Archive for June, 2010

European chill as G20 finance heads meet in SKorea (AP)

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010 | Finance News

SEOUL, South Korea – Europe's debt woes are set to dominate talks as finance mandarins from the newly powerful G-20 group of rich and developing nations meet this week to push ahead with reforms of the global economy.

The continent's sovereign debt crisis has seemed like an echo of 2008 when a banking system breakdown in the United States pushed the world into its most serious economic crisis in eight decades and raised fears of another Great Depression.

World markets have tanked amid uncertainty over Europe's government finances. The Dow Jones industrial average declined 7.9 percent in May and has further extended losses in June while the euro has sharply weakened amid fears for the single currency's viability.

Still, the volatility has not been on the scale of the market mayhem in 2008 following the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings. But it serves as a reminder of the massive task the G-20 has set for itself: reforming the global financial system to prevent another crisis and ensure economic stability.

South Korea, which assumed the rotating Group of 20 chair this year, is hosting the meeting of finance ministers and central bank governors in the southern port city of Busan on Friday and Saturday.

The G-20 is working on policy recommendations aimed at achieving what it calls "strong, sustainable and balanced growth" to hand to leaders at a pair of summits scheduled for this year — one in Canada later this month and another in Seoul in November.

The forum has been trying to come up with a new financial architecture to manage the global economy in the wake of the 2008 crisis. Proposals include a bank tax, setting new capital standards and establishing "financial safety nets" to help bolster countries such as host South Korea, which have been vulnerable to the whims of traders who can send billions of dollars across borders at the press of a button.

The G-20 has agreed at a series of summits in the United States and Britain since late 2008 on the need for tighter financial regulation to prevent the kind of Lehman-induced turmoil that could potentially sink the global economy.

Coming up with solutions, however, has proved a challenge.

The issue of a bank tax to pay for future bailouts has proved divisive. The U.S. and European countries favor the move, while others such as Canada and Australia — whose banks survived the global crisis intact — oppose it.

The G-20, founded in 1999, consists of rich countries such as the United States, Japan, and Germany, emerging powers China, Brazil and India, and developing economies Indonesia and South Africa. Top oil producer Saudi Arabia is also a member.

It maintained a relatively low profile until the shock of 2008, when the disparate grouping shot into the limelight as the key international forum for managing the global financial system, largely stealing the crown from the exclusive Group of Seven after developing countries demanded more say.

Besides following up on issues discussed at their last finance meeting in Washington in April, the G-20 will talk about the European debt crisis, said Yim Jong-yong, a top official at South Korea's Ministry of Strategy and Finance.

They will also be "sending some message of the G-20 to the market regarding the European risk," Yim said in an interview last month.

Some, however, are skeptical the G-20 can accomplish anything regarding Europe's economic problems.

Stephen Lewis, senior economist at London-based Monument Securities, said the key problem for the nations using the euro is that they are hamstrung by the inflexibility imposed by the single currency.

"But G-20 finance ministers cannot afford to recognize this, mindful as they must be of the potentially destabilizing influence, not only in Europe but in the rest of the world, of any widespread loss of confidence in the euro arrangements," he said. "Their discussions are, therefore, likely to lead nowhere."

The U.S. push for China to let the value of its currency, the yuan, appreciate to help address global trade imbalances has long hung over international finance meetings. However, it is doubtful that any G-20 statement from Busan will press China on the issue. At the April meeting in Washington, the communique repeated previous pledges to eliminate imbalances but did not specifically address China's currency.

The meeting also takes place amid a geopolitical distraction in the form of tensions on the Korean peninsula where rivals South Korea and North Korea have been squaring off after Seoul blamed Pyongyang for sinking one of its warships and killing 46 sailors. North Korea denies that.

Though decades of enmity between the two Koreas may not seem like an issue for G-20 finance mandarins to take on, North Korea has a way of muscling in on international trade and economic meetings in Asia. In November 2006 in Melbourne, Australia, for example, G-20 finance ministers and central bank governors condemned North Korea over a nuclear test it carried out the month before.

The G-20 consists of Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Britain, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey and the U.S. and the European Union.


AP Business Writer Jane Wardell in London and AP Economics Writer Martin Crutsinger in Washington contributed to this report.

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Apple’s Jobs says iPad idea came before iPhone (AP)

Tuesday, June 1st, 2010 | Finance News

RANCHO PALOS VERDES, Calif. – Apple Inc. CEO Steve Jobs shared a secret with his audience at a technology conference outside Los Angeles Tuesday: The idea for the iPad came before the iPhone.

The idea to ditch the keyboard for what Jobs calls a multi-touch display came about in the early 2000s, although the company was working on a telephone at the time, he said. That's when a prototype came to him that used the device's now-famous scrolling mechanism.

"I thought, 'My God we can build a phone out of this,'" Jobs said at The Wall Street Journal's "D: All Things Digital" conference in Rancho Palos Verdes.

But the tablet product was put on the shelf, the iPhone went into development for several years before making its debut in 2007 and Apple started selling the iPad tablet computer in April.

Both products have taken on more of the personal computing tasks once handled by computers running Microsoft Corp.'s Windows operating system and other programs.

That's helped Apple surpass Microsoft, its longtime nemesis, as the largest technology company in the world by market capitalization — a milestone it achieved last week.

"It's surreal," Jobs said Tuesday.

Although he acknowledged the popularity of the iPhone has caused network troubles at carrier AT&T, Jobs said the problems would have happened to any wireless phone company with that many iPhone and iPad users.

He said many places in the U.S. will have much better reception by the end of the summer. He did not rule out having the iPhone operate on other carriers in the future.

Ahead of a major software developers conference scheduled to begin June 7 in San Francisco, Jobs was characteristically tightlipped about what, if any, new features would be on new iPhone models.

As for the iPad's stunning popularity, Jobs said the device was beginning to erode the usefulness of the personal computer.

"We like to talk about the post PC era," he said. "I think we're embarked on that. Is it the iPad? Who knows? Will it happen next year or five years from now or seven years? Who knows?"

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BP stock tumbles as feds announce oil-spill probes (AP)

Tuesday, June 1st, 2010 | Finance News

NEW ORLEANS – BP's stock plummeted and took much of the market down with it Tuesday as the federal government announced criminal and civil investigations into the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. BP engineers, meanwhile, tried to recover from a failed attempt to stop the gusher with an effort that will initially make the leak worse.

Attorney General Eric Holder, who was visiting the Gulf to survey the fragile coastline and meet with state and federal prosecutors, would not say who might be targeted in the probes into the largest oil spill in U.S. history.

"We will closely examine the actions of those involved in the spill. If we find evidence of illegal behavior, we will be extremely forceful in our response," Holder said in New Orleans.

BP's stock nose-dived on Tuesday, losing nearly 15 percent of its value on the first trading day since the previous best option — the so-called "top kill" — failed and was aborted at the government's direction. It dipped steeply with Holder's late-afternoon announcement, which also sent other energy stocks tumbling, ultimately causing the Dow Jones industrial average to tumble 112.

After six weeks of failures to block the well or divert the oil, BP was using robotic machines to carve into the twisted appendages of the crippled well. The latest attempt involved using tools resembling an oversized deli slicer and garden shears to break away the broken riser pipe so engineers can then position a cap over the well's opening.

Even if it succeeds, it will temporarily increase the flow of an already massive leak by 20 percent — at least 100,000 gallons more a day. And it is far from certain that BP will be able to cap a well that one expert compared to an out-of-control fire hydrant.

"It is an engineer's nightmare," said Ed Overton, a Louisiana State University professor of environmental sciences. "They're trying to fit a 21-inch cap over a 20-inch pipe a mile away. That's just horrendously hard to do. It's not like you and I standing on the ground pushing — they're using little robots to do this."

The operation has never been performed in such deep water, and is similar to an earlier failed attempt that used a larger cap that quickly froze up. BP PLC officials said they were applying lessons learned from the earlier effort, and plan to pump warm water through pipes into the smaller dome to prevent any icing problems.

"If all goes as planned, within about 24 hours we could have this contained," BP's Doug Suttles said Tuesday after touring a temporary housing facility set up for cleanup workers in Grand Isle. "But we can't guarantee success."

Since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers and eventually collapsing into the Gulf of Mexico, an estimated 20 million to 40 million gallons of oil has spewed, eclipsing the 11 million that leaked from the Exxon Valdez disaster.

Oil has fouled many fishing areas and miles of ecologically sensitive coastline. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said oil from the spill was found in his state for the first time, on a barrier island, and newly expanded federal restrictions mean that nearly a third of federal waters are closed to fishing.

President Barack Obama on Tuesday ordered the co-chairmen of an independent commission investigating the spill to thoroughly examine the disaster, "to follow the facts wherever they lead, without fear or favor." The commission is led by Bob Graham, a former Florida governor and U.S. senator, and William K. Reilly, a former head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Holder said the laws under review for the criminal and civil probes include the Clean Water Act, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Endangered Species Act. He said the government would pursue criminal charges "if warranted," a caveat he did not include for civil action.

"We will ensure that every cent, every cent of taxpayer money, will be repaid and that damage to the environment and wildlife will be reimbursed," he said.

Washington lawyer Stan Brand said that two likely criminal law theories the Justice Department would pursue are false statements to the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service and obstruction by failing to produce evidence to investigators.

But Brand and longtime Washington lawyer Stephen Ryan, a former federal prosecutor and ex-congressional investigator, predicted it will be difficult to prove criminality.

"Bad business judgment isn't a crime," said Ryan.

The Deepwater Horizon was owned by Transocean Ltd. and leased by BP PLC. Other companies involved include oil services company Halliburton, which handled the cementing of the well; and Cameron Inc., which made the blowout preventer that apparently failed.

Criminal charges have met with mixed results in two previous high-profile U.S. oil spills.

Joseph Hazelwood, captain of the Exxon Valdez supertanker that ran aground off Alaska's coast in 1989, was acquitted of being drunk when the accident occurred, but convicted of a misdemeanor for negligent oil discharge. He was fined $50,000 and ordered to perform 1,000 hours of community service.

Hong Kong-based Fleet Management Ltd. paid a $10 million fine after pleading to obstruction charges following a 2007 oil spill after one of the company's cargo ships struck the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. The ship's pilot pleaded guilty to misdemeanors and was sentenced to 10 months in prison.

The government would have a lower burden of proof in a civil case. In the Valdez spill, thousands of fishermen, cannery workers, landowners and Native Americans were initially awarded $5 billion in punitive damages, but the amount was eventually reduced to $507.5 million.

BP engineers began putting underwater robots and equipment in place this week after an attempt to plug the well by force-feeding it heavy mud and cement — called a "top kill" — was aborted over the weekend. Crews pumped thousands of gallons of the mud into the well but were unable to overcome the pressure of the oil.

The next plan has BP engineers placing a cap-like containment valve over the well. Not all the gushing oil will be captured through the "cut and cap" method, but the company said it could siphon most of the crude to a vessel on the surface.

Eric Smith, an associate director of the Tulane Energy Institute, likened the procedure to trying to place a tiny cap on a fire hydrant that's blowing straight up.

Crews have forged two different caps in case one of them doesn't work. Before it can place either one, the company plans to cut the riser in two different places, keeping it aloft with a crane so it doesn't collapse.

Gigantic shears will cleave off the far end of the riser while a diamond cutter, lowered on top of the blowout preventer early Tuesday, will try to make an even cut through the other end of the tube. A clean cut from the diamond cutter, which resembles a deli slicer, is important because engineers will then lower a heavy cap on top of the sheared-off tube to seal the leak.

BP's best chance to actually plug the leak rests with a pair of relief wells that likely won't be completed until August.


Associated Press writers Darlene Superville and Pete Yost from Washington, Curt Anderson from Miami, Brian Skoloff from Port Fourchon, and Bluestein reported from Covington, contributed to this report.

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