Water Cooler Finance: Billionaire Pledges and Other Positive Press
The past week's financial news is - surprise - filled with rather uplifting stories compared to the doom and gloom that seems to have become a bit of a media mainstay during the recent recession. Let's take a look at the top stories that made headlines this week. (Did you miss last week's news? Catch up by reading Water Cooler Finance: Who Is The Next Buffett?)

IN PICTURES: 8 Ways To Survive A Market Downturn

"Do or Do Not … There Is No Try"
Warren Buffett, that veritable Yoda of feel-good quotes, teamed up with close friend Bill Gates to get the good feelings rolling by calling on the world's richest to donate half their wealth to charity, calling it "The Giving Pledge". According to recent news reports, 40 other billionaires have signed on to donate, including Paul Allen, Larry Ellison, T. Boone Pickens and … George Lucas.

Most of the response to the initiative is positive - after all, it's a tough to boo a philanthropist without looking pretty crotchety. However, Germany's elite apparently have no such qualms, and have publicly spoken out against The Giving Pledge, with one billionaire shipping magnate calling it a "bad transfer of power from the state to billionaires", according to the Journal of Philanthropy.

The sense of derision quickly spread across Europe, where a U.K. journalist writing for the Guardian referred to the initiative as an "undemocratic" move by a class that tends to lobby against the taxes and regulation which, according to the Guardian, should be used to distribute wealth more equally. (Check out a way of measuring income inequality in The Gini Index: Measuring Income Distribution.)

Feelin' the Heat
The Eastern and Central U.S. have been sweltering in a record heat wave this summer. According to AFP, more than 15 U.S. states were under weather alerts and warnings last week, and for Northeast and Southeast regions, the period from May through July of this year is the hottest on record ever - or at least since the U.S. started keeping track in 1895. But those hot and humid stretches don't just cause tempers to flare and drive up personal energy bills - they can cause some meltdowns in the financial world as well.

The U.S. energy grid, for one, could use some relief. According to an August 13 report in Bloomberg, electric power outages and interruptions cost the U.S. economy $80 billion annually. According to research from the University of Minnesota, blackouts increased by 124% between 2001 and 2005, largely as a result of aging power grids that are being stretched to capacity when everyone cranks the AC.

Recent drastic weather patterns are also affecting U.S. crops such as corn and soybeans, whose futures rose last week on speculation that the continuing heat wave would affect crop yields. The U.S. Department of Agriculture forecast record crops this year, but hot, dry conditions may put a damper on yields, lowering speculators' expectations of supply and driving up futures prices. (Check the chapters on Corn and Soybeans in our Commodities Tutorial for more information.)

Up, Up and Away?
JetBlue (Nasdaq:JBLU) flight attendant Steven Slater's now-famous (and profanity filled) "emergency" escape down a slide and onto the airport tarmac made airline attendants' stressful jobs a major topic of discussion last week - and landed Slater hero status for standing up to unruly airline passengers.

The outpouring of support for Slater's antics point to just how frustrating flying has become both for passengers and staff. And, according to the Associated Press, we had all better get used to it; U.S. airlines have been cutting jobs for the past two years, the government reported, a trend that's only accelerated since 2001. This has put airline employment at its lowest point in 13 years, and most flyers report that the flying experience has never been worse. (Read about some of the new annoyances of airline travel in 7 Air Travel Perks That Used To Be Free.)

On the flipside, this kind of cost cutting is also what's helping put airlines back in the black for the first time in a long time, and has contributed to making April-June the best quarter for U.S. airlines in three years.

While the number of in-flight employees on airlines is regulated for safety, the industry is cutting down on less essential employees such as ticket takers and reservation agents. Last week, Delta Airlines (NYSE:DAL) announced that it would make its tickets available for sale through Facebook, pushing the trend more toward technology over one-on-one customer service.

Going Out On A Good Note
While U.S. auto sales stood as one of the few retail sectors with positive number in July, Edward E. Whitacre Jr., the chief executive at GM (OTC:MTLQQ) who helped turn the failing giant around, announced his departure from the company.

The announcement was a surprise to the markets, as the nation's largest automaker reported $1.3 billion in quarterly profit, a stark contrast to the $12.9-billion loss the company reported in the same quarter last year.

"It was my plan all along … that it was my public duty to restore this company to greatness and I didn't want to stay a day beyond that," Whitacre said on a teleconference with reporters early in the week.

Some analysts believe the American auto industry is being given a second chance; GM is now profitable and is set to make an IPO this year or early next, Ford (NYSE:F) is on track to have one of its best years in the past five and even Chrysler is showing signs of life and hiring new workers. (For insight on how to evaluate stocks in this sector, see Analyzing Auto Stocks.)

The Bottom Line
It's amazing how a little good news in the markets can turn investors' perspectives around. But as good as last week's overall news was, it wasn't enough to ease fears of a slowdown in economic recovery. Just what it will take for investors and consumers to regain confidence in the economy isn't yet clear, but it isn't going to be easy to erase the psychological damage the last few years has done. While it's nice to see big companies returning to profitability and billionaires opening their wallets to charity, the reality is that "the little guy" is still struggling to get by, and recent job reports suggest that isn't likely to change any time soon.





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