Opening Bell: Bernanke Talks Tough on Inflation

Says developing countries can do more; Libor reform lite; Sam Israel’s suicide solution; etc.

Inflation is the topic du jour at The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Financial Times this morning.

The Journal goes four columns wide with its story across the top of A1 saying that concerns are increasing globally, especially in fast-growing developing economies. China’s stock market tumbled nearly 8 percent yesterday on price worries, for instance, while Vietnam slightly devalued its currency to combat inflation. Chinese inflation is already at 8 percent annually, as is India’s.

The FT leads page one with the inflation news, emphasizing that central bankers around the globe are getting tough on interest rates to keep prices in check, but the Journal says those in the developing countries haven’t been tough yet, instead relying on old standbys like price controls.

The latest round of concern was triggered by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s hawkish comments on the matter Monday, which triggered sharp movements in bond markets as investors bet that the Fed will raise interest rates by this fall. The dollar registered its biggest gain against the euro over two days in three years, Bloomberg and the NYT say.

The Journal writes that a basket of twenty-four developing countries followed by Bank of America contains none that are meeting their inflation targets. Just a year ago, three out of four were meeting them. The paper notes that investors are “punishing” stocks and bonds in high-inflation countries.

The NYT puts its inflation story on C1 and quotes a financial executive saying the Fed is now more concerned about price increases than the credit crisis. The Journal’s C1 Ahead of the Tape column says that Bernanke and his European counterpart are engaged in a talk-tough fest on inflation.

More write-downs for big banks

The FT says three of the big—and most troublesome—banks may have to take another $10 billion in write-downs because of last week’s downgrade of the monoline bond insurers MBIA and Ambac Financial.

The paper writes that Citigroup, Merrill Lynch, and UBS may face additional losses and were caught off guard by Standard & Poor’s (seriously belated) downgrade of the bond insurers from their top-notch AAA ratings.

The prospects of further writedowns related to bond insurers, also known as monolines, could deepen concerns over the financial health of US and European banks.

Libor reform

The papers all note that the British organization that oversees the London Interbank Offered Rates—or Libor, the key measure of how much banks charge to lend to each other—is considering major changes to how it is calculated.

Libor has been under fire in recent months since the WSJ reported that banks, in order to look healthier than they really were, appeared to be lying about how much they were being charged for borrowing.

The Journal says on C1 that the British Bankers’ Association will increase the number of banks included in the survey and try to police their reports better, along with possibly creating a separate U.S. survey, and the NYT puts the news on C4. The FT calls the plan “radical” and says bankers warned it could lead to confusion and higher borrowing costs.

We’re not sure the changes go far enough. This is, after all, a measure that sets the interest rates for trillions of dollars in adjustable loans. Any minor miscalculation due to misreporting has billions of dollars in consequences for somebody. Indeed, Bloomberg writes that the move “may fail to rebuild investor confidence” and quotes several investors saying Libor should be calculated based on actual trading, not self-reported surveys.

That makes more sense.

Did Sam Israel jump?

The Journal and NYT write that a manhunt is on for a former hedge-fund head who scammed investors and was set to begin a twenty-year prison sentence on Monday. His car was found near a bridge with “suicide is painless” scrawled in dust on the hood, but cops haven’t found a body yet. While that could be a last-minute death note, the message is also the title of the M*A*S*H theme song of all things.

Samuel Israel III, who ran Bayou Management, ripped off investors to the tune of $400 million and had pleaded guilty to a variety of fraud charges. Since police usually find jumpers quickly, the fact that they did not in this case triggered an international manhunt for Israel. The Journal on A1 and the Times on C1 both quote investors who aren’t exactly holding their tongues out of respect. Here are our Better-Hope-He’s-Not-Really-Dead Quotes of the Day. The Journal:

“I believe he’s dead as far as I can throw him,” said Lee Hennessee, who runs the Hennessee Group…

The Times:

“I’ll believe it when I see a body,” said Ross B. Intelisano, a lawyer at Rich & Intelisano, a law firm in New York. The firm is representing 20 investors who lost about $25 million in the collapse of Bayou, which was based in Stamford, Conn. “All of the clients I spoke to, their initial reaction was that it’s a ruse. It’s just another fraudulent act.”

The papers note that if it is a suicide, it would be the second high-profile hedge-fund scammer offing himself in as many months. Kirk Wright hanged himself in May in a Georgia jail as he awaited his sentence for stealing $150 million. The Journal notes that hedge fund execs going on the lam hasn’t been a rare occurrence lately. Wright had been a fugitive, as well as at least two other major criminals.

Scamming the scammers? Sounds about right

The Journal on A3 writes that some homeowners are pulling a “buy and bail”—buying a new, cheaper house shortly before abandoning their existing one with the upside-down mortgage to foreclosure.

Homeowners are able to pull off this gambit—which some lenders and real-estate agents call mortgage fraud—by taking advantage of mortgage-lending practices that allow them to buy a new primary residence before their existing residence has been sold. And with the lending industry in disarray as it tries to restructure millions of mortgages, some boast they are able to pull off the strategy with ease.

In some cases, homeowners are coached through the buy-and-bail process by real-estate agents and brokers who see nothing wrong with it. Some blame the phenomenon in part on lenders’ unwillingness to cut deals or restructure loans made when home prices were inflated. “It’s just a business decision,” says Linda Caoili, a Sacramento real-estate agent who is working with Ms. Augustine and others who are considering walking away from their mortgages. “If you’re upside-down $250,000, why would you keep it? It just doesn’t make sense.”

It’s interesting, but mercifully the Journal admits that the “practice doesn’t appear to be widespread.”

Sorry, that toilet is dry

The Times on page one looks at how high fuel costs are forcing airlines to scrape for ways to increase their planes’ efficiency. Things are so bad the airlines are carrying less water for toilets and sinks. They’re also trying to get muck off their engines and putting in lighter-weight seats, which we’re sure means “even less comfortable.” And they’re even flying slower so it’s even more likely you won’t get to your destination on time.

The Journal on A6 and the NYT on C3 report that the International Energy Agency says oil demand is slowing but that new supplies aren’t being found fast enough to make much difference. It predicts oil demand will grow just 0.9 percent this year, the slowest since 2002. The Journal says some economists say gas prices have now reached a landmark level: They’re as high as a percentage of average pay as they were in the 1970s oil crisis. The Times says a new government report predicts gas will peak at $4.15 a gallon in August. We’ll take the over on that one.

On A4, the Journal writes that soaring oil prices blew out the trade deficit 8 percent in April.

Will Abu Dhabi get the Chrysler Building?

The New York Post reports that New York’s historic Chrysler Building is up for sale and that the Abu Dhabi soverign-wealth fund is in talks to buy it for $800 million.

In other commercial real-estate news, the Journal on C1 looks at how Mort Zuckerman, owner of the New York Daily News, whose Boston Properties just signed a deal on the GM Building and three others for nearly $4 billion, saved former owner Harry Macklowe from bankruptcy. The paper notes that Zuckerman is buying the properties at high prices even as the Manhattan market still faces big problems, especially from the bust on Wall Street, which is diminishing demand for office space.

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.