Opening Bell: Bad Numbers On Blackstone

Papers swallow company spin on losses; Dick Armey and Steve Forbes are angry renters; etc.

(The headline for this post was corrected at 1:55 p.m.)

Blackstone Group had a bad first quarter. Just how bad? Take your pick from The Wall Street Journal and the two Timeses, which use different numbers. The WSJ says the private-equity firm swung to a $250 million loss in the first quarter as its revenue plummeted 95 percent, while noting its “economic net income” was $66.5 million. The New York Times and the Financial Times just use the $66.5 million number, which excludes taxes and some compensation costs.

Both Times don’t even tell readers what number they’re using or (unlike the WSJ) that it doesn’t include some pretty basic corporate costs—they’re taking Blackstone’s financial spin at face value: “Economic net income” is not part of Generally Accepted Accounting Principles. Check out this Reuters take from a year ago. The Journal mentions the number, but emphasizes the real one and describes the Blackstone-promoted number so that readers know what the company’s up to. Bloomberg also uses the Blackstone-approved number as its lead, though it notes the net income results several paragraphs into its story.

The WSJ says the poor results are the latest in a line of them from newly public private-equity firms.

The FT in a separate story fronts news from the securities filing that Blackstone is considering buying back some of the commercial real estate it flipped for record prices last year, something the Journal and the NYT both miss. The FT says Blackstone may buy some of the $7 billion worth of buildings it sold the now-defaulted Harry Macklowe, a private landlord, or the $3 billion it sold Maguire Properties, a public real-estate company—or buy some of the debt attached to the buildings.

ANB under the microscope

The Journal takes a look on its Money & Investing cover at ANB Financial, which last Friday was shut down by the feds because of its “unsafe and unsound” lending practices. Basically, the Little Rock bank shoveled out loans to just about anybody who wanted to build houses. More than 75 percent of its loan portfolio was in construction and development, the WSJ says, comparing it to a more-restrained bank that has just 5.5 percent in the same areas.

The bust is reverberating as a sign of turmoil at many small and medium-size banks throughout the U.S. that pinned huge hopes, and capital, on the housing boom.

Delinquencies and charge-offs are rising at lenders that barreled into real-estate loans but now are feeling a double whammy of the housing slump and credit crunch. Regulators are bracing for more failures. Even banks in no danger of collapse will need years to slog through their lending mistakes.

The bank was the second-largest to fail in the last seven years and will cost the FDIC $214 million.

A bucket of bad economic news

In economic news, the manufacturing downturn weakened more than expected in April. Industrial production fell 0.7 percent, more than double what economists had expected, Bloomberg reports.

“There is no question about whether or not there is a recession in manufacturing—there is,” said Michael Gregory, a senior economist at BMO Capital Markets in Toronto, who correctly anticipated the drop in industrial production. “Housing is in deep recession and manufacturing is in a shallow one.”

The Journal in its A3 headline says the news and a weak showing by employment yesterday “add to recession worries.” New jobless claims edged up by 6,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 371,000. Continuing claims hit a new four-year high.

A homebuilders’ sentiment gauge dipped and the Journal’s Ahead of the Tape column says it shows economists may be out to lunch on their predictions that homebuilding will hit bottom later this year. The gauge measures sentiment about sales over the next six months and it was the first time it had dipped since December. It quotes at least one economist who gets it, and he’s with the industry:

“There are forces out there that suggest that things could spiral downward for some time to come,” says David Seiders, chief economist of the National Association of Home Builders.

Fannie and Freddie ease down-payment policies

Jumping off into other housing news, the Journal says on A3 that Fannie Mae is “scrapping” a policy to require higher down-payments in hard-hit housing areas after coming under pressure from the NAHB, the National Association of Realtors, and others who say it would eliminate too many buyers and exacerbate the bust.

Fannie’s competitor Freddie Mac—combined, the two prop up the housing market by buying mortgages from lenders—also is easing its similar policy, something the Journal correctly says means they’re increasing their risk.

Borrowers who put just 3% to 5% down in many areas are likely to find within a year that they owe more than the homes are worth because prices have fallen, a situation known as being underwater.

In some cases, deeply underwater borrowers are choosing to walk away from their homes rather than trying to find a way to keep on paying, Patricia Cook, Freddie’s chief business officer, told analysts this week.

These guys can take all the risk they want because, as we quoted yesterday, the government will bail them out no matter what when they fall flat. In fact, the government wants them to take more risks.

Is Senate close on housing-bailout plan?

In another who-do-you-believe story, the papers disagree on what exactly did or did not happen with Senate negotiations over a housing-bailout plan last night. The Washington Post on D3 says senators “broke off talks” but “were close to an agreement.” But the Journal says they came to an “agreement in principle” and Reuters agrees. The Associated Press goes the WaPo route.

Steve Forbes, grassroots warrior

The Journal has an excellent page-one “ahed” this morning on the origins of a site called “Angry Renter” that purports to be a grass-roots campaign of tenants opposing government bailouts for homeowners. We love this blow-them-out-of-the-water paragraph:

Angry they may be, but the people behind are certainly not renters. Though it purports to be a spontaneous uprising, is actually a product of an inside-the-Beltway conservative advocacy organization led by Dick Armey, the former House majority leader, and publishing magnate Steve Forbes, a fellow Republican. It’s a fake grass-roots effort—what politicos call an AstroTurf campaign—that provides a window into the sleight-of-hand ways of Washington.

The Journal goes on to note Forbes owns an 8,000-square-foot house in New Jersey on ten acres, plus an adjacent 112 acres. In a very interesting finding, it says the parcel is assessed at just $45,500. Land for $400 in acre? Forty miles from Manhattan? This seems to call for a story in its own right. The paper tweaks Forbes some more, noting “The Forbes family has sold off its private island in Fiji and palace in Morocco, but still owns a ch√Ęteau in France.”

Here’s the kicker and the Quote of the Day:

Among the renters who work at FreedomWorks is Chris Kinnan, who designed the site. He says he’s not in the market to buy a house. “I’m a renter,” he says. “I’m not an angry renter.”

Great work.

American skimps on inspections

American Airlines is the latest flyer to come under investigation in the safety-inspection scandal. The WSJ leads its A1 Business & Finance column and fronts a Marketplace section story saying the airline changed its inspection procedures for possible lightning strikes to keep them from disrupting flight schedules.

Used to be, mechanics had leeway to call for a time-consuming inspection of a plane they suspected had been struck by lightning. Now the airline prevents that unless pilots specifically call for it, and the Journal says they often can’t tell if it’s happened from the cockpit. It looks like just another example of skimping on safety caused by the industry’s financial troubles, something that would have surely come back to haunt it had whistleblowers not exposed the problem.

Fed still bird-dogging Libor

The Journal on C1 says the Fed is poking around into how the key Libor rate is set. It’s talking to traders and the British Bankers Association, which oversees the measure, to figure out how accurate it is. The move comes a month to the day after a good WSJ story that questioned whether the rate—which underpins trillions of dollars in interest rates on loans—was being manipulated.

That caused a quick spike in the rate, something that’s evidence that banks were low-balling their reported interest rates to make themselves seem healthier than they really are.

Quiet cuts on Wall Street

The NYT looks at how the huge layoffs on Wall Street are coming quietly, unlike past downturns. Instead of getting all their firings out of the way at once, banks are slicing people here and there, killing morale.

While the financial markets have found a bit of a footing lately, banks are pushing ahead with plans for some of the deepest job reductions in years. Since last summer, banks worldwide have announced plans to cut 65,000 employees.

But exactly how many jobs have been or will be eliminated is unclear. In the past, banks typically made sharp reductions all at once. After the 1987 stock market crash, for example, employees were herded into conference rooms and dismissed en masse.

This time, companies are making many small cuts over the course of weeks or even months. Some people who have lost jobs, and many more struggling to hold them, say banks are keeping employees in the dark about the size and timing of layoffs.

Even the masters of the universe feel your pain, America.

Studying the bubble

Lastly, the Journal takes a page-one look at the latest research on financial bubbles, much of which is coming from a group that was set up by Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke himself at Princeton.

Manias can persist even though many smart people suspect a bubble, because no one of them has the firepower to successfully attack it. Only when skeptical investors act simultaneously—a moment impossible to predict—does the bubble pop.

As a result of all that and more, the Princeton squad argues that the Fed can and should try to restrain bubbles, rather than following former Chairman Alan Greenspan’s approach: watchful waiting while prices rise and then cleaning up the mess after a bubble bursts.

Good idea.

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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.