The economy is still stuttering toward recovery, but the recent disappointing jobs report sent it sliding back a couple steps. The most famous investor in the world joined a long list of people called in front of an equally long list of inquiries looking into the causes of the financial crises. And, to top it all off, there is constant flow of oil pouring into the ocean. That said, don't expect the four horsemen of the apocalypse to mount up just yet. There is a lot of hype overlaying what was actually a pretty positive week in finance.
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One-Third of a Solution
While the BP (NYSE:BP) oil spill is far from over, a new cap siphoning off some of the oil from the rupture has been able to capture anywhere from a third to half of the new oil pumping out. This is good news, but not the final solution. Currently some of the oil is spilling from vents that can be sealed without - hopefully - leading to the same cooling and crystallization that scuttled the first dome.
If nothing else, BP has minimized some of the oil flowing into the ocean while it works toward drilling relief wells. The company tried to reassure shareholders as to its future as a company, but, unsurprisingly, stopped short of guaranteeing that it wouldn't suspend its dividend payments. (The only way to estimate the damage of the BP oil spill is to look at what past cleanups have cost. Check out The Most Expensive Oil Spills.)
A Little Cadmium With Your Happy Meal?
McDonald's Corp. (NYSE:MCD) has recalled 12 million Shrek glasses because they contain cadmium. This isn't exciting in the way that the Toyota recall was - the levels are low enough that they don't pose an immediate danger. (The impact of an auto recall on a company isn't simply financial. Learn more in The Cost Of An Auto Recall.)
The amazing thing is how little the announcement affected McDonald's stock despite dire analyst warnings. In a bad week for the broader market, the shares dipped a little over a dollar - or just half the price the cups were selling for. Perhaps the news has yet to sink in, but the more likely explanation is that McDonald's is now large and steady enough to absorb this hit without even flinching.
Buffett Getting Moody
Buffett was subpoenaed to appear in front of the financial crises inquiry commission alongside Moody's Corp. (NYSE:MCO) CEO, Raymond McDaniels. Along with suggesting rough times ahead for municipal bonds, Buffett reiterated that he was among the majority who never saw the bubble coming.
Pressed on the issue of whether having two ratings agencies paid by the issuing companies to rate securities was a good idea, Buffett said ratings agencies were necessary and referred to the current regime as a naturally occurring duopoly. At the risk of disagreeing with a man worth more than some countries, the requirement for securities to go through a nationally recognized ratings agency sets a huge artificial barrier to entry that protects the status of the only two nationally recognized ratings agencies.
That's one of the economic moats that attracted Buffett to the company, no doubt, so we can't fault him too much for trying to protect it. Still, you can ask him about it yourself, as the annual auction for lunch with the investing superstar starts this week. The winning bids are regularly breaking a million, so you might find that his true opinion comes at too high a price.
Another Czar Headed A Messy End?
Czar Nicolas II found out that positions of power can lead to unexpected and unpleasant ends. Car czar Steven Rattner is realizing that history can repeat itself. After taking up the unpopular post to try and guide the government bailout of the auto industry toward becoming a profitable investment, Rattner seems to have planned future posts in politics and finance. (The 10 largest recipients of funds rewarded via American Reinvestment and Recovery Act contracts have some things in common. Don't miss Top 10 Bailout Money Recipients.)
Unfortunately, his alleged involvement in the New York State pension fund pay-to-play scandal has the SEC considering a three-year ban from finance - a move that is likely to kill his political career as well. Rattner and his former investment firm, Quadrangle Group, were investigated by New York Attorney General over payments to a political official in exchange for managing a portion of the state's pension funds.
AIG Left at The Altar?
Prudential (NYSE:PRU) was going to buy AIA, the Asian insurance arm of American International Group (NYSE:AIG), and help payback the American taxpayer to the tune of $35 billion. The deal proved too rich for Prudential's shareholders, and the company was forced to try a lower number of $30 billion. With the lower bid, the deal simply shook apart.
Walking away hasn't been cheap for Prudential. The company will be paying hundreds of millions in compensation to AIG and banks for pulling out of the deal. AIG will now look for another suitor or perhaps take AIA through an IPO as a stand-alone entity.
Rogue Trading Heavyweight on Trial
Even with a billion dollars being less than it once was thanks to inflation, losing $7 billion is quite a feat. Jerome Kerviel did just that at Societe Generale and took the heavyweight crown for rogue trading to boot.
Or did he? Kerviel's trial will begin in Paris this week and he's expected to argue that his superiors not only knew about the trades, but they were actively encouraging him as long as he kept making money for the bank. It's worth pointing out that, while $7 billion in write-downs was a staggering figure in January of 2008, much more has been written off by the banks that survived the mortgage meltdown - and no rogue traders were needed in that mess.
The Bottom Line
There have been better times, but these are far from the worst. We've seen progress on BP's oil leak and the end of the week will no doubt see a happy conclusion to the most expensive lunch date in the world. Maybe, just maybe, we have been through our darkest hours and are now seeing the first rays of dawn.
Did you catch last week's news? Read Water Cooler Finance: Crying Over Spilled Oil, And Buffett Goes To Court.
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