Archive for January, 2009

SEC looking into Apple over Jobs health disclosures: WSJ (AFP)

Wednesday, January 21st, 2009 | Finance News

WASHINGTON (AFP) –
The US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has opened an inquiry into Apple's disclosures about the health of chief executive Steve Jobs, The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday.

The newspaper, in its online edition, did not provide any further details about the inquiry by the SEC into the Cupertino, California, company and its handling of Jobs's health issues.

Apple announced on January 14 that Jobs, 53, would be taking a leave of absence until the end of June because his health issues were "more complex" than initially believed.

The announcement came slightly more than a week after Jobs, the visionary behind the iconic Macintosh computer, iPod and iPhone said he was being treated for a "hormone imbalance" but should respond to treatment.

Apple has been notoriously secretive about Jobs's health since he underwent an operation in 2004 for pancreatic cancer.

Apple's share price was up 2.34 percent at 80.03 dollars at mid-day in New York on Wednesday, sharply lower than the 94.58 dollars of January 5, the day Apple issued the reassuring news about Jobs's health.

Apple chief operating officer Tim Cook is running the day-to-day operations at the company during Jobs's absence.

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Cox Quits at SEC, Leaves Schapiro to Restore Clout (Bloomberg)

Wednesday, January 21st, 2009 | Finance News

Jan. 21 (Bloomberg) -- Christopher Cox stepped down as U.S.
Securities and Exchange Commission chairman, leaving behind a
demoralized agency that failed to spot Bernard Madoff’s alleged
fraud and had its role diminished by the collapse of Bear Stearns
Cos. and Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.

His resignation took effect yesterday, agency spokesman John
Nester said. During Cox’s 3 1/2-year tenure, the SEC has been
criticized by lawmakers, investors and its own inspector general
as lacking aggressiveness and being deferential to Wall Street
banks. President Barack Obama, a Democrat, picked Mary Schapiro,
the head of the U.S. brokerage industry’s self-regulator, to
succeed the Republican Cox.

“I respect Chris Cox, but there’s no question that the
commission has been much too passive in area after area under his
leadership,” said Harvey Goldschmid, a former Democratic SEC
commissioner who remains in contact with agency employees. “The
morale problems and the lack of public regard for the agency must
be immediately addressed by Mary Schapiro,” said Goldschmid, a
law professor at Columbia University in New York.

The agency lost clout in March when the Federal Reserve
rescued Bear Stearns and began lending to and examining
investment banks regulated by the SEC. Its domain shrank further
in September after Lehman declared bankruptcy, Merrill Lynch &
Co. sold itself to Bank of America Corp., and Goldman Sachs Group
Inc
. and Morgan Stanley became Fed-regulated commercial banks.

Lawmakers’ Criticism

Another blow came in December when Cox, 56, admitted the SEC
missed Madoff’s alleged $50 billion Ponzi scheme even though it
had received “credible and specific” complaints about the New
York-based money manager for at least a decade.

That revelation prompted criticism from Democrats and
Republicans at a Jan. 5 meeting of the House Financial Services
Committee
. Representative Ron Paul, a Texas Republican,
questioned whether the SEC should be eliminated altogether.

“He may go down as the unluckiest of the SEC chairmen,”
said Robert Hillman, who teaches securities law at the University
of California, Davis. “He was slow to recognize the
deteriorating position of brokerage firms. In that sense, he
bears joint responsibility with the secretary of the Treasury and
the Federal Reserve chairman.”

Republican Kathleen Casey, the most senior member of the
commission that oversees the agency, would be in line to take
over Cox’s responsibilities, if needed, until the Senate confirms
his successor, Nester said. Obama could instead ask one of the
SEC’s two Democratic commissioners, Elisse Walter or Luis
Aguilar, to serve as acting chairman, Nester said.

Schapiro, chief executive officer of the Financial Industry
Regulatory Authority
, testified before the Senate Banking
Committee Jan. 15 and is awaiting a vote on her nomination.

Donaldson’s Legacy

Cox replaced William Donaldson as SEC chairman in August
2005 after representing California’s Orange County in the U.S.
House of Representatives for 17 years.

Donaldson, a former chairman of the New York Stock Exchange,
stepped down after he frustrated fellow Republican commissioners
by subjecting companies to multimillion-dollar fines and trying
to impose new regulations on mutual funds and hedge funds. He
also angered business groups, which complained to President
George W. Bush
’s administration after Donaldson tried to give
shareholders more power to pick corporate directors.

Under Cox, who was offered the SEC job by Vice President
Dick Cheney
, public fights among Democratic and Republican
commissioners stopped and enforcement penalties declined.

Unanimous Approvals

SEC commissioners approved unanimously every rule that came
before them during Cox’s first 22 months as chairman. In fiscal
2008, the agency extracted about $1 billion of fines and illegal
profits from companies and individuals after garnering $1.6
billion in 2007. Penalties exceeded $3 billion in each of the
three years preceding 2007.

Cox’s focus on calming the waters stoked concerns that the
SEC had become inactive just as Wall Street’s biggest companies
were increasing trading in derivatives and complex securities
backed by mortgages, Hillman said.

“If you wait until you get consensus, sometimes nothing
ever happens,” he said. “Especially in a period of financial
distress
, consensus may not be the best operating procedure.”

Cox urged a technology overhaul at the SEC aimed at making
corporate profit and revenue statements more useful to investors.
He also tried to cut compliance costs stemming from the Sarbanes-
Oxley Act
after the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s
biggest business lobbying group, said the law’s accounting
requirements were prompting companies to list shares overseas.

‘21st Century’ Focus

Cox “came to the commission wanting to focus on bringing
the SEC into the 21st century, making the U.S. more globally
competitive by getting rid of burdensome regulations and making
the agency more technologically sophisticated,” said Donald
Langevoort, a former SEC attorney who teaches securities
regulation
at Georgetown University in Washington. “Like so many
of his predecessors, that agenda ran up against unprecedented
cataclysmic events.”

Global stock markets began swooning in August 2007 after
banks saddled with illiquid subprime-mortgage securities stopped
lending to each other. A year later, with financial companies
still facing asset writedowns, Cox banned short-selling of U.S.
banks, insurers and securities firms.

A short sale takes place when an investor borrows stock and
sells it, aiming to profit by repaying the loan with shares
bought at a lower price. The SEC imposed its prohibition after
public lobbying by Morgan Stanley CEO John Mack and New York
Senators Charles Schumer
and Hillary Clinton, Obama’s pick to
head the U.S. State Department.

Hedge Funds

The Sept. 19 SEC action drew fire from hedge funds, which
accused the agency of protecting companies whose shares had
plunged because of poor business decisions and over-concentration
in mortgage bonds.

Cox, in a Washington Post interview published Dec. 24, said
the ban was the biggest mistake of his tenure. He told the Post
he made the decision under pressure from Treasury Secretary Henry
Paulson
and Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke. The prohibition lapsed
Oct. 8.

Cox also deflected criticism over the SEC’s failure in the
Madoff investigation. In a Dec. 16 statement issued by the
agency, Cox said he was “deeply troubled” that his enforcement
staff never sought subpoena power to probe Madoff or brought tips
about alleged wrongdoing to the attention of commissioners.

‘Shifting Blame’

“It was viewed this time as him shifting blame,” said Marc
Steinberg, a former SEC enforcement attorney who now teaches law
at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “The staff has some
responsibility, but the culture came from the top.”

Congress created the SEC in 1934 to restore investor
confidence and stem Wall Street abuses blamed for causing the
Great Depression. The agency’s weakened state means Schapiro, 53,
will have to fight to make sure the SEC’s 75th anniversary isn’t
its last, said Lynn Turner, a former SEC chief accountant.

“The SEC is in worse shape today than the French army was
after its defeat at Waterloo,” he said. “Congress may look to
some other agency to regulate, which would be to the detriment of
investors.”

To contact the reporter on this story:
Jesse Westbrook in Washington at
jwestbrook1@bloomberg.net .

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January home builder sentiment sinks to new low (Reuters)

Wednesday, January 21st, 2009 | Finance News

NEW YORK (Reuters) –
Home builder sentiment sank to a new low in January as concerns about the faltering economy and reluctant home buyers hurt confidence in the market for newly built single-family homes, an industry group said on Wednesday.

The National Association of Home Builders said its preliminary NAHB/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index was 8 in January, down from 9 in December. That is the lowest level on record since the gauge was launched in January 1985.

Readings below 50 indicate more builders view market conditions as poor than favorable. The January index was below expectations of 9, based on a Reuters survey of economists.

Eric Belsky, executive director at Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies, said home builders are facing competition from a flood of homes in foreclosure as well as struggling under sinking demand and a credit crisis.

"They have been responding to slack conditions by reducing production dramatically, but demand continues to fall and until that comes back, the drop in production is not enough to make the market turn around," he said.

Interest rates on mortgages have fallen sharply recently, a key development that could help turn around the hard-hit housing sector, but not enough to improve demand at this point.

"Even though we have lower mortgage rates, people are staying sidelined out of fear over further home price drops, anxiety about the economy, their income and their job," Belsky said.

The U.S. housing market is suffering the worst downturn since the Great Depression as a huge supply of unsold homes, tighter lending standards and record foreclosures push down home prices.

"It going to be another tough year for the housing market unless something improves in the economy or the government takes bolder action to stem the tide of foreclosures," Belsky said.

"The government also needs to do something to stimulate broader demand in order to provide real opportunities for potential homeowners," he said.

"Clearly, conditions in the nation's housing market aren't getting any better, and they aren't going to get any better until the federal government takes substantial action to encourage qualified buyers to get back in the market," NAHB Chairman Sandy Dunn, a home builder from Point Pleasant, West Virginia, said in a statement.

The gauge of current single-family homes sales fell to 6 from 8. The index of sales expected in the next six months, however, increased to 17 from 16. The prospective-buyer traffic measure also climbed, rising to 8 from 7, the group said.

HOME BUILDERS ARE HURTING

Home builders have curbed new construction as they have been working through inventories of unsold homes by slashing prices at the expense of profits to pay off debt and keep afloat.

"Builder views continue to track with historically low consumer confidence measures," NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe said in a statement.

"The fact that there has been microscopic movement in the historically low HMI and its component indexes over the last three months provides further evidence of the need for government action to rejuvenate housing demand," he said.

On a regional basis, the housing market index declined in two out of the four regions in January. The Northeast posted a one-point decrease to 10 and the Midwest was unchanged at 6. The South posted a one-point gain to 11 and the West posted a three-point decrease to a new record low of 4 this month.

(Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

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