USA Today: US print newspapers break-ups without financial support

Gannett, publisher of USA Today and dozens of other newspapers, became the latest to unveil its plan, splitting its print and broadcast operations into two separate units in a move to ‘sharpen’ the focus of each. – AFP

Washington (AFP) – Following an unprecedented series of spinoffs by major US media companies, the print news industry now faces a rocky future without financial support from deep-pocketed parent firms.

The wave of corporate breakups comes with newspapers and magazines struggling in a transition to digital news, and shareholders of media conglomerates increasingly intolerant of the lagging print segment.

Gannett, publisher of USA Today and dozens of other newspapers, became the latest to unveil its plan, splitting its print and broadcast operations into two separate units in a move to “sharpen” the focus of each.

This follows the recently completed spinoff by Tribune Co. of its newspaper group, which includes the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, and Time Warner’s separation of its magazine publishing group Time Inc.

Two other newspaper groups, EW Scripps and Journal Communications, announced last month they would merge and then spin off their combined newspaper operations while creating a separate entity focused on broadcasting and digital media.

The trend arguably took hold last year with Rupert Murdoch’s split of his empire into separate firms focused on media-entertainment and publishing — 21st Century Fox and the newly structured News Corp.

– ‘Cast out of house’ –

The wave of spinoffs “certainly plays into the perception that these are children being cast out of the house by their parents,” said Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project.

Newspapers were snapped up by media groups in an era when print was hugely profitable, but other segments of the media conglomerates are now driving profits, such as local television.

“The market doesn’t think much of the newspaper industry’s future,” Jurkowitz said.

Industry consultant Alan Mutter argues that publicly traded newspaper firms still produce an average profit margin of 16 percent, higher than that of Walmart and Amazon.

But Mutter said on his blog that profits and newsroom staffing have taken a huge hit in recent years, and that newspapers have failed to do enough in the digital arena.

“Rather than reliably ‘owning’ their audiences as they once did in print, the internal metrics at every newspaper show an increasing dependence on the likes of Google, Facebook and Twitter to generate the traffic that is the lifeblood of any media enterprise,” he said.

Dan Kennedy, a journalism professor at Northeastern University, said newspapers are recovering from the negative impact of earlier corporate tie-ups.

“It’s really corporate debt and the expectations of Wall Street that have done as much to damage the newspapers business as Craigslist,” Kennedy told AFP.

“Newspaper margins are still pretty good. And when you have newspapers owned by private companies without debt, some of them are doing pretty well.”

Some analysts say that the breakup of big media firms may force publishers to create ways to connect with readers online. “The real problem with newspaper industry has not been with the dead tree part, it is the failure to monetize the digital eyeballs,” Jurkowitz said.

“Unless there is an increase in digital revenue streams it’s hard to imaging them getting out of the situation they are in.”

The industry is closely watching the efforts of newspapers like the New York Times, which is experimenting with new digital access plans, and the Washington Post, which under new owner Jeff Bezos has boosted online readership to record highs.

– ‘Not the death phase’ –

Kennedy said that while newspapers may be profitable and an important part of the community, they may not be able to meet Wall Street’s expectations for growth.

“It’s not a growing business,” Kennedy said.

Private owners can still keep the business in the black, said Kennedy, citing the record of Boston Globe’s new owner, sports magnate John Henry.

But he said that newspapers need to make considerable investments “to make a smart transition to digital” in the coming years.

Peter Copeland, a former Scripps Howard News Service editor and general manager who now is a media consultant, said the breakups are logical and generally positive for newspapers.

“It’s better for the newspapers and TV to be separate,” Copeland said. “They were never a match. They are very different businesses.”

Now, he said the owners “will be able to focus 100 percent on the newspapers.”

Copeland said newspapers may end up severing their corporate ties and going back to their roots of local and private ownership.

“Newspapers always had difficulty” being part of corporate empires, said Copeland.

“I think newspapers are entering another phase. It’s not the death phase, it’s just another phase in the life cycle.” – AFP

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China critics ‘doomed to failure’

BEIJING (AFP) – China on Monday warned its critics they were “doomed to failure” as Beijing confirmed that Premier Wen Jiabao’s family had employed lawyers to help fight The New York Times.

“There are always some voices in the world who do not want to see China develop and become stronger and they will try any means to smear China and Chinese leaders and try to sow instability in China,” said foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei.

“Your scheme is doomed to failure,” he added. The official was responding to questions about Wen’s decision to hire lawyers to fight claims published by The New York Times last week that his family had owned assets worth $2.7 billion.

“Premier Wen Jiabao’s family has entrusted lawyers to release a statement and will continue to clarify the report,” the spokesman said.

The South China Morning Post on Sunday printed a statement from Wen’s lawyers, saying it was the first time a top Chinese leader had issued a rebuttal to a foreign media report.

Friday’s New York Times article came at an especially sensitive time for China, as the Communist Party strives to clean house before a pivotal once-in-a-decade handover of power next month.

Detailing a string of deals, the Times said many relatives of the government’s number two – a self-styled man of the people – had become “extraordinarily wealthy” during his years in office. Investments by Wen’s son, wife and others spanning the banking, jewellery and telecom sectors were worth at least $2.7 billion according to an analysis of company and regulatory filings from 1992-2012, it said. – AFP

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Gu Kailai: High flying lawyer turned murder accused

As a high-flying international lawyer married to one of China’s most promising and charismatic politicians and with a son at Harvard, Gu Kailai appeared to have it all. Now she is on trial for murder.

China Official’s Wife Doesn’t Deny Killing Briton

This frame grab taken from CCTV video shows Gu Kailai, the wife of Chinese politician Bo Xilai, facing the court during her murder trial in Hefei, Aug. 9, 2012. (CCTV/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom)

As a high-flying international lawyer married to one of China’s most promising and charismatic politicians and with a son at Harvard, Gu Kailai appeared to have it all. Now she is on trial for murder.

Since her detention earlier this year on suspicion of poisoning a British businessman a new picture has emerged of an at times volatile woman with a troubled childhood and a reported history of depression.

The daughter of a renowned general, Gu, like her husband Bo Xilai, is a so-called princeling — an elite group in Communist China whose family background has given them influence and privilege not enjoyed by most.

Like Bo, she studied at the prestigious Peking University, although the pair did not meet until 1984, while she was on a research trip near the eastern city of Dalian, where he had taken a post as a local party secretary.

“He was very much like my father, that sort of extremely idealistic person,” Gu, 53, told the Southern Weekend, a local weekly, in an interview published in 2009, recalling her first encounter with Bo.

“He lived in a small dirty room. He offered me an apple before telling me about his ideas.”

They married two years later and in 1987 had a son, Bo Guagua, who attended one of Britain’s most prestigious private schools, Harrow, followed by Oxford University and a postgraduate degree at Harvard.

She began work as a lawyer the same year the boy was born, later setting up her own firm and winning plaudits as the first Chinese attorney to successfully challenge a legal decision in US courts — an experience she recounted in two books that became bestsellers in her home country.

Ed Byrne, an American lawyer who worked with Gu, recalled her as “smart, charismatic, attractive”. “I was very impressed with her,” he said in a television interview.

As her husband’s political career took off, Gu gave up the law, a sacrifice to which Bo paid tribute at a press conference in March that was to prove one of his last appearances before the couple vanished from public view in April.

He described her as a stay-at-home mother who had given up a promising career to take care of her family, and hit out at allegations — which at that stage were not yet public — that he said had been made against her.

Details that have emerged in recent months of Gu’s life with Bo, however, suggest that his portrayal of a humble housewife was far from the reality.

She is reported to have spent several years in Britain while her son was at school there — a place arranged by Neil Heywood, the 41-year-old Briton she is charged with murdering after their business relationship went sour.

While in Britain, she stayed at the most expensive hotels and enjoyed access to a private jet owned by a billionaire friend, according to sources quoted in the New York Times.

Such privilege will have offered scant preparation for a life in jail — experts in the Chinese legal system say she is likely to be sentenced to around 15 years — although Gu’s life had not always been so comfortable.

During the Cultural Revolution her parents were detained and her four sisters sent to the countryside for re-education, forcing her to drop out of school and scrape a living variously as a construction worker, a butcher and a lute player.

State news agency Xinhua has said the evidence against Gu and her co-accused, a family aide, is “irrefutable” and suggested she was acting to protect her son from unidentified threats by Heywood.

This has been seen as a possible mitigating factor in her sentencing, along with the bouts of depression that she reportedly suffered in recent years.

Source: AFP

American drone wars and state secrecy!

How Barack Obama became a hardliner?

 He was once a liberal law professor who campaigned against the Iraq war. Now, according to revelations last week, the US president personally oversees a ‘kill list’ for drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan. Then there’s the CIA renditions, increased surveillance and a crackdown on whistleblowers. No wonder Washington insiders are likening him to ‘George W Bush on steroids

Barack Obama

The revelation that Barack Obama keeps a ‘kill list’ of people to be targeted by drones has led to criticism from former supporters. Photograph: Carolyn Kaster/AP

Amos Guiora knows all about the pitfalls of targeted assassinations, both in terms of legal process and the risk of killing the wrong people or causing civilian casualties. The University of Utah law professor spent many years in the Israel Defence Forces, including time as a legal adviser in the Gaza Strip where such killing strikes are common. He knows what it feels like when people weigh life-and-death decisions.

Yet Guiora – no dove on such matters – confessed he was “deeply concerned” about President Barack Obama‘s own “kill list” of terrorists and the way they are eliminated by missiles fired from robot drones around the world. He believes US policy has not tightly defined how people get on the list, leaving it open to legal and moral problems when the order to kill leaves Obama’s desk. “He is making a decision largely devoid of external review,” Guiroa told the Observer, saying the US’s apparent methodology for deciding who is a terrorist is “loosey goosey”.

Indeed, newspaper revelations last week about the “kill list” showed the Obama administration defines a militant as any military-age male in the strike zone when its drone attacks. That has raised the hackles of many who saw Obama as somehow more sophisticated on terrorism issues than his predecessor, George W Bush. But Guiora does not view it that way. He sees Obama as the same as Bush, just much more enthusiastic when it comes to waging drone war. “If Bush did what Obama has been doing, then journalists would have been all over it,” he said.

But the “kill list” and rapidly expanded drone programme are just two of many aspects of Obama’s national security policy that seem at odds with the expectations of many supporters in 2008. Having come to office on a powerful message of breaking with Bush, Obama has in fact built on his predecessor’s national security tactics.

Obama has presided over a massive expansion of secret surveillance of American citizens by the National Security Agency. He has launched a ferocious and unprecedented crackdown on whistleblowers. He has made more government documents classified than any previous president. He has broken his promise to close down the controversial Guantánamo Bay prison and pressed on with prosecutions via secretive military tribunals, rather than civilian courts. He has preserved CIA renditions. He has tried to grab broad new powers on what defines a terrorist or a terrorist supporter and what can be done with them, often without recourse to legal process.

The sheer scope and breadth of Obama’s national security policy has stunned even fervent Bush supporters and members of the Washington DC establishment. In last week’s New York Times article that detailed the “kill list”, Bush’s last CIA director, Michael Hayden, said Obama should open the process to more public scrutiny. “Democracies do not make war on the basis of legal memos locked in a [Department of Justice] safe,” he told the newspaper.

Even more pertinently, Aaron David Miller, a long-term Middle East policy adviser to both Republican and Democratic administrations, delivered a damning verdict in a recent issue of Foreign Policy magazine. He wrote bluntly: “Barack Obama has become George W Bush on steroids.”

Many disillusioned supporters would agree. Jesselyn Radack was a justice department ethics adviser under Bush who became a whistleblower over violations of the legal rights of “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh. Now Radack works for the Government Accountability Project, defending fellow whistleblowers. She campaigned for Obama, donated money and voted for him. Now she has watched his administration – which promised transparency and whistleblower protection – crack down on national security whistleblowers.

It has used the Espionage Act – an obscure first world war anti-spy law – six times. That is more such uses in three years than all previous presidents combined. Cases include John Kiriakou, a CIA agent who leaked details of waterboarding, and Thomas Drake, who revealed the inflated costs of an NSA data collection project that had been contracted out. “We did not see this coming. Obama has led the most brutal crackdown on whistleblowers ever,” Radack said.

Yet the development fits in with a growing level of secrecy in government under Obama. Last week a report by the Information Security Oversight Office revealed 2011 had seen US officials create more than 92m classified documents: the most ever and 16m more than the year before. Officials insist much of the growth is due to simple administrative procedure, but anti-secrecy activists are not convinced. Some estimates put the number of documents wrongly classified as secret at 90%.

“We are seeing the reversal of the proper flow of information between the government and the governed. It is probably the fundamental civil liberties issue of our time,” said Elizabeth Goitein, a national security expert at the Brennan Centre for Justice. “The national security establishment is getting bigger and bigger.”

One astonishing example of this lies high in the mountain deserts of Utah. This is the innocuously named Utah Data Centre being built for the NSA near a tiny town called Bluffdale. When completed next year, the heavily fortified $2bn building, which is self-sufficient with its own power plant, will be five times the size of the US Capitol in Washington DC. It will house gigantic servers that will store vast amounts of data from ordinary Americans that will be sifted and mined for intelligence clues. It will cover everything from phone calls to emails to credit card receipts.

Yet the UDC is just the most obvious sign of how the operations and scope of the NSA has grown since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Under Bush, a key part was a secret “warrantless wiretapping” programme that was scrapped when it was exposed. However, in 2008 Congress passed a bill that effectively allowed the programme to continue by simply legalising key components. Under Obama, that work has intensified and earlier this year a Senate intelligence committee extended the law until 2017, which would make it last until the end of any Obama second term.

“Obama did not reverse what Bush did, he went beyond it. Obama is just able to wrap it up in a better looking package. He is more liberal, more eloquent. He does not look like a cowboy,” said James Bamford, journalist and author of numerous books about the NSA including 2008’s The Shadow Factory.

That might explain the lack of media coverage of Obama’s planned changes to a military funding law called the National Defence Authorisation Act. A clause was added to the NDAA that had such a vague definition of support of terrorism that journalists and political activists went to court claiming it threatened them with indefinite detention for things like interviewing members of Hamas or WikiLeaks. Few expected the group to win, but when lawyers for Obama refused to definitively rebut their claims, a New York judge ruled in their favour. Yet, far from seeking to adjust the NDAA’s wording, the White House is now appealing against the decision.

That hard line should perhaps surprise only the naive. “He’s expanded the secrecy regime in general,” said Radack. Yet it is the drone programme and “kill list” that have emerged as most central to Obama’s hardline national security policy. In January 2009, when Obama came to power, the drone programme existed only for Pakistan and had seen 44 strikes in five years. With Obama in office it expanded to Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia with more than 250 strikes. Since April there have been 14 strikes in Yemen alone.

Civilian casualties are common. Obama’s first strike in Yemen killed two families who were neighbours of the target. One in Pakistan missed and blew up a respected tribal leader and a peace delegation. He has deliberately killed American citizens, including the radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in September last year, and accidentally killed others, such as Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, Abdul-Rahman.

The drone operation now operates out of two main bases in the US, dozens of smaller installations and at least six foreign countries. There are “terror Tuesday” meetings to discuss targets which Obama’s campaign manager, David Axelrod, sometimes attends, lending credence to those who see naked political calculation involved.

Yet for some, politics seems moot. Obama has shown himself to be a ruthless projector of national security powers at home and abroad, but the alternative in the coming election is Republican Mitt Romney.

“Whoever gets elected, whether it’s Obama or Romney, they are going to continue this very dangerous path,” said Radack. “It creates a constitutional crisis for our country. A crisis of who we are as Americans. You can’t be a free society when all this happens in secret.”

Death from the sky

• Popularly called drones, the flying robots used by Obama are referred to as unmanned aerial vehicles by the defence industry that makes them. The air force, however, calls them RPAs, or remotely piloted aircraft, as they are flown by human pilots, just at a great distance from where they are operating.

• The US air force alone has up to 70,000 people processing the surveillance information collected from drones. This includes examining footage of people and vehicles on the ground in target countries and trying to observe patterns in their movements.

• Drones are not just used by the military and intelligence community. US Customs and Border Protection has drones patrolling land and sea borders. They are used in drug busts and to prevent illegal cross-border traffic.

• It is assumed the Pentagon alone has 7,000 or so drones at work. Ten years ago there were fewer than 50. Their origins go back to the Vietnam war and beyond that to the use of reconnaissance balloons on the battlefield.

• Last year a diplomatic crisis with Iran broke out after a sophisticated US drone, the RQ-170 Sentinel, crash-landed on Iranian soil. Iranian forces claimed it had been downed by sophisticated jamming technology.

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The Facebook Fallacy

For all its valuation, the social network is just another ad-supported site. Without an earth-changing idea, it will collapse and take down the Web.

Facebook is not only on course to go bust, but will take the rest of the ad-supported Web with it.

Given its vast cash reserves and the glacial pace of business reckonings, that will sound hyperbolic. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

At the heart of the Internet business is one of the great business fallacies of our time: that the Web, with all its targeting abilities, can be a more efficient, and hence more profitable, advertising medium than traditional media. Facebook, with its 900 million users, valuation of around $100 billion, and the bulk of its business in traditional display advertising, is now at the heart of the heart of the fallacy.

The daily and stubborn reality for everybody building businesses on the strength of Web advertising is that the value of digital ads decreases every quarter, a consequence of their simultaneous ineffectiveness and efficiency. The nature of people’s behavior on the Web and of how they interact with advertising, as well as the character of those ads themselves and their inability to command real attention, has meant a marked decline in advertising’s impact.

At the same time, network technology allows advertisers to more precisely locate and assemble audiences outside of branded channels. Instead of having to go to CNN for your audience, a generic CNN-like audience can be assembled outside CNN’s walls and without the CNN-brand markup. This has resulted in the now famous and cruelly accurate formulation that $10 of offline advertising becomes $1 online.

I don’t know anyone in the ad-Web business who isn’t engaged in a relentless, demoralizing, no-exit operation to realign costs with falling per-user revenues, or who isn’t manically inflating traffic to compensate for ever-lower per-user value.

Facebook, however, has convinced large numbers of otherwise intelligent people that the magic of the medium will reinvent advertising in a heretofore unimaginably profitable way, or that the company will create something new that isn’t advertising, which will produce even more wonderful profits. But at a forward profit-to-earnings ratio of 56 (as of the close of trading on May 21), these innovations will have to be something like alchemy to make the company worth its sticker price. For comparison, Google trades at a forward P/E ratio of 12. (To gauge how much faith investors have that Google, Facebook, and other Web companies will extract value from their users, see our recent chart.)

Facebook currently derives 82 percent of its revenue from advertising. Most of that is the desultory ticky-tacky kind that litters the right side of people’s Facebook profiles. Some is the kind of sponsorship that promises users further social relationships with companies: a kind of marketing that General Motors just announced it would no longer buy.

Facebook’s answer to its critics is: pay no attention to the carping. Sure, grunt-like advertising produces the overwhelming portion of our $4 billion in revenues; and, yes, on a per-user basis, these revenues are in pretty constant decline, but this stuff is really not what we have in mind. Just wait.

It’s quite a juxtaposition of realities. On the one hand, Facebook is mired in the same relentless downward pressure of falling per-user revenues as the rest of Web-based media. The company makes a pitiful and shrinking $5 per customer per year, which puts it somewhat ahead of the Huffington Post and somewhat behind the New York Times’ digital business. (Here’s the heartbreaking truth about the difference between new media and old: even in the New York Times’ declining traditional business, a subscriber is still worth more than $1,000 a year.) Facebook’s business only grows on the unsustainable basis that it can add new customers at a faster rate than the value of individual customers declines. It is peddling as fast as it can. And the present scenario gets much worse as its users increasingly interact with the social service on mobile devices, because it is vastly harder, on a small screen, to sell ads and profitably monetize users.

On the other hand, Facebook is, everyone has come to agree, profoundly different from the Web. First of all, it exerts a new level of hegemonic control over users’ experiences. And it has its vast scale: 900 million, soon a billion, eventually two billion (one of the problems with the logic of constant growth at this scale and speed, of course, is that eventually it runs out of humans with computers or smart phones). And then it is social. Facebook has, in some yet-to-be-defined way, redefined something. Relationships? Media? Communications? Communities? Something big, anyway.

The subtext—an overt subtext—of the popular account of Facebook is that the network has a proprietary claim and special insight into social behavior. For enterprises and advertising agencies, it is therefore the bridge to new modes of human connection.

Expressed so baldly, this account is hardly different from what was claimed for the most aggressively boosted companies during the dot-com boom. But there is, in fact, one company that created and harnessed a transformation in behavior and business: Google. Facebook could be, or in many people’s eyes should be, something similar. Lost in such analysis is the failure to describe the application that will drive revenues.

Google is an incredibly efficient system for placing ads. In a disintermediated advertising market, the company has turned itself into the last and ultimate middleman. On its own site, it controls the space where a buyer searches for a thing and where a seller hawks that thing (its keywords AdWords network). Google is also the cheapest, most efficient way to place ads anywhere on the Web (the AdSense network). It’s not a media company in any traditional sense; it’s a facilitator. It can forget the whole laborious, numbing process of selling advertising space: if a marketer wants to place an ad (that is, if it is already convinced it must advertise), the company calls Mr. Google.

And that’s Facebook’s hope, too: like Google, it wants to be a facilitator, the inevitable conduit at the center of the world’s commerce.

Facebook has the scale, the platform, and the brand to be the new Google. It only lacks the big idea. Right now, it doesn’t actually know how to embed its usefulness into world commerce (or even, really, what its usefulness is).

But Google didn’t have the big idea at the company’s founding, either. The search engine borrowed the concept of AdWords from Yahoo’s Overture network (with a lawsuit for patent infringement and settlement following). Now Google has all the money in the world to buy or license all the ideas that could makes its scale, platform, and brand pay off.

What might Facebook’s big idea look like? Well, it does have all this data. The company knows so much about so many people that its executives are sure that the knowledge must have value (see “You Are the Ad,” by Robert D. Hof, May/June 2011).

If you’re inside the Facebook galaxy (a constellation that includes an ever-expanding cloud of associated ventures) there is endless chatter about a near-utopian (but often quasi-legal or demi-ethical) new medium of marketing. “If we just … if only … when we will …” goes the conversation. If, for instance, frequent-flyer programs and travel destinations actually knew when you were thinking about planning a trip. Really we know what people are thinking about—sometimes before they know! If a marketer could identify the person who has the most influence on you … If a marketer could introduce you to someone who would relay the marketer’s message … get it? No ads, just friends! My God!

But so far, the sweeping, basic, transformative, and simple way to connect buyer to seller and then get out of the way eludes Facebook.

So the social network is left in the same position as all other media companies. Instead of being inevitable and unavoidable, it has to sell the one-off virtue of its audience like every other humper on Madison Avenue.

Here’s another worrisome point: Facebook is a company of technologists, not marketers. If you wanted to bet on someone succeeding in the marketing business, you’d bet on technologists only if they could invent some new way to sell; you wouldn’t bet on them to sell the way marketers have always sold.

But that’s what Facebook is doing, selling individual ads. From a revenue perspective, it’s an ad-sales business, not a technology company. To meet expectations—the expectations that took it public at $100 billion, the ever-more-vigilant expectations needed to sustain it at that price—it has to sell at near hyperspeed.

The growth of its user base and its ever-expanding  page views means an almost infinite inventory to sell. But the expanding supply, together with an equivocal demand, means ever-lowering costs. The math is sickeningly inevitable. Absent an earth-shaking idea, Facebook will look forward to slowing or declining growth in a tapped-out market, and ever-falling ad rates, both on the Web and (especially) in mobile. Facebook isn’t Google; it’s Yahoo or AOL.

Oh, yes … In its Herculean efforts to maintain its overall growth, Facebook will continue to lower its per-user revenues, which, given its vast inventory, will force the rest of the ad-driven Web to lower its costs. The low-level panic the owners of every mass-traffic website feel about the ever-downward movement of the cost of a thousand ad impressions (or CPM) is turning to dread, as some big sites observed as much as a 25 percent decrease in the last quarter, following Facebook’s own attempt to book more revenue.

You see where this is going. As Facebook gluts an already glutted market, the fallacy of the Web as a profitable ad medium can no longer be overlooked. The crash will come. And Facebook—that putative transformer of worlds, which is, in reality, only an ad-driven site—will fall with everybody else.

By Michael Wolff

Michael Wolff writes a column on media for the Guardian; is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair; founded Newser; and was, until October of last year, the editor of AdWeek

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Stop the banks from gambling!

The JPMorgan Chase debacle is ample reminder that banks are dangerously risking money on dubious bets with dire consequences if they are not stopped.

US giant financial services group JPMorgan Chases trading debacle which has already lost US$2bil and which threatens to raise losses to double that, will likely put pressure for greater regulation of the banking industry, not just in the United States but around the world.

That is as it should be for despite the 2008 financial crisis which resulted from bankers structuring complex and questionable credit derivatives which few understood but many bought because they believed the rating assigned them by unknowledgeable credit rating agencies, the lessons dont appear to have been learnt.

With massive US government help, many banks which were on the brink of failure were rescued and the memories of those tempestuous times when the future of not just the banks but the worlds financial system was in jeopardy seems to have faded away from public consciousness.

Until now that is.

JPMorgans debacle is but a stark reminder that little has changed since the 2008 world financial crisis in terms of how banks operate and that the world is still held to ransom by rogue traders and others who risk shareholders funds and depositors money as easily and as nonchalantly as spinning the dice on a gambling table for a few dollars.

The sad truth is that little has been done despite all the rhetoric to ensure that the predatory chase for profits by banks does not involve gambling with shareholders equity and deposits. Players still get away with massive profits and bonuses when they succeed and little more than slap on the wrist when things go wrong.

It is an indication of a financial world that has gone awry as players such as hedge funds effectively search for new games to play in a massive, borderless casino where the uninitiated are quickly gobbled up and the others play high-stakes games in which some must become major losers.

This comment by Mark Williams, a professor of finance at Boston University, who has also served as a Federal Reserve Board examiner quoted in the New York Times aptly sums up JPMorgans mistake:

JPMorgan Chase has a big hedge fund inside a commercial bank. They should be taking in deposits and making loans, not taking large speculative bets.

The trades by JPMorgan are complex to say the least and no one really seems to understand them. The New York Times reported that the complex position built by the bank included a bullish bet on an index of investment-grade corporate debt and was later paired with a bearish bet on high-yield securities.

The report further said that the trading losses suffered by JPMorgan have accelerated in recent days and have surpassed the banks initial estimate of US$2bil by at least US$1bil. Part of the reason for this is that hedge funds already know JPMorgans position is under pressure and are piling in on the opposite trade. That means the US$4bil losses anticipated may materialise sooner rather than later.

While the US$4bil loss wont threaten JP Morgans capital base, the question that must arise is what if the losses were much bigger and they could well have been. JPMorgan would most likely be considered one of those banks that cant fail and would have been rescued by the US government.

To stop exactly such situations, the Obama administration had put up the Volcker Rule named after former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker who helped formulate it but the legislation is still being hammered out. The rule basically seeks to prohibit banks from trading for their own account.

But there are exceptions and these allow banks to aggregate their positions and offset their exposures in a single hedge. Some feel that JPMorgans so-called hedge an oxymoron in this instance as it hedged nothing falls into that category but others dont.

For most of us, the solution is quite simple and straightforward if you are a bank and you take depositors money, you got no business speculating using that money, especially since you also have access to low-cost funds from the Fed and elsewhere by virtue of being a bank.

But it is an election year in the US and the silly season of course, much like it is here.

Remember, free enterprise and the capitalist system on which the US is built. You cant restrict free enterprise, the reasoning goes, even if it is your money the bank is using.

Big business has big money and they are using that to try and put Mitt Romney into the White House. If that happens, then it may well be bye-bye to banking sector reform which would be bad for the United States and the world.

New York Times columnist and renowned economist Paul Krugman was very blunt in his analysis of the JPMorgan debacle at the end of which he basically thanked JPMorgan Chases chief executive Jamie Dimon for confirming that the banking sector needs greater regulation.

Krugman, an unashamed and unabashed Democrat, has been one of those opinion makers who has been consistently calling for greater regulation of the US financial sector in the wake of world financial crisis.

JPMorgan, relatively unscathed by the world financial crisis sparked off by the subprime crisis but now in trouble through a trade engineered by a trader in London known as The Whale, is a timely reminder that little has been done to stop the recurrence of another world financial crisis.

Let us take heed before it is too late.


Independent consultant and writer P Gunasegaram sometimes thinks that the financial world is just one whole, big, casino of unimagined proportions. The trouble is no one knows who owns it.

Related posts:

 How will JPMorgan’s $2 billion loss affect American banking rules? Senior executives to leave!  May 16, 2012

Lehman Sues JPMorgan for Billions of Dollars in ‘Lost May 28, 2010

UK bank governor warns of eurozone crisis ‘storm’; Eurozone ‘very close to collapse’! May 17, 2012

US student Loan Crisis, an Education Bubble?

Peter J ReillyI started following the student loan crisis when I noted that student loans seemed to be neck and neck with health care as the primary grievances on the We Are The 99% site.  I was very lucky to get two pretty regular guest posters Alan Collinge and Tim Smith, who have written on the issue from different angles.  I was astonished to get a call from Sallie Mae asking me how they could get their side of the story onto  At the risk of being prosecuted for impersonating a journalist, I did a brief interview with John Remondi, President and COO of Sallie Mae.  I’m still hoping for some guest posts from Sallie Mae, but nothing has come through yet.  Sunday, I heard from Tim Smith, who let me know that the New York Times was picking up on the issue with this piece.  I invited him to share his reaction.  Here it is.

The Education Bubble Won’t Create A Disaster, Right?

“Looking back, anyone could have predicted the housing bubble.”  This sentiment has been echoed many times, and graphs of the past housing bubble almost make it seem obvious before the bubble burst.  The education bubble?  While many acknowledge the soaring cost – especially those in the education fields – fewer agree that we’re about to see the education bubble pop and create a bigger mess than the housing bubble.  Education may have its critics, but it also has major defenders.

However, the chorus seems to be changing.  Even the New York Times recently joined with an article that compared the education bubble to the housing bubble (this analogy has been used multiple times, but like the above graph shows, under predicts the mess that the education bubble will cause).  Even while other media players have finally seen this bubble, the warning signs were spelled out on this blog :

These warning signs would be favorable laws toward discharging student loans in bankruptcy (making it more challenging for students to receive money for education); a societal zeitgeist toward education changing (for instance, businesses preferring certification or a degree from something similar to the Khan Academy over traditional colleges); a major recession coming back to the United States, taking away more employment (making it more difficult for student with loans to pay back their loans); students becoming discouraged by negative news toward education (causing many to drop out or to avoid college).
Of course, some readers might wonder if all four signs must appear for the education bubble to pop, and the answer is “No”.

Even though the education bubble has received attention, few expect the consequences to be bad.  In fact, the Times’ article mentions that economists don’t see the consequences being similar to the housing bubble – in other words, the education bubble pops, and everything is fine.  Consider the potential reality:

1.      High student loan balances discourage future and current demand for other products and services (consider the attitude, for instance, of Natalia Antonova, who faced a debt crisis with her student loans).  This subtracts money flow from the economy to provide jobs in other areas.  Even without the bubble popping, this is the current situation.
2.      If the demand for education drops, the consequences will affect those in the education system – schools will need fewer professors, advisors and others in the education field.  This will create a terrible job hunting situation, where graduates will be placed against high-credentialed people (some of whom may have been their professors).  Remember that in order to keep these people employed, the demand for education must remain the same or rise.
3.      If the demand for education declines, the demand for educational products will decline also – textbooks, construction, and many of the expenditures that some colleges think are necessary to provide a good education.  This drop in demand will cause business, which sell products and services to educational institutions, to cut back on their staff to offset their losses.
There is one way in which economists might be right – if wages began to soar.  Like the housing bubble, Americans felt the mess because the decline in housing prices meant that debt was owed on something that had little value.  If education continues to rise, while wages stagnate or slowly rise, a college degree will be like a home, which has lost its value.  If wages soar, however, a college degree will still mean the path to prosperity.

Tim Smith blogs on the “Echo Boom”, also known as Generation Y (Americans born between 1980 – 1995). Tim has previously appeared here discussing his generation’s attitude towards homeownership and education.

I’m beginning to think that the “bubble” metaphor may not work that well for education.  In the case of the stock market and real estate people own assets that they think they can sell at any time for some minimum price.  Then something happens and everybody heads for the door at once.  At that point the seeds of the next bubble are sown, because the assets have some level of intrinsic value and somebody will buy them for something and may get rich on the next turn of the wheel.  Educational credentials, on the other hand, are not at all fungible.  They can only be cash flowed, not liquidated.  If they are not used when fairly fresh, their value erodes rather quickly.  The actual economic value of the credential will often be quickly replaced by the experience which the credential enables.

By Peter J Reilly, Forbes Contributor  Newscribe : get free news in real time

Related posts:
American mounting student loans a ‘debt bomb’ waiting to explode! Inside America’s Student Loan Bubble!
American Student Loan Debt: $1 Trillion and Counting
America, a “Generation of Sissies”
A “great haircut” for U.S. growth

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