a bit of political karma, the spill is also likely to hit oil companies, thanks to a government moratorium on new offshore drilling. Plus, as a result of public outcry about the spill, oil companies may have to shell out for spill prevention, not to mention restrictions on new offshore drilling.

Of all the victims (aquatic life aside) of the spill, BP may fare the worst of all. Since the April 20 explosion that started the spill, BP shares have been driven down by as much as 30% and the damage to its corporate reputation may be even more severe. (For background reading about oil investing, read A Guide To Investing In Oil.)

Sell in May and Go Away
The old credence that investors should sell their stocks in May and re-enter the market later in the year proved to be good advice this year, as the Dow logged its worst May since 1940, declining nearly 8% over the course of the month. This move was largely due to the European crisis, the so-called "flash crash" and a steep decline in crude oil prices. However, to put this in perspective, the Dow decline in May of 1940 was 22%. The S&P also managed to rally a bit at the end of the month, paring the overall impact of the Dow's decline. (Find out how this classic index works, in How Now Dow? What Moves The DJIA?)

Rumors Circulate About Death at Ford Motors
A number of as yet unconfirmed reports circulated over the past week about the demise of yet another domestic car brand – Mercury. Although the Los Angeles Times reported on May 28, 2010 that Ford (NYSE:F) CEO Alan Mulally had confirmed that the company was reviewing its nameplates, he refused to say whether Mercury was on the chopping block. However, the 71-year-old Mercury line's '50s-era appeal as largely evaporated along with sales. If Mercury is dropped, it will be in good company; Pontiac, Hummer and Saturn are other major car brands that became casualties of the economic crisis. But the line that once sold much a more stylish version of what were essentially Fords appears to have become mostly a redundancy in the Ford line, leaving many to wonder whether anyone will even miss it. (Learn the history of this storied American company, in Henry Ford: Industry Mogul and Industrial Innovator.)

Spain is Stripped
On Friday, the Fitch ratings agency stripped Spain of its AAA bond rating, while France admitted that its top-notch rating may also be at risk. This is expected to put even more pressure on the euro, and economists fear that if Spain succumbs to a Greek-style debt crisis, it may cause speculators to push economy after economy over the edge and put the euro itself in jeopardy. It's also leading to social discontent in Greece, Spain and France, all of which have announced "austerity measures", which involve cutting in areas such as social programs, pensions and government jobs to help reduce their countries' debt. (To learn more about the economic crisis that appears to be spreading from Greece, see Greece: The Worst-Case Scenario.)

Oil Prices Decline
Despite the week's doom and gloom, there was a shred of good news: Memorial Day weekend, which generally marks the start of the summer driving season, was also marked with declining gas prices. It's an unusual decline for this time of year, according to analysts, but it's certainly a welcome one for drivers. You might assume that with thousands of barrels of oil gushing into the ocean, prices would be rising, but thanks to a stubbornly high level of oil inventory, crude oil has fallen to $74.55 per barrel at the onset of Memorial Day weekend, well off the $87 per barrel high it hit in early April. (For more insight, see How Does Crude Oil Affect Gas Prices?)

Warren Buffett Called to Testify at Financial Crisis Inquiry
It was reported that the legendary Oracle of Omaha is being given yet another chance to be his ever-quotable self by appearing before a government panel in Washington, which is attempting to determine the causes behind the 2008 financial crisis and, more specifically, to assess the role the credit rating industry played in the economic meltdown. But although Buffett is generally not opposed to being in the public eye, he reportedly resisted attending the commission inquiry until he received a subpoena. Although Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK.A) owns a 13% stake in ratings agency Moody's (NYSE:MCO) as of March 31, he has often criticized the notion of relying on such agencies' judgment.

That's it for this week. If you missed last week's news, check out Water Cooler Finance: Buffett, Toxic CDOs and Facebook Privacy.




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