Audit Roundup: Shopper Shock

Papers' language differs a bit; Musty WSJ hedge-fund story; etc.

The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal employ different tones on the terrible retail sales reports yesterday.

The Times’ lede:

Sales at the nation’s largest retailers fell off a cliff in October, casting fresh doubt on the survival of some chains and signaling that this will probably be the weakest Christmas shopping season in decades.

The Journal’s:

U.S. retailers reported dismal sales for October, prompting them to resort to steeper discounts and earlier promotions as they try to salvage the coming holiday season.

I’ll side with the Times’ dire version, though I question this paragraph:

A few retailers have strong balance sheets, but many do not, and with credit hard to find they can ill afford a disastrous Christmas season. Analysts said they expected a new wave of bankruptcies after the first of the year.

That makes it seem as if more than half of retailers will go bust, which seems unlikely. The Times should also have noted that retailers have much better balance sheets than they did a decade ago.

The LA Times is also grim.

This Journal story on the hedge-fund industry seems a little bit dated. This area has been well covered and could have been written several weeks ago it seems. It seems to be warning between the lines about the giant fund Citadel, though that’s been done for weeks by others, too.

Hedge funds have emerged as the latest serious problem in the global financial system. As their losses mount, they’re selling off securities to meet demands for cash from lenders and investors. Compounding the problem is a surge in notices from investors indicating they want out. Some hedge funds have been hoarding cash in preparation for these withdrawal requests. Hedge funds are sitting on a record amount of cash, estimated at about $400 billion, money that eventually could make its way into the market. Other managers are hoping that investors have second thoughts and don’t go through with the withdrawals, or are telling their investors that they will sell securities over time rather than dump them as the market falls. But either way, the wave of requests is keeping money out of the market as hedge funds figure out their next moves.

Here’s a “who cares?” story in the Journal’s A section:

There will be at least 14 medical doctors in the 111th Congress, an addition of two seats from the current session, according to the American Medical Association.

I’m pretty sure there were other, more interesting press releases to rewrite yesterday.

Bloomberg has a nice story on how GMAC targeted individual investors with billions of dollars in bonds that are now likely to go bad.

GMAC, the largest lender to car dealers of General Motors Corp., issued more than $25 billion of debt called SmartNotes over the past decade to retail investors. While GMAC has paid off the debts as they matured, five straight unprofitable quarters raised doubt about GMAC’s survival, and SmartNotes due in July 2020 have lost about two-thirds of their value.

“An investment like this is totally unsuitable for the retail investor,” said Sean Egan, president of Egan-Jones Ratings Co. in Haverford, Pennsylvania, who rates GMAC bonds junk, or below investment grade. “You’re selling it to the widows and orphans who think of GMAC as being this strong, long- standing corporation when the reality is far from that.”

The WSJ reports that the government is considering easing its terms on its big quasi-nationalization of AIG and possibly backstopping its derivative bets.

AIG’s role in the credit-default-swap market remains a sensitive issue for the government. AIG counterparties have demanded billions of dollars in collateral to ensure AIG stands behind its commitments to make payments in the event of defaults.

I’d like to see some reporting on who those counterparties are and how much they’re owed. Follow the money.

The Times is the latest to report on the rapidly declining Chinese economy.

A series of government reports released over the last few weeks indicated that China’s export juggernaut was moderating. Real estate construction projects are being suspended. Consumer confidence is in decline. And many factories in southern China are closing, putting tens of thousands of migrant laborers out of work.

Some Chinese companies have even reported that Christmas orders — which were supposed to be placed in late summer or early fall — were down 20 percent this year, as big retailers and toy marketers grew gloomy about the holiday season.

Finally, Bloomberg has an interesting piece on a Rodeo Drive pawn shop. Who knew there was such a thing? It’s racking up big business these days, as even the rich get hit by the downturn.

At Tabach-Bank’s shop, “confidential collateral loans,” as they’re called, have been made on art works by Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Amounts loaned range from several thousand dollars to “six- and seven-figure deals,” he said, with clients using the money to cover the mortgage, make alimony payments or finance cosmetic surgery.

South Beverly Jewelry and Loan, also in Beverly Hills, has seen business triple in the past six months, said owner Yossi Dina. Some of the collateral is in a parking lot: About 60 cars, including Ferraris, Porsches and a Bentley.
“We’re making loans today we never used to,” Dina, 54, said. “Millions — never used to have that. We’re selling a necklace now, the client wants $2.7 million.”

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.