Opening Bell

In CJR's a.m. guide to the business press: Grim tidings on housing; WP says a veto threatened on bailouts; 50 bank failures? etc. etc.

After something of a reprieve from bad news on Tuesday, the business pages all lead with negative economic reports. In what we can only consider a foreboding economic indicator, they each came up with a different bad-news angle.

The Wall Street Journal goes four columns wide on A1 with the news that home prices plunged 9 percent nationally in the fourth quarter from a year earlier. The New York Times says in its column one that gasoline may be headed toward $4 a gallon by the spring as oil prices continue to hit non-inflation-adjusted records, something that “could not come at a worse time for the economy.” The Financial Times leads with stocks shrugging off more stagflation worries on news that consumer confidence fell to a five-year low while producer-price inflation soared to a twenty-seven-year high. (The WSJ reports that consumer confidence actually hit a fifteen-year low if the going-to-war blip of March 2003 is disregarded.)

The Journal says the housing decline is picking up speed and the Fed’s rate cuts haven’t done much to lower mortgage rates for most folks, as the paper illustrates well in a chart. We love this reader-friendly context nice and high in the story, which should grace the future textbook, How to Write About the Economy (along with this excellent Los Angeles Times roundup):

Lower home prices threaten the economy’s growth by making consumers feel less wealthy and thus less willing to spend. They also curtail homeowners’ ability to borrow against the value of their homes to finance other purchases. In addition, lower housing prices erode the value of banks’ collateral, prompting them to tighten their lending standards, which further damps economic growth.

The NYT says energy costs relative to disposable income reached a twenty-two-year high of 6.1 percent in December. That comes to about $200 billion a year more in energy costs than Americans spent at their low point in the 1990s.

The FT notes that stocks shrugged off the bad news that producer prices skyrocketed 1 percent last month and have risen 7.4 percent in the last year, the highest rate since 1981.

A day after Standard & Poor’s announced that for now it would not downgrade monoline bond insurer MBIA and Ambac Financial from their lofty AAA perches, Bloomberg finds that debt markets value the companies’ bonds at junk levels.

Credit-default swaps indicating the risk that Armonk, New York-based MBIA’s bond insurance unit won’t be able to meet its obligations are trading at similar levels to companies such as homebuilder Pulte Homes Inc., which is rated 10 steps lower.

The discrepancy illustrates the skepticism debt investors have about the safety of MBIA’s rating after the company posted $3.4 billion of losses on subprime mortgages last quarter. Moody’s and S&P both said that while at least $4 billion of write-downs lie ahead, MBIA’s management has made enough changes to warrant the top rating.

The Journal and The Associated Press report that Representative Barney Frank is discussing a five-year, $15 billion plan to bail out struggling homeowners. Under the plan, the Federal Housing Administration would buy up to a million mortgages from lenders at discounted rates to prevent foreclosures. It wouldn’t apply to investors or second-home owners.

Both say Frank is also working on a $20 billion package of loans and grants that would help local governments buy foreclosed and abandoned properties. The AP:

Doing so would be designed to help stabilize neighborhoods wracked by foreclosures. Lawmakers are also proposing to spend $200 million more per year in grants for housing counseling.

The Washington Post reports that the Bush Administration is threatening to veto Democratic plans to salve the housing wounds, saying they bail out homeowners, banks, and investors who made dumb decisions.

The deal to create the world’s biggest airline appears to have stalled over labor concerns, the papers say. Delta and Northwest execs have all but agreed to merge, but are waiting for their pilots’ unions to figure out a deal on seniority. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution says a Delta memo to employees yesterday could be a warning to the unions to cut a deal.

A day after reports the FDIC is going on a hiring spree, the NYT says small and midsize banks are beginning to face bigger problems from the credit crisis, a story it puts inside on C3. Commercial real estate problems are particularly worrisome for these banks, whose loans-to-capital ratio in that sector more than doubled in the last six years.

The Times quotes unnamed analysts who say as many as fifty such banks could go under in the next year or so.

The WSJ says House Democrats are going after $18 billion in tax breaks for oil and gas companies in an election-year maneuver to tap voter anger over high gas prices and energy-company profits. The paper says the bill has little chance of passing.

The Dems are also stiffening in the battle for royalties on Gulf-of-Mexico drilling leases from the 1990s, something that could be worth up to $31 billion.

The NYT and WSJ report that workers went on strike at a company that makes parts for General Motors. American Axle has stockpiled parts, but if the strike drags on it could affect GM’s profitable truck business. The United Auto Workers says the company wants to slash wages as much as $14 an hour and eliminate other benefits, while the company says its all-in wages average $70 an hour, a number it wants to get down to $27.

The workers agreed four years ago to wage freezes and other labor concessions, says The Detroit News, which provides our Quote of the Day:

“Considering all that we’ve already agreed to, this is a kick in the teeth,” said plant worker Robyn Hudgins. “I can barely afford to live on my street and Mr. Dauch can afford to name one after himself,” she said, referring to American Axle Chairman Richard Dauch.

The FT reports on the front of its Companies & Markets section that a measure of Google’s ad clicks edged down in January from a year ago. It and the WSJ suggest this is evidence that consumers aren’t shopping as much these days, and tie that to the fact that Google stock tanked to its lowest point since May.

What do newspapers do if even big bad Google is in trouble? Unknowable, but in the mean time, we’d just like to draw your attention to the awesome photo Bloomberg has with its Google story. Original!

The WSJ’s hallowed page one has gotten awful newsy since Rupert Murdoch’s takeover, and that’s on full, unfortunate display today. Why would the WSJ front a news story about the New York Philharmonic getting a standing ovation in Pyongyang?

We’re sitting on our hands on this one. This story would’ve been better played on A3, if that.
The placement follows the FT’s inexplicable decision yesterday to front news that Eric Clapton would play a concert in the Hermit Kingdom.

That might be a questionable cover for Billboard, people.

Opening Bell is your guide to the top business stories of the day, but I can’t read everything out there. It’s 3 a.m., for Pete’s sake! If you’re an editor or reader who sees good work in local or regional papers—anything besides the WSJ, FT, NYT, and Bloomberg—send it my way at )

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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.