The Opening Bell

There will be triple-digit oil; NYT scores with MBIA; Suisse aftershocks, etc.

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.

Some of the biggest names in real estate have long coveted the skyscraper, making it the Helen of Troy of office buildings, the façade that launched a thousand schemes. Five years after Donald Trump sold the building, he still regrets giving it up. Developer Sheldon Solow, one of the world’s richest billionaires, never owned it but has spent years in court proving he should have.

And Mr. Macklowe, the besieged current owner, is desperate to hang on to some small stake in it. According to a person familiar with the matter, he has asked bidders to specify whether they would keep him involved in at least the management of the property.

The news that Fidel Castro is stepping down brings various predictions from the papers. The Los Angeles Times says businesses are optimistic that trade restrictions will be lifted. The Journal says “Businesses Hold Few Hopes of More Trade Soon.” The Washington Post has more evidence behind its assertion that any changes will be gradual. It reports that the Bush administration says its won’t relax trade restrictions anytime soon.

We say, here’s a perfect opportunity to relax the ideological rigidity and explore a better policy toward Cuba. The one we’ve had for the last fifty-plus years sure hasn’t accomplished much. But in an election year, it might take Florida freezing over to get that done.

MBIA rehired its old CEO Jay Brown in a move the papers say could set the stage for the troubled monoline bond insurer to split itself into good and bad parts.

The FT says the hire likely means MBIA will consider splitting off its relatively safe municipal-bond insurance business from its rotten structured-finance business—something regulators have been pressing for in a bid to keep states and cities from having to pay much higher interest rates on their debt.

It isn’t clear why the firm is turning to its ex-chief now. The Journal and the NYT say his first tenure was marked by the move into the mortgage-securities realm that now has the company in so much trouble. Here’s the NYT, whose story is by far the best:

But other people familiar with MBIA’s business said they were puzzled by Mr. Brown’s appointment, given that he was either chief executive, chairman or both from 1999 to 2007, when the company aggressively wrote insurance policies on risky mortgage-related securities.
“This is back to the future,” said Leon J. Karvelis Jr., a former MBIA executive who worked at the company for 15 years before leaving in 1997. “I am sort of mystified by this move. I would have thought they would bring in new blood.
“We’re talking here about the guy who presided over the decision to move into structured finance, which has gotten this company into so much trouble.”

Whatever he did in the past, this guy’s a believer. The NYT says Brown sold some of his prized sports cars to buy MBIA stock three weeks ago.

The WSJ has some great reporting today in its A1 story on big retailers throwing their weight around against shoplifting suspects. In a process called civil recovery, retailers can harass suspects—even ones who have proven they are innocent—with lawsuit threats, demanding $200 or more to cover their theft-prevention costs.

But people targeted describe a humiliating and intimidating process, with no way to resist short of hiring a lawyer, a costly step few are able to take. Once a person’s name is turned over to a collection firm, he or she is dunned with letters and often phone calls, which refer to lawsuits and sheriff’s visits and sometimes multiply the penalty by demanding “pre-litigation” legal fees…

The Journal’s done good work raising an issue with which we weren’t familiar, and with which we hope you weren’t either.

In economic news, HP turned in a solid quarter on overseas sales and raised its outlook for the year, though it said sales of its personal computers are slowing. The company’s board authorized a $3.3 billion share buyback because it thinks its stock price is cheap.

Wal-Mart posted a better-than-expected or right-on-target profit increase, depending on whether you believe Reuters or the WSJ. Sales at existing stores were up just 1.7 percent from a year ago, well below the rate of inflation.

And in the shaken, auction-rate securities market, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey—in the news last week when its interest payments rose more than four-fold because of a market freeze—has better news this week. It’s interest payments dropped to 8 percent from 20 percent last week, but that’s still up from 4.3 percent before the crisis hit. Still, Bloomberg quotes an analyst saying the ARS market is still mostly not functioning.

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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.