Crude oil closed above $100 a barrel on Tuesday for the first time, a nominal record only about $3 away from the inflation-adjusted peak hit twenty-eight years ago.
The nearly five-percent jump—what Reuters calls the biggest ever daily gain— in oil prices helped wipe out the stock market’s at-one-time 157-point gain for the day on fears that higher energy costs will further slow already weakened consumers, whose confidence is at a sixteen-year low.
The New York Times says on the front of its Business Day section that an explosion at a refinery in Texas helped push oil higher yesterday on the heels of Hugo Chavez’s threat to cut off oil to the U.S. because of a dispute with Exxon Mobil.
The Wall Street Journal leads Business & Finance column with the oil news and on A3 downplays the effects of the refinery explosion, blaming Tuesday’s price jump primarily on speculators who it says are also pouring cash into coal and platinum. The WSJ says the price surge means it’s less likely that OPEC will cut production at its next meeting in two weeks.
The Financial Times says gasoline futures hit a record yesterday, while the NYT quotes an oil analyst as saying retail gasoline prices are headed to $3.75 a gallon by May, which would top the record by nearly half a dollar. The Journal says inflation fears, sparked in part by the oil news, sent investors running from low-yielding Treasury bonds.
In related news, the WSJ’s breakingviews column says Exxon Mobil could run out of oil in a generation, which seems like a bit of fear-mongering to us, but still highlights the fact (along with this WSJ “ahed” yesterday) that the black stuff isn’t exactly easy to come by these days.
The Journal says the nature of the surprise $3 billion Credit Suisse write-down yesterday bodes ill for other banks.
Credit Suisse said only a small portion of the loss resulted from the mispricing of securities. People familiar with the situation said the mispricing occurred in a London trading unit. The mispricing followed a downturn in the markets. The rest, it said, stemmed from a drop over the past six weeks in the value of the bank’s holdings of residential-mortgage securities, including subprime, and CDOs “We’d hoped that the fourth-quarter audit would finally draw a line under most of the subprime issue,” said Jon Peace, a banking analyst at Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. in London. “The cloud of suspicion is over everybody again.”
The $2.85 billion write-down announced yesterday raised flags because the company suspended employees and said it had “mispriced” securities, The FT reports today that one of the suspended is chief of collateralized debt obligations Kareem Serageldin. The NYT says the bank delayed recognizing the decline in the value of some of its assets.
If markets depend on trust, and we think they do, this quote would go in that “bodes ill” category:
“It’s a big shock for the whole market,” said Françoise Mensi, a fund manager at Banque Bonhôte in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. “You just don’t trust the numbers any longer.”
And what took you so long, Francoise?
Another $3 billion in the papers today is better news. The WSJ scoops the competition with the news that New York developer Harry Macklowe, in default on the multi-billion dollar office portfolio he bought at the very top of the market late last winter, has gotten at least three bids on his General Motors building in midtown that value it at least $3 billion, a price that would shatter the U.S. record of $1.8 billion paid last year for the unfortunately-named 666 Fifth Avenue (sounds like a good title for a slasher movie set in an East Side penthouse with park views).
Such a price would be good news for the battered commercial real-estate sales arena, but the WSJ’s excellent piece (disclosure: the author is a friend and former colleague) says the GM building may not be a good gauge of the market’s health:
The GM Building, at 767 Fifth Ave. in midtown Manhattan, is one of handful of buildings that so bewitches investors that it’s difficult to determine if the high bids say more about the strength of the New York office market or about the motives of the people who covet it.
After all, the rents from the building barely pay the mortgage and many of the tenants have long-term leases far below current rates. Yet, the sales price jumps every time it changes hands. “Nobody ever made money owning the General Motors Building; they only made money selling it,” says Lawrence Russo, president of Russo Capital Corp., a real-estate-investment advisory firm.