Archive for February, 2011

Alaska lawmaker returns home after refusing search

Thursday, February 24th, 2011 | Finance News


AUKE BAY, Alaska – Determined to avoid a pat-down search to board her flight home, an Alaska state lawmaker took an unusual route: a roundabout four-day detour via rental car, a small plane, taxicab and a ferry.

Rep. Sharon Cissna's land-air-and-sea journey ended Thursday when the ferry arrived in Auke Bay, outside Juneau, where she was met by a small group of well-wishers and a bouquet of yellow flowers.

She said travelers are "accidentally being abused by government," and she vowed to fight for changes in how the Transportation Security Administration deals with screening passengers, especially those with special health issues.

Cissna, D-Anchorage, is a cancer survivor who has had a mastectomy. She underwent the full-body scan at Seattle's airport but was singled out for a further pat-down search, her second, she said, within three months.

She said she considers herself a law-abiding citizen but felt the need to stand up for herself. So, having vowed to never endure the pat-down procedure again and unable to board the flight, she took the rental car across the border, where she caught a small airplane from a Vancouver airport to Prince Rupert, B.C.; from there, she had a two-day ferry ride to Juneau, Alaska's capital city accessible only by air or water. A taxi ride helped to connect the trip.

"It was all kind of exciting and a little strange," she said.

Her case is from far isolated and has turned the petite 68-year-old into an unlikely hero, applauded on Facebook and the state House floor for her stand.

"I feel really proud of Sharon," House Democratic leader Beth Kerttula said. "I think she stood up for thousands of Americans who are saying, why, when a woman has had a mastectomy, does she have to go through this?"

Since new screening measures took effect last year, the American Civil Liberties Union has reported receiving more than 1,000 complaints from travelers — including breast cancer survivors — who said they endured intrusive pat-downs. Among other things, the travelers claim TSA agents patted their genitals and ran fingers through their hair or along their bras or waistbands.

At least one federal lawsuit has been filed over the pat-downs. The plaintiffs in the case, pending in the District of Columbia, include a breast cancer survivor from California and a Kentucky man that the lawsuit says was presumably singled out for a pat-down due to an enlarged testicle.

"In terms of privacy issues, this is an outpouring the likes of which we rarely see, and it transcends all walks of life and political views because it is so personal," said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst and privacy expert for the ACLU. "It is a personal encounter between government and individuals that traumatizes many people."

He said the issue underscores the need to invest more in law enforcement and intelligence efforts to pursue potential threats, and shows TSA must invest in different, less-invasive technologies.

TSA spokesman Dwayne Baird did not speak specifically to Cissna's case. But he said the agency takes passenger privacy seriously and builds privacy protections into its security methods. Baird said pat-downs, along with other screening techniques, are meant "to improve our ability to detect explosives hidden on a person and keep the traveling public safe."

He said that full-body scanners — the likes of which Cissna went through at a Seattle airport on Sunday — are meant to show anomalies. The scanners became prominent after a man was accused of trying of blow up a plane using explosives hidden in his underwear in late 2009.

If an anomaly is detected, Baird said, "we have to resolve the issue." A pat-down is one way of doing that.

The agency, on its website, says travelers won't be asked to remove prosthetic devices but "Security Officers will need to see and touch" them as part of the screening process.

The TSA insists it tries to make the process as comfortable as possible, allowing for passengers singled out for pat-downs to be screened privately and to have a travel companion with them. It has made cards available as a way for travelers to more discreetly inform TSA agents of any medical conditions or disabilities they have. But the cards don't exempt screening.

In response to Cissna's case, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, has asked TSA Administrator John Pistole to clarify the agency's screening policy for passengers with special medical needs.

Cissna said she wants to work on a resolution laying out what needs to be done to change a policy that's "hurting people."

The ordeal has changed how she travels.

She said she is due back in Seattle in a month. While she'll fly out of Juneau — she said she has no problem with metal detectors and dutifully removes the bobby-pins that hold up her trademark salt-and-pepper bun — she'll return by ferry or small airline.


Asset sales lift AIG’s profit to $11.2 billion

Thursday, February 24th, 2011 | Finance News


NEW YORK – Bailed-out insurer AIG ended the year on a strong note, earning income of $11.2 billion in the fourth quarter. Most of the profits came from selling and spinning off various business units, primarily two of its life insurance businesses.

Last month American International Group Inc. laid the groundwork to start repaying the American taxpayer. A symbol of the excessive risk that led to the financial crisis, AIG was bailed out by the U.S. government in a package that totaled $182 billion. In January, AIG paid back a portion of the government's loans and renegotiated the rest of the package which led the government to own a 92 percent stake in AIG. The government plans to start selling those shares over the next two years.

AIG earned $16.60 per share in the fourth quarter, the company reported Thursday. In the same period last year, the company reported a loss of $8.87 billion, or $65.51 per share. For the full year, AIG reported net income of $7.8 billion.

The insurance giant's profit came from gains of $17.6 billion primarily from an initial public offering of AIA Group, a Hong Kong unit and from the sale of American Life Insurance Company. These two sales were key elements in the company's ability to raise cash to restructure its bailout terms with the government.

"We completed several key restructuring milestones in the quarter," AIG's chief executive, Robert Benmosche, said in a statement. Benmosche will discuss the company's performance and its outlook for the coming year in a conference call Friday morning, the company's first earnings call in two years.

Investors still have concerns about AIG's ability to generate future earnings. Two weeks ago, the company announced an addition of $4.2 billion to loss reserves at Chartis, its property and casualty insurance business. Chartis is one of AIG's main business lines and its performance is key to the successful sale of AIG shares by the government.

"Just when we're expecting progress, the first data point that we see from the company is a $4 billion charge which raises a big question mark," said Paul Howard, director of research at Solstice Research.

Fitch Ratings lowered its ratings on some of AIG's insurance subsidiaries after the announcement came out.

Howard said that AIG is adding to reserves at a time when rivals Travelers Cos. and Chubb Corp. are doing the opposite: taking money out of their reserves because of lower expected losses. Shares of Travelers and Chubb are trading near 52-week highs, while AIG shares are down 16 percent since the beginning of this year.

Despite those concerns, AIG's quarterly and full-year profit mark a strong turnaround for the company. AIG became a symbol of lax regulation and excess risk on Wall Street during the financial crisis that crested in late 2008.

AIG had written insurance on the value of hundreds of billions in mortgage investments held by financial institutions. When the investments lost value, AIG could not afford to make good on its contracts. Finally, it had to take the government's help to help stay out of bankruptcy.


Fannie Mae posts $2.1B loss for Q4

Thursday, February 24th, 2011 | Finance News

WASHINGTON – Government-controlled mortgage buyer Fannie Mae has posted a narrower loss of $2.1 billion for the October-December quarter of last year, and asked for an additional $2.6 billion in federal aid.

The new request is slightly more than the $2.5 billion it sought in the July-September quarter. The mortgage buyer also reported a $21.7 billion loss for all of 2010.

The government rescued Fannie Mae and sibling company Freddie Mac in September 2008 to cover their losses on soured mortgage loans. It estimates the bailouts will cost taxpayers as much as $259 billion.

Fannie Mae's October-December loss attributable to common stockholders works out to 37 cents a share. It takes into account $2.2 billion in dividend payments to the government. It compares with a loss of $16.3 billion, or $2.87 a share, in the fourth quarter of 2009.

Washington-based Fannie Mae and McLean, Va.-based Freddie Mac own or guarantee about half of all mortgages in the U.S., or nearly 31 million home loans worth more than $5 trillion. Along with other federal agencies, they played some part in almost 90 percent of new mortgages over the past year.

Fannie and Freddie buy home loans from banks and other lenders, package them into bonds with a guarantee against default and sell them to investors around the world.

The government's estimated cost of bailing out the mortgage giants far exceeds the $132.7 billion they have received from taxpayers so far. That would make theirs the costliest bailout of the financial crisis.

The two have been hit by massive losses on risky mortgages purchased from 2005 through 2008. The companies have tightened their lending standards after those loans started to go bad. Default rates on new loans are far lower.

The Obama administration unveiled a plan earlier this month to slowly dissolve the two mortgage giants. The aim is to shrink the government's role in the mortgage system. The proposal would remake decades of federal policy aimed at getting Americans to buy homes and probably would make home loans more expensive.

Exactly how far the government's role in mortgages would be reduced was left to Congress to decide. But all three options the administration presented would create a housing finance system that relies far more on private money.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner will face questions from lawmakers next week at a congressional hearing on the proposal.