Eurozone, no bailout zone: So it looks like Greece will be supported and stopped from defaulting on its €270 billion of debt, who will be next? Moody’s, the ratings agency says AAA-rated countries such as Germany, France, the UK, the US, Sweden and Japan face problems, with the UK and US facing particular problems of having a big drop in output, huge government borrowings and a weak recovery. The European Commission has fingered the UK (outside the bailout zone), urging the Brown Labour government to outline further spending cuts and spell out where the axe will fall. Spain, Italy and Portugal are in the zone and will be watching the Greek deal very closely. Economists say that to meet its own austerity program, Greece is facing a a 4% fall in GDP this year, not the 1.3% to 3% of previous estimates. That will increase debt a bit faster than thought band increase the deficit as well.

No bailout, but Greece wants money: Although no money was mentioned by the finance ministers, The Financial Times says Greece wants to cut the cost of financing its €270 billion public debt by through a €25 billion stand-by facility of loans and guarantees. “Bankers say it is important for the Greeks to reduce their borrowing costs or cutting the budget deficit may prove extremely difficult. This year, for example, the Greeks have paid a rough average of 6% on the €13 billion of new bonds issued in the markets. This compares with an average of about 4.5% last year. ” An extra 1.5 percentage points on Greece’s €270 billion of outstanding bonds works out at €4 billion a year in extra interest costs — equivalent to about 1.6 percentage points of gross domestic product. The FT said the need for a support package is growing: “It has to roll over €8.2 billion of debt on April 20 and another €1.3 billion three days later.” Excuse me for being cynical, but this sounds like a revolving credit and bailout.

Lehman Brothers auditors’ woes: According to the Wall Street Journal, Lehman Brothers sacked whistle blower Matthew Lee just weeks after he had raised concerns with Lehman’s auditor about the firm’s accounting in 2008. The paper said on Tuesday that Lee, a former senior vice-president, finance division, in charge of global balance sheet and legal entity accounting, was let go in late June 2008 amid steep losses at the firm as it tried to wade through the global financial crisis, the paper said. He was sacked as part of cost cutting. The WSJ reported that Lee had raised concerns with Lehman’s auditor Ernst & Young about the firm’s accounting practices. The WSJ said that on June 12, 2008 Lee informed Ernst & Young about Lehman’s use of $50 billion of Repo 105 transactions in the second quarter of 2008, the paper said. Last week a the court-appointed examiner said Lehman used accounting tricks and had been insolvent for weeks before it filed for bankruptcy in September 2008.

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Another private equity triumph: The GEON Group is Australasia’s largest printer, claims more than 1250 staff and annual revenues of about $300 million. GEON is a privately owned company, majority backed by Gresham Private Equity, alongside private shareholders and staff. Last year, though, was not a signal year: a refinancing of its debts last year saw write-downs of good will and losses, in fact more red ink than a high-class printer would be happy with. Book value was cut by about 50%n to $121 million after revenue slid 12% to $335 million and an operating loss of $55 million. Topline loss was $140 million after the write-downs. It lost $30 million in 2008. Gresham had to put in more loans and guarantees to keep its banks happy (the Bank of Scotland, mostly). Debt remains a daunting $302 million.

Blame the snow, again. February’s big storms in eastern US saw new home starts fall 5.9% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 575,000. Starts were down in the north-east and south, but up in the mid-west and west. Most of the decline in February was in the hugely volatile multi-family sector where banks are still not lending money. Construction of single-family homes fell 0.6% to a 499,000 annual rate, while building of large units and apartment buildings plunged 43%. Housing starts were up 0.2% compared with February 2009, and about 75% down from the all time high in 2006. Building permits, which aren’t affected by weather events, fell 1.6% to 612,000 in February. January’s starts pace was revised higher to 611,000 from 591,000 previously reported.

Bulgari loses sparkle: In 2008, the Italian luxury jeweller Bulgari made a profit of €83 million ($A124 million). In 2009 it lost €47 million  as sales dropped almost 14% to €926.6 million. The company, trying to put a spin on its experience, pointed out that first quarter 2009 sales fell more than 30%, and this had improved by the December quarter to a drop of just 2.7%. Sales in Europe fell 16.7%, 31.6% in the Americas and 23% in Japan. But in the rest of the world, led by Asia and the Middle East, sales were up 12%. Sales at Bulgari stores “only” dropped 3.3% in 2009, the rest of the slump came as other retailers purged themselves of high-priced unwanted goods, such as Bulgari’s jewellery. Already in 2010, the company has seen a rise, compared with the miserable early months of 2009, which is understandable given the 30% drop a year ago.

Hole in one: So let’s have no jokes about playing the 19th hole, etc. Leave Tiger Woods in peace in his second coming, appropriately over Easter, when he resumes saving the global golf industry, American TV broadcasting (The Ten network here), competitive golf and the fortunes of his many departed sponsors. He’s returning in the Masters at Augusta, Georgia. His return will boost viewer numbers, if not advertising revenue, for CBS, the tournament’s broadcast television partner and the other broadcaster, the ESPN sports network owned by Disney. ESPN broadcasts the first two rounds, CBS, the final two on Saturday and Sunday. The circus has already started rolling. Watch at the famous trio of holes on the back nine called Amen Corner (holes 11, 12 and 13). Something to do besides eat eggs and buns and go to BBQs.

Banker or w-nker? Monday we reported that the grandly named Park Avenue Bank of New York was shut by regulators last Friday and sold to a rival. It was the 24th US bank to fail this year. Monday night in the US, the former CEO of the Park Avenue Bank of New York was arrested and charged with trying to defraud the regulator, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP. He is the first person to be charged with attempting to defraud the Tarp program. Normally it’s a small beer court case from the US, but this one is notable for what seems to be bare-faced effrontery on the part of Charles Antonucci, the former CEO. The US Attorney’s office for the Southern District in Manhattan said it arrested Antonucci, and charged him with self dealing, bank bribery, embezzlement of bank funds and fraud, among other charges. Antonucci is accused of trying to defraud the TARP program of more than $11 million in taxpayer money. The charges also claim that during his claim to investing $US6.5 million in new capital in the bank was in reality financed by the bank in a series of round robins. If convicted, he faces up to 30 years in prison on some of the charges.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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