Opinion

Felix Salmon

The brilliant Joe Weisenthal

Felix Salmon
May 10, 2012 14:38 UTC

Binyamin Appelbaum has delivered a 3,000-word day in the life of Joe Weisenthal for the NYT Magazine, complete with 18-page slideshow. (“7:06 am: Weisenthal catches the 6 train uptown from his apartment at the edge of the Financial district to the Business Insider offices in the Flatiron District.”) Nothing in the piece will come as any surprise to anybody who follows @TheStalwart on Twitter, although I think that Appelbaum doesn’t quite nail the way in which Twitter allows Joe to keep up a running self-deprecating meta-commentary on how crazy the job is that he’s given himself. You’ll never find a CNBC anchor, for instance, tweeting out anything like this, from this morning:

tweet.tiff

Jeffrey Goldberg nails Joe with a single tweet, saying that he “may have more shpilkes than anyone in America”. Which raises the single biggest issue I have with Appelbaum’s piece, as exemplified in his central thesis:

In the intensely competitive world of financial blogging, dominated by young men who work long hours and comment on every new development, Weisenthal stands apart by starting earlier, writing more, publishing faster.

Appelbaum is absolutely right that Weisenthal stands apart by starting earlier, writing more, publishing faster. That’s who Joe is. But he’s absolutely wrong that there’s an “intensely competitive world of financial blogging, dominated by young men who work long hours and comment on every new development”. Go on — name a single other financial blogger who fits that description. I’m waiting. There’s the anonymous group blog ZeroHedge, perhaps. But the fact is that Henry Blodget, in hiring and promoting Joe, has succeeded in identifying and harnessing and leveraging a nervous energy which has been there all along. He didn’t start with some kind of inhuman job description and then hire Joe to fill it; he found Joe and then basked in the fruits of encouraging him to simply be his natural self.

Yet again, it seems, the NYT Magazine has published a blogger profile which makes bloggers seem weird, immature, and hyperactive — the kind of profile where the subtext is that “it’s OK if you don’t care about the second-to-second noise and the personal revelations, you’re fine ignoring the blogosphere completely and getting a more considered view of things from the NYT instead”.

For instance, Applebaum devotes a large chunk of the profile to the genesis of a single tweet, which reads “DISASTER: MARCH JOBS REPORT MISSES EXPECTATIONS AT 120K (Analysts expected +205K) “. Pulling himself up to the full height of The Times, Appelbaum declares that the tweet “looks pretty silly in retrospect”, adding:

The creation of 120,000 new jobs was not a disaster by any reasonable definition. Other media outlets, some working almost as quickly as Weisenthal, chose far more modest words.

As Applebaum says, this was the first tweet about the jobs report that day — ahead of the ones saying simply “120k”. And in that ultra-fast tweet, Joe managed not only to get out the news of what the number was, he also managed to place it in the context of Wall Street expectations, explain that the number fell short of those expectations, convey the importance of the payrolls report, include a link to a live Business Insider story on the report, and do the whole thing with wry humor. Joe’s “DISASTER” was never meant to be taken literally: hyperbole is his stock in trade, he loves it, and his audience loves him for loving it.

Business Insider is a bit like a much more honest, much funnier version of CNBC: while other media outlets still work within a tradition of self-importantly handing down the news on engraved stone tablets, TBI is much less reverent — about the news, about itself, about anything really. At its heart, the part of TBI that Joe runs is basically color commentary on the markets — sometimes fast, sometimes clever, sometimes stupid, sometimes profane. It doesn’t matter, so long as it isn’t boring.

If you care about the markets, this kind of coverage is exactly what you want. Dry reports saying that this went up and that went down are a waste of time: if you wanted to just know what was up and what was down, you could simply look at the numbers yourself much more easily. And quotes from analysts and strategists aren’t much better: their main interest is in looking considered and intelligent, which means that they self-censor and tend to produce boring banalities. TBI, by having no equity in being right, gets to enjoy itself, and reflect the manic energy of a trading floor and the kind of attention span those traders have.

Appelbaum does praise Joe, too: he has nice things to say about this post, from November, for instance. Here’s Appelbaum’s précis of what Joe wrote:

In a post last November titled “Everyone Is Wrong About What Is Driving the Market These Days,” Weisenthal reproduced a Google search showing a slew of articles describing the stock market as “headline-driven,” meaning that prices were responding to the latest news. Then he showed a chart he created illustrating the close relationship between movements in stock prices and a basic economic indicator.

“So it’s a ‘headline-driven market’?” he wrote. “Nah, not really. . . . The market is just moving with the fundamentals, week in and week out. The headlines are mostly a distraction.”

That’s 95 words. The post itself is 62 words long.

A large part of Joe’s genius is that he writes short better than anybody else in the business. The NYT Magazine, of all places, with its one-page magazine feature, should value that. Writing short is what gives Joe’s blog posts punch, that’s what explains how Twitter is such a natural medium for him, and that’s why Blodget values him more highly than any other writer at TBI. I only wish I were better at learning from him myself.

COMMENT

I like how this post uses examples of what’s wrong, sad, stupid, and shallow about the current state of business journalism – not just Weisenthal – and turns them into examples of why it’s all just so great.

A self-mocking CNBC that’s not invested in getting things right. Beautiful.

Posted by DanMitchell | Report as abusive

Why is an FT subscription so expensive?

Felix Salmon
May 3, 2012 00:22 UTC

Wired has a big article on A/B testing this month, which makes a good point:

Today, A/B is ubiquitous, and one of the strange consequences of that ubiquity is that the way we think about the web has become increasingly outdated. We talk about the Google homepage or the Amazon checkout screen, but it’s now more accurate to say that you visited a Google homepage, an Amazon checkout screen.

But it’s not just web pages that change with A/B testing, it’s prices, too. And Exhibit A in this regard is the Financial Times. Go to this page, laying out the cost of subscribing to the FT, and you could get any number of different prices. A standard online subscription in the United States, which excludes the Lex column and a handful of other extras, shows up for some people as $4.99 a week. Others see $5.39, $5.75, $5.79, or $6.25. Guan Yang reported this morning, for instance, that on his first attempt at viewing the FT page, he was given a price of $4.99; when he opened the same page in Chrome, the price was $6.25. Chrome for Windows, meanwhile, revealed a price of $5.39.

All of these prices are pre-tax, and are weekly based on an upfront annual commitment: the equivalent of those newspaper ads touting incredibly low airfaires which are “one-way based on round-trip purchase” and exclude hundreds of dollars in taxes. When I subscribed to the FT last year, they charged me an extra 8.88% in sales tax — which means that someone buying a subscription at $6.25 a week will end up seeing their credit card charged a total of $353.86.

What’s more, Rob Grimshaw, the FT managing director who sets all these prices, tells me that in fact that annual price is “heavily discounted because those customers are willing to make a longer term commitment.” That, in turn, implies that the real price of an online subscription, by Grimshaw’s measure, is $35 a month. Which, adding on sales tax, comes to $457.29 per year. And that includes no premium content at all.

By contrast, a basic online subscription to the NYT is $15 every four weeks, tax included: that’s $195 per year. And the WSJ charges $17.29 every four weeks, or $224.77 per year; it’s a bit cheaper, $207.48, if you pay by the year. It’s not the NYT which is the outlier, it’s the FT.

Even if you reload that FT page in multiple browsers on multiple operating systems and eventually get the cheapest possible $4.99 offer and pay a whole year up front, you’re still paying $282.52 for a year’s access, which is 36% more than the WSJ charges. The recommended retail price, or RRP — the default amount that the FT will charge me for renewing my subscription — is $353.86, or a 70% premium over the WSJ rate. And if I want the full FT online package, including Lex, then that’s $486.35 annually, or 2.3 times the cost of a WSJ online subscription. Alternatively, it’s $53.35 per month, which means that you end up paying more in four months than you would for a full year of the WSJ.

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that I run into the FT paywall much more often than I run into any other paywall. Grimshaw says that the problem of hitting the paywall when following links on Twitter or Facebook “was fixed some months ago and seems to be working well”; I’d beg to differ. He also says, more encouragingly, that there will be social login later this year, which will allow non-subscribers to view a (very) limited number of articles by logging in with their Twitter or Facebook accounts, rather than having to set up and remember an FT-specific username and password.

But I fear that so long as the FT keeps up this super-premium pricing strategy, it’s going to wind up chasing local maxima. Here’s how the Wired article puts it:

A/B tests might create the best possible outcome within narrow constraints—instead of pursuing real breakthroughs. Google’s Scott Huffman cites this as one of the greatest dangers of a testing-oriented mentality: “One thing we spend a lot of time talking about is how we can guard against incrementalism when bigger changes are needed.”

If you test lots of prices for your FT subscription, it makes sense that the higher the subscription price, the higher the revenues generated, and the higher the publisher’s profits. Most of the FT’s subscribers have very little price sensitivity: either they’re on expense accounts, or they’re incredibly rich, or their subscriptions are handled by some kind of support staff and they never even know how much they’re paying. In that world, it makes sense to raise the RRP as much as possible, since the RRP is the rate that all renewals get charged at, and most renewals are automatic. Even if the amount stands out on some expense report and eyebrows get raised, the FT, by policy, won’t refund the payment. “We do not provide refunds to customers who wish to cancel their subscription mid-term but the subscription will remain valid until the term of the subscription expires” is how Grimshaw puts it in the official FT email.

The result is that the FT’s readership will slowly drift further and further away from the 99% — something which has to affect its journalism at some point. When real people look at the price of an FT subscription, they’ll have much the same reaction as they do when they look at the prices at Cipriani. They won’t just refuse to pay, they’ll take away the understanding that the FT was never written for them in the first place, and that the readership of the FT is a chummy group of of rich people who probably like the exclusivity that a high entrance price provides. It’s like the membership fees at exclusive golf clubs, designed more to keep the middle class out than to actually pay for any particular service.

And while it’s possible to make the case that the global 1% is big enough and rich enough to comfortably support a publication like the FT, it’s dangerous to chase that demographic too assiduously, to the exclusion of everybody else. If you want to be a newspaper rather than a newsletter, you have to aspire to being more than a service vehicle for bankers.

After all, it’s pretty much impossible to make the case that the journalism in the FT — the product being paid for — is so better than the journalism in the WSJ or NYT that it’s worth twice as much money. Especially when much of the best FT journalism is still free, on Alphaville and Martin Wolf’s Economists’ Forum.

What’s more, at least for readers in the US, the FT isn’t remotely comprehensive enough to suffice as a one-stop shop for business news. The FT has some fantastic content, but it needs to be read in addition to, rather than instead of, the NYT / WSJ / Reuters / Bloomberg. As a result, you need to be really price-insensitive to buy it: you can get access to all four of those sources online for less than the price of a single premium FT subscription. When a five-course meal costs twice as much as a four-course meal, you generally go with the four courses.

And as I can attest, because news is social, you don’t end up reading the FT very much even after you’ve paid through the nose for your subscription. I read news which is shared with me, and the people in my social circles don’t share FT stories all that often. In turn, I want to read news I can share, and it’s very hard to share FT stories, since I can’t assume that the people in my social circles, or the people reading Counterparties, have FT subscriptions.

This I think is the real problem with the FT’s pricing strategy. In the old world, the more you charged for a subscription, the more it was valued, and the more your journal was read by its subscribers. In the social world, the more you charge for a subscription, the less it gets read by its subscribers. As a result, the amount I end up paying per story that I read becomes enormous. I kinda wish the FT had a ticker, like the NYT did at one point, telling me how many stories I’ve read this month. It would give me some kind of masochistic thrill, working out what vast sum I was paying per article. Either way, over the long term, the marginal cost of reading an FT article will become so high that even business-news junkies like myself won’t be able to justify it any more.

On the other hand, there could be a silver lining here. The FT’s pricing doesn’t make sense as a long-term strategy: it makes new-customer acquisition extremely difficult, and it only serves to remove the FT ever further from the minds of the global professionals it really wants to reach. As a short-term revenue-maximization strategy, on the other hand, charging people as much as $640 a year for an online-only subscription makes all the sense in the world. And if Pearson intends to sell the FT in the next year or two, it would surely love to be able to point to healthy profits and cashflows as a way of justifying some enormous purchase price.

I’m going to hold out hope, then, that the FT’s prices are a temporary aberration, a way of extracting some huge sum from potential buyers. I don’t really think that the FT will ultimately end up being sold on some multiple of profits or cashflows, but those things can never hurt when you’re deep in negotiations. Once the FT is finally sold, to Thomson Reuters or to somebody else, its subscription price will be able to revert to reality. But it’s not going to come down before then.

Update: My commenters have worked out that if you really want a cheap FT subscription, you can get one for less than $50 if you live in India, and you’re more than welcome to pay with a foreign credit card. This actually works, it seems, for people with VPNs.

COMMENT

Does this “Indian” VPN thing no longer work? I subscribed to the above-mentioned Witopia VPN service and switched my location to New Delhi. I’m still getting offered pretty much the same rates. What am I doing wrong? Thanks for your help.

Posted by jacquesnorris | Report as abusive

When is a scoop non-public information?

Felix Salmon
Apr 25, 2012 21:36 UTC

Many thanks to everybody who responded to my provocation yesterday, where I suggested that the NYT could sell advance access to its stories. John Gapper summed it up well, in a tweet: “If scoops don’t matter to most readers, as the digerati claim,” he said, it’s logical to sell them to those who do value them. Which, in this case, would be hedge-funds capable of front-running the news and making a profit when the news moves markets.

In a sense, there’s something very economically inefficient about scoops like this one. The NYT story came out in the middle of the weekend, when markets were closed; when they opened on Monday morning, both Walmart and Walmex had billions of dollars shaved off their market capitalizations, but no one was given the opportunity to short those stocks at their prior level. After many months of diligent and valuable work on this story, one would think that a genuinely capitalist economy wouldn’t just leave money on the table like that. After all, buy-side institutions pay millions of dollars to analysts who research companies like Walmart in depth; isn’t that exactly what the NYT was doing?

For years, short-sellers have briefed journalists when they find out something damning about a company: think of Jim Chanos, for instance, putting Bethany McLean on to Enron and other companies. More recently, a group of people ranging from Mark Cuban to John Hempton to Muddy Waters to Anonymous Analytics has merged the shorting and the reporting functions, putting on short positions before releasing their own research on a company in the hope of seeing that company’s shares fall as a result.

But while the world doesn’t seem to have blinked very much at shorts helping reporters, there’s a much more visceral opposition to the idea that reporters might ever help shorts. If the NYT were to give any hedge fund an advance peek at its reporting, goes the argument, well, that would be bad.

The journalism-ethics angle to this hasn’t really been fleshed out, though. Mathew Ingram, for instance, says that if news is being put out in the public service, then it shouldn’t be “just another commodity”; if the NYT were to go down this road, then “that would make it a very different type of entity than it is now”. It’s all very vague and hand-wavey.

The Epicurean Dealmaker, in the comments to my post, is a bit more on point:

Why in God’s name would you want to give the reporters and editors of the New York Times even more of an incentive to break market-moving news. Surely you know there are many sides to any story; emphasis is critical. Why would news consumers trust editors and journalists who could directly profit by making a complicated story just a little more controversial, by shading facts and presentation to put a company in a worse light, by selectively releasing (or suppressing) information? Newspapers like the Times have always relied on a not quite accurate but nevertheless crucial image of impartiality for their authority. This would disappear if they were seen to be tools of Steve Cohen or Ken Griffin.

The fact is that the reporters and editors of the NYT already have an incentive to break market-moving news. Talk to pretty much any business reporter, and they’ll tell you the same thing: the story everybody wants to get is the scoop which moves markets. If you develop a reputation as someone who can get those scoops with any regularity, you’ll rise far and fast. It’s not uncommon for business news services to even put out charts of a stock price, showing when a story came out and what happened to the price after it did. Those charts can mean real money in terms of new subscriptions, and also in terms of pay rises for the journalists in question.

So journalists already indirectly profit from moving markets, and my suggestion was that the relationship should remain indirect: the NYT would sell advance access to its feature stories as a package, ex ante, just like other high-end news services. If a hedge fund wanted to pay a very large amount of money for that package, then it could then do with the information as it wished. But in any case if the hedge fund wanted information to flow the other way, and wanted to influence the NYT’s journalists at all, then it would have to do that the old-fashioned way, just like Chanos did with McLean.

But the real problem with my idea, it turns out, has nothing to do with journalistic ethics at all. Instead, it’s the insider-trading rules of markets around the world.

I wrote about insider-trading rules back in 2008, and came to the conclusion that while I wouldn’t necessarily implement such laws if they didn’t exist, I’m not a huge fan of abolishing them, either. Certainly there are well-formed arguments why insider-trading laws should be abolished, but let’s ignore the philosophical arguments for the time being: they haven’t been abolished, they’ve been in force since the 1960s, and everybody has to abide by them.

And the effect of substantially all insider-trading laws is to, in effect, ban precisely the kind of thing I’m suggesting, where a small group of people can take advantage of information asymmetries to make money. The way that most (but not all) stock markets are set up, the ideal is a level playing field, where all players get exactly the same information at exactly the same time, and then act accordingly; attempts to act on information before it’s public are criminalized.

One thing that both the ethical and the legal approaches have in common, however, is the concept of “public information”: both of them object to my idea because the NYT is in the business of putting out public information, and giving hedge funds advance access to that information — before the rest of the public gets a look — would in some way be fundamentally unfair.

The concept of “public information” is not a well defined one, and probably can’t be well defined. Certainly it’s not a function of price: once a piece of information hits the Bloomberg wire, it’s public, even if you need to pay Bloomberg $20,000 a year to see it. Josh Benton raises the example of Footnoted Pro, which costs $10,000 a year — but that service is explicitly based on the analysis of public information which is released to and by the SEC. Michele Leder’s product simply provides a smarter way of finding the needles in the haystack of EDGAR filings.

Is a tweet public information? Yes. Is a Facebook status update? I don’t know, but I suspect it probably isn’t. But here’s something which definitely isn’t public information: hours of interviews with a former Walmex executive detailing exactly when and where the company paid bribes.

In the comments to my post, Daniel Davies makes an impassioned argument that what I’m suggesting would almost certainly be illegal in many markets, even if it might be allowed, in some circumstances, in the US. He also says that hedge funds would never pay $1 million a year for this service. These two things are related. The value of advance notice of NYT stories, to a hedge fund, is inversely proportional to the number of other hedge funds who are also getting that advance access. And here I think is one of the key ways to distinguish between public and non-public information.

Let’s say the NYT prices the service at $100,000 per year, and you’re a hedge fund wondering whether the service is worth paying for. It’s way more than you normally pay for public information, so you’re inclined to say no. On the other hand, if everybody else makes the same calculation and you end up being the only fund to subscribe, then at that point the $100,000 might well be worth it: you could make many times that on one trade. The problem is that if you’re the only fund to subscribe, then the information can’t be considered public any more. And if it’s non-public information, then you risk putting yourself in legal jeopardy by acting on it.

In other words, if the information is public then it’s worth very little, and if it’s non-public then it might be illegal to trade on.

This also explains why it’s so common for executives to complain that what short-sellers are doing is illegal. Jim Chanos had information about Enron which was damning, and he acted on it before it was made public by Bethany McLean. That looks like material non-public information to me. What he did was legal, if he didn’t have any insider sources within the company. But McLean certainly talked to a lot of people within Enron, and she was also talking to Chanos all the while. Which raises some legal grey-area issues.

My feeling is that it would be astonishing, in practice, to see an insider-trading prosecution based on information which the New York Times Company had sold on a subscription basis. It’s the NYT’s business to sell information; doing so can’t sensibly be considered illegal. And similarly, once someone has legitimately bought that information from the NYT, it’s a bit crazy to say that they can’t act on it.

Similarly, I’d be equally astonished to see Sharesleuth, Mark Cuban’s operation, ever prosecuted for insider trading, even if they quite explicitly had sources inside the company they were reporting on. Sharesleuth’s model is not intrinsically unethical; the problem with it is rather that the model just doesn’t seem to work. Still, I’m sure that if and when it does work, the company being targeted would try extremely hard to get Cuban investigated for insider trading. And that’s almost certainly a risk that potential subscribers to any advance-news NYT product have no interest in taking.

COMMENT

“The reason that brokers cannot front run their clients is it breaches their fiduciary duties to their clients. It was illegal by common law long before it became prohibited by regulation.”

Not true. Front running of client orders has always been illegal as a breach of fiduciary duty. Front running of research notes (or non-simultaneous distribution) wasn’t even illegal until the 2000 Global Research Settlement.

“And, no one bans trading simply on the basis of its being based on NMPI.”

Yes they do. David Einhorn, for example, recently fell badly foul of the assumption that everywhere is like the USA. An analyst’s opinions (as long as they are only based on public information) can never be MNPI, because they are analysis, not information. But a newspaper’s intention to publish a story certainly looks to me like it is information, not analysis.

” Is it illegal for the NYT to put a paywall on its website because web subscribers would then receive potentially market-moving news before print subscribers?”

No; this is obvious from the existence of subscription news services like Reuters and Bloomberg. The test is simply one of whether the practice is likely to damage confidence in the market.

Posted by dsquared | Report as abusive

The problem with Netflix

Felix Salmon
Apr 24, 2012 19:32 UTC

Nick Thompson today asks whether Netflix is doomed, and gives a fantastic potted history of how the company managed to pivot from being a wonderful DVD-by-mail company to being a clumsy digital-platform play.

While I agree with Nick’s conclusion, however, that Netflix is in a very tough spot, I disagree with the way he gets there:

It’s not easy for a startup to build massive warehouses and systems for mailing discs. It is easy, however, to get into the streaming business. Yesterday, for example, we learned of a startup called NimbleTV, which plans to let you watch all the channels you subscribe to through your cable provider on your phone or your tablet…

Netflix fears that just distributing digital content is a mug’s game. Anyone can move bits around, which means that the price for doing so will just keep dropping. So it’s trying to create its own original content. But, so far at least, it’s not very good at doing so. “Lilyhammer,” a mobster show that Netflix introduced in January, has gotten killed by reviewers; I gave up on the first episode after fifteen minutes of mediocre acting and clumsy dialogue. Early next year, Netflix will release a new season of “Arrested Development,” which will surely be better. But the company is in an odd spot, facing the same competition problem it avoided when it spun off Roku. If its shows are bad, it’s embarrassing. If they’re good, they could irritate partners. Netflix needs content from AMC, for example. But will those negotiations get harder once Netflix is creating its own shows to compete with “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men”? …

It won’t be easy for Netflix to find a way to fend off its new competitors while keeping its old partners happy.

The way I see it, Thompson has this backwards. I think he’s dead wrong about the barriers to entry in the streaming business: they’re high, and if I were Netflix I really wouldn’t be worried about other streaming companies right now. As far as I can tell, Netflix is the only company in the world which is great at persuading millions of people to pay a regularly monthly fee for streaming content online. And while it might have competition on that front in the future, right now that’s the least of its worries.

Rather, Netflix’s problem is with what Thompson calls its “old partners”. There is a stream of money coming from Netflix’s subscribers, and Netflix is competing with its “partners” for that money. The studios have learned that Netflix will pay astonishing sums for streaming rights — orders of magnitude more than it ever paid for DVDs. And while Netflix used to be able to rent out a DVD hundreds of times after buying it once, under the streaming contracts it has to pay the studios every time a movie or TV show is streamed.

This is why I’m fundamentally pessimistic when it comes to Netflix’s prospects: any time that Netflix builds up a profit margin, the studios will simply raise their prices until that margin disappears. Netflix needs the studios more than the studios need Netflix: no one’s going to subscribe to Netflix for Lilyhammer and Arrested Development alone. And while HBO has managed to build up a good business by producing original content, Netflix really doesn’t want to be HBO, it wants to be much bigger than that. It wants to be a one-stop shop for video content, rather than a single channel among hundreds.

The problem is that if you’re a one-stop shop, then you have limited negotiating power to tell any given studio that you won’t pay their price. Netflix’s subscribers are, ultimately, paying for the content, not for the pipe. And so it stands to reason that Netflix’s revenue stream will go the people making the content rather than to Netflix itself.

COMMENT

I for one absolutely love Netflix streaming, it is the best thing since the ATM and microwave! I wonder what would be the outcome if Netflix was bought by a company with influence like a Wal-Mart? As Microsoft bought shares of Barnes and Noble Nook; the potential of those two together are endless. Netflix and Wal-Mart (once adversaries) would make a powerful entertainment team that would be able to make demands to studios and distribution companies rather than kneeling and surrendering to the entertainment masses.

Posted by Anthony52 | Report as abusive

Could the NYT make money from its scoops?

Felix Salmon
Apr 24, 2012 04:14 UTC

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the NYT’s Walmart exposé this weekend is that it was such a surprise to the market. Note this, for instance:

In December, after learning of The Times’s reporting in Mexico, Wal-Mart informed the Justice Department that it had begun an internal investigation into possible violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, a federal law that makes it a crime for American corporations and their subsidiaries to bribe foreign officials. Wal-Mart said the company had learned of possible problems with how it obtained permits, but stressed that the issues were limited to “discrete” cases.

“We do not believe that these matters will have a material adverse effect on our business,” the company said in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The filing in question was Walmart’s quarterly report, which was filed with the SEC on December 8. These things take a significant amount of time to put together; it’s reasonable to assume that Walmart has known about this NYT investigation, then, for a full five months at this point. And while the story carries the sole byline of David Barstow, it was reported with the help of James McKinley in Mexico City, as well as the fabulously-named Alejandra Xanic von Bertrab. The newspaper was surely extremely assiduous in its reporting and fact-checking; I’m sure that there was an extremely large number of sources who had some inkling of what was being reported.

And yet the market was taken by surprise, with $12 billion of market capitalization evaporating from Walmart and Walmex in one day.

Which raises the obvious question: shouldn’t the NYT, which can always use a bit of extra revenue, take advantage of the fact that its stories can move markets so much? Not directly: I’m not suggesting that the New York Times Company should start buying out-of-the-money put options on Mexican corporates in advance of its own stories. But how much would hedge funds pay to be able to see the NYT’s big investigative stories during the trading day prior to the appearance of the story? It’s entirely normal, and perfectly ethical, for news organizations, including Reuters, to give faster access to the best-paying customers.

What’s more, good journalism is increasingly being done by people who unabashedly have skin in the game. The Muddy Waters report on Sino Forest, for instance, was explicitly written by someone with a big short position in the company. And today Anonymous Analytics, a forensic-accountancy spin-off of the hacker group, has released a detailed report on Huabao International which is similarly likely to cause a substantial fall in its share price. They write:

Anonymous Analytics holds no direct or indirect interest or position in any of the securities profiled in this report. However, you should assume that certain contributors to this report, as well as their members, partners, affiliates, colleagues, employees, consultants, muppets clients and investors, as well as our clients have a short position in the stock of Huabao International Holdings Limited (HK: 336, “Huabao” or the “Company”) and/or options of the stock, and therefore stand to gain substantially in the event that the price of the stock declines.

It’s a good report, well worth a read for connoisseurs of short-seller research. My favorite bit is where they flew to Botswana to try to find out what on earth the Huabao operation there was up to, tracking down the plant despite the fact that the company had photoshopped its photograph to make it impossible to work out where it was. This is a kind of long-form journalism, and it can be extremely remunerative. If the NYT is working on similar stories, why not take advantage of that fact and allow other people to make money off what you’re doing anyway?

The reporters and even the editors on any given story need never have any connection with any hedge fund or corporate client. All that’s needed is that when a big story is entering the final stages of layout and fact-checking, a version is sent under strict embargo to a client or clients who have paid for that access. They can then act on the story in the markets.

The main potential problem I see here is that if such an arrangement were in place, corporate whistleblowers might be risking prosecution as insider traders. But I’m sure the lawyers could work that one out. The church-lady types would I’m sure faint with horror. But if hedge funds are willing to pay the NYT large sums of money to be able to get a glimpse of stories before they’re made fully public, what fiduciary could simply turn such hedge funds away?

COMMENT

I love the way you initiate the discussion. I live in Mexico and from many sources I have heard many corruption acts from Walmart and other companies such as America Movil. Having or not the information beforehand wouldn’t change their ethics…

Posted by partner.analyst | Report as abusive

What the Loebs can learn from the Pulitzers

Felix Salmon
Apr 18, 2012 04:30 UTC

I’m not a huge fan of journalism awards. The Pulitzers, in particular, are a peculiar fish: they tend to award long and worthy work which almost nobody had the time to wade through when it first came out. That’s a type of journalism, to be sure — but is it the very best journalism that the profession produces? And while this year’s journalism winners were very good, the editorial cartoons which got Politico its first Pulitzer were so bad as to make one wonder whether the quality of the jury’s awards was more a matter of luck than judgment.

I’ve never sat on a Pulitzer jury, but I have sat on a Loeb award jury, twice. The Loebs are the Pulitzers of the business press, and perform a necessary function in a world where the Pulitzer jury saw fit to award precisely zero business or finance stories in 2008, 2009, or 2010. Eventually, Jesse Eisinger and Jake Bernstein won for their Magnetar story in 2011 — it was perfectly good, but it was hardly the greatest piece of business journalism that the crisis produced.

The Magnetar story, which was published online rather than in print, didn’t win a Loeb, and similarly it’s very hard to imagine the Huffington Post winning a Loeb award. This is the first area where the Loebs should learn from the Pulitzers: they should stop being obsessed with the medium in which a story appears. The Loebs have awards for large newspapers and for small newspapers, for news services and for magazines — all of them judged according to exactly the same criteria. The result is that some weak stories win Loeb awards because they’re in categories with no strong competition, and others get two or more bites at the cherry, being nominated in multiple categories to maximize their chances.

The Pulitzers, by contrast, just talk about things like feature writing and international reporting and commentary. Medium is unimportant, which probably goes to explain why outlets like ProPublica and HuffPo and Politico are finding it significantly easier to win Pulitzers than to win Loebs. Meanwhile, the Loebs respond to new media by creating a “blogs” award and then turning around and giving it to the NYT.

While the Loebs are learning from what the Pulitzers are doing right, they should learn from the Pulitzers’ mistakes, too. This year, the big controversy at the Pulitzers is over the fiction award, or rather the lack thereof. Three jurors read 300 books each over the course of six months before finally whittling the finalists down to three books — a huge effort and achievement. And all of them thought that the finalists were more than worthy of a Pulitzer. Yet for reasons which remain extremely murky, the final jury, after reading all three books, declined to give any of them the award.

There are two possible things going on here. The first is that the final jurors thought less of the finalists than the fiction jurors did, and decided that none of them was worthy of a Pulitzer. The second is that there was a deadlocked jury with each of the three books having its own partisans, and none of the three books being able to win over the absolute majority of the votes needed. Or it could be some combination of the two.

Either way, it’s abundantly clear that the fiction jurors are now looking at the final jurors with disgust, and wondering why they put so much effort into reading so many books, if the outcome was going to be so incredibly disappointing for all concerned.

Now as a Loeb juror myself, I have to start treading carefully here: everything that happens in those meeting rooms is confidential. But I can say that after my last appearance on a Loeb jury, my feelings weren’t all that far away from those of the fiction jurors for the Pulitzers.

The problem, in both cases, is the same: a panel of senior jurors picks winners without really understanding how and why the shortlist was chosen. And, at least at the Loebs, the final jury not only has the ability to award no prize at all; they even have the ability to award the prize to a piece which the junior jury deliberately left off the list of finalists.

The final jury is filled with important worthies: there’s no point in them just being a rubber stamp. But at the same time, the lower juries tend to be much more familiar with the pieces in question, and tend to have put a huge amount of thought into determining who should be on the list and who shouldn’t be.

To take a not-entirely-hypothetical example: what if someone won a Loeb award for a piece which rehashed a much more original work in the same publication, dated a couple of months earlier? That would be bad. But this would be worse: if the rehashed piece was deliberately excluded from the list of finalists for obvious reasons, and then reinstated by the final judges, just because they had no idea why it wasn’t included.

The problem, in general, is a lack of communication between the first-round and second-round judges. The final-round judges should be much closer to the initial-round judges, going back and forth, asking them why this made it through and that didn’t. The final decision can remain where it is, but it should be much more informed by the people who picked the finalists than it is right now. Because if the second-round judges don’t talk to the first-round judges, the first-round judges are likely to feel rather disgruntled. Especially if the winner was never on the original list of finalists, or if there’s no winner at all.

COMMENT

crocodilechuck, I believe Eissenger won it for best use of the ctl-C ctl-V button against extremely stiff competition from his peers.

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Why was the JOBS Act so hard to cover?

Felix Salmon
Apr 5, 2012 14:52 UTC

Bloomberg, yesterday, and the NYT, today, have come out with big news articles about the dangers and complications inherent in the JOBS Act. The NYT has found a Davis Polk note to clients saying that the JOBS Act represents “the most significant legislative loosening in memory of restrictions around the IPO process and public company reporting obligations”. As Ben Walsh documents, this is something which was well known to the opinion side of most news organizations weeks ago, but only seems to be dawning on the news side right now, after it’s too late.

The obvious conclusion to draw here is that lobbyists are better at influencing journalists than journalists are. When a bill is contested by powerful lobbyists, you can be quite sure that there will be a lot of coverage, in the press, of what the bill does and who opposes it and why. On the other hand, when a bill like the JOBS Act is opposed merely by regulators and op-ed journalists and a handful of politicians, its inherent problems can end up being ignored by the “straight” side of the news media until it’s already comfortably passed both houses of Congress.

Ben makes a geographical point, too, about the divide between New York journalists, who cover financial issues, and Washington journalists, who cover legislative issues; the former were probably more qualified to cover the JOBS Act than the latter, but they seem to have let Washington take care of things until now. I’d add that a lot of the impetus for the act actually came from Silicon Valley rather than anywhere on the east coast at all, and that journalists in San Francisco generally have very little experience of covering legislative issues, and even less ability to effectively insert themselves into such coverage. And that’s assuming that they would have the cynicism necessary to cover the act skeptically.

More generally, I think that there are certain stories which are simply easier to tell if the journalist writing them is allowed to have an opinion. Today’s NYT story is quite hard on the JOBS Act, if you read the whole thing, but you first need to get past five paragraphs of introductory scene-setting and a headline (“Wall Street Examines Fine Print in a Bill for Start-Ups”) which betrays nothing about how generous the act is or the degree to which it dismantles longstanding investor protections.

And of course, being impartial journalism, it has to be larded with on-the-other-hand quotes from people like the former head of the NASD, including this classic:

One Wall Street executive familiar with the JOBS Act but who declined to be named said the law would give firms “more flexibility” in covering emerging companies.

Is it now NYT policy to grant anonymity to sources who are simply asserting what seems to be a simple checkable fact?

Opinion journalists don’t need to worry about this kind of thing, and can come out and say what they mean, without having to ensure that any opinions in the piece are attributed to named or anonymous sources. And I fear that when opinion journalists are covering a story quite closely, as they did in this case, the news side sometimes feels that they don’t need to duplicate what the opinion side has already done. Until they can find some kind of new angle, even if it’s just the fact that Wall Street banks get lawyers to read a new law before they change their ways.

COMMENT

Bucket Shops here we come. Because we haven’t seen enough fraud yet, and there is still money to extract before the second leg of the crash down starts… Still that backlog of 10 million homes that need to hit the market, and whose mortgages’ values need to be adjusted.

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Strange bedfellows: Gretchen Morgenson and Patrick Byrne

Felix Salmon
Mar 26, 2012 15:44 UTC

Today’s story from Gretchen Morgenson, about Goldman Sachs and short selling, is notable for two things. One one front, it fails to deliver: Morgenson seems to be trying to make a case that Goldman might be guilty of naked shorting, but she doesn’t really come close. On a second front, however, it’s a great leap forwards for Morgenson.

The whole article is based on the transcript of a deposition given by a hedge-fund manager turned chicken farmer named Marc Cohodes. “His testimony, which has not been made public, was obtained by The New York Times,” writes Morgenson — and indeed “Mr. Cohodes declined to comment beyond his deposition”, which means that the deposition is the sole source for Morgenson’s story. Wonderfully, for the first time that I can remember when Morgenson was working off a non-public primary source document, she has actually posted it online.

As a result, it’s possible to read the full testimony of Cohodes, which turns out to be a very long way from a damning indictment of naked shorting on the part of Goldman Sachs. Here’s how the subject is initially broached:

Q. And did you ever come to believe that Goldman Sachs had not been borrowing stock when you were short selling stock?

MR. FLOREN: Objection, vague and ambiguous.

MR. SHAPIRO: Objection, lack of foundation.

THE WITNESS: That’s just speculation on my part at this point in time.

BY MR. SOMMER: Q. Well, I’m asking for your belief, so just tell me what your belief is one way or the other.

MR. FLOREN: Same objection.

MR. SHAPIRO: Don’t speculate; just say what you — answer the question about what you know. You’re here to testify, as a fact witness, what you know from seeing, hearing –

THE WITNESS: I don’t know. I just don’t know. I mean, I just — I don’t know.

This sets a pattern. Questioners representing Overstock — a company extremely hostile to short-sellers of any stripe — will try to ask Cohodes whether there was naked shorting going on; Cohodes will say, at best, that he talked about the possibility, but that he had no evidence of such activity at all. Or, to put it another way: Cohodes is angry at Goldman, and Overstock is trying to use that anger to get him to accuse Goldman of naked shorting. But he never actually does so.

Indeed, it turns out that the allegation that Goldman Sachs might have been engaging in naked shorting doesn’t really originate from Cohodes, or his deposition, at all. Instead, it’s contained on page 300 of a book by a former colleague of Cohodes, Richard Sauer, which was published in April 2010. Here’s the excerpt:

goldman.jpg

This is actually a vastly better explanation of the highly-circumstantial “evidence” of naked shorting than that provided by Morgenson. Here’s her attempt:

Failing to borrow shares on behalf of customers is illegal because of concerns about market manipulation. But it can also leave a brokerage firm’s client who is short a stock dangerously exposed to an escalating price in the shares. If a stock shorted by an investor began to trade higher and the shares were not borrowed, closing out the transaction would require the fund to buy them in the open market. That could propel the already rising price of the shares even higher, adding to the costs of the trade.

This doesn’t really make any sense. If a fund which is short a certain stock needs to cover that short, then it needs to buy those shares in the open market. That’s true whether the short is naked or not. And yes, when shorts are forced to cover, that can force the price up even further. That’s known as a short squeeze, and it’s exactly what caused the downfall of Cohodes’s fund. And again, you absolutely don’t need naked shorting to have a short squeeze.

Reading the deposition, it’s clear that while Cohodes is furious at Goldman Sachs, his fury has essentially nothing to do with naked shorting. This is absolutely not clear from Morgenson’s characterization of the deposition, which is why it’s so great that she uploaded the deposition so that we can see for ourselves. Cohodes is furious at Goldman for one main reason: that after Lehman Brothers went bust, there was some very crazy price action in the market. Most stocks were plunging, but a handful of stocks — the ones he was short — were going up, rather than down. It was a classic short squeeze.

In a short squeeze, the fight is simple. The fund which is short tries to stay solvent, while the market drives up the price of the stocks in question so much that the shorts are forced to sell at the top of the market. Once they capitulate in that way, the stock tends to plunge. A fund like that being run by Cohodes, which was massively short going into Lehman’s bankruptcy, should by rights have made a lot of money: Cohodes calculates it at a cool billion dollars. All he needed to do was wait for his stocks to plunge, and then cover his short positions.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, Goldman presented him with a huge and unprecedented margin call — not the kind of margin call required by federal regulations, mind, but rather a “house call” declared unilaterally by Goldman Sachs over and above what the regulations require. As a result of that call, his fund went bust, just days before it would have made a fortune. Here’s Cohodes’s deposition:

A. I can remember Goldman closing us out of American Capital Strategies at $33 on that Monday, and when they stopped doing whatever they had to do, when the smoke cleared, we finished covering the thing four weeks later at 2, something like that. We finished covering it at 2 but they took us out of eighty percent of our position in the thirties, and when they were done, we covered at 2. They took us out of Tempur-Pedic at 16, covered that, the rest of it four weeks later, at 3. I mean, it was insane.

So it’s kind of like I played the entire thing for a complete collapse, got the collapse and was closed out, closed out right before and during.

Q. If Goldman Sachs & Co. had not made these house calls and had extended you more credit during this time period –

A. We didn’t need more credit. All they had to do was not make the house calls.

Cohodes feels, then, with some reason, that Goldman Sachs did him in by foisting huge house calls on him during a point at which the stock market in general was going down rather than up. To make matters worse, when he tried to get out of the calls by moving his entire account to a different prime broker, UBS, Goldman wouldn’t let him do that. And when he tried to move his positions to a hedge fund with deeper pockets, Farallon Capital, he says that the CFO at Farallon got a phone call from Goldman warning him off.

So it’s easy to understand why Cohodes is very ill-disposed towards Goldman Sachs, and even suspects that Goldman’s prop desk might have been orchestrating the short squeeze. But there’s really nothing here at all to indicate that Goldman was engaging in any kind of naked shorting.

This testimony is mildly embarrassing for Goldman: no one likes seeing their former head of prime brokerage being described as “just a motherfucker”, as Cohodes describes Ravi Singh in this deposition. But Goldman’s argument for keeping the testimony sealed — “that their release would disclose trade secrets about the business” — is extremely weak. And Morgenson’s case that the deposition somehow indicates that Goldman might have been involved in naked shorting is even weaker.

Naked shorting is likely to become something of an issue in the news again soon, now that a documentary on the subject, called The Wall Street Consipracy, is being screened quite widely in finance and media circles. The documentary, like the deposition, is all part of a campaign by Overstock CEO Patrick Byrne against what he’s convinced is a massive conspiracy to bring down his company through illegal means.*

And that’s the main reason why I’m uncomfortable with Morgenson’s story: it seems to play far too neatly into the hands of Byrne, who’s really completely bonkers. But at least she posted the primary document, which is great, because it means that the rest of us can see much more clearly what the truth of the matter is.

*Update: Lewis Goldberg, the PR guy for The Wall Street Conspiracy, tells me that Patrick Byrne did not fund the movie, he just appears in it.

COMMENT

Wouldn’t these clowns have been lynched or shot by now in a different era (if not in a different country today? Even China executes financial criminals) ? It seems “rule of law” lacks meaning in the absence of morality.

Life is truly absurd.

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Bloomberg’s weird Buffett spoiler

Felix Salmon
Mar 23, 2012 07:56 UTC

Bloomberg and Fortune had weirdly competing stories Wednesday on the subject of Warren Buffett’s “million-dollar bet“. The bet’s duration is ten years from January 1, 2008; Buffett is betting a million dollars that the S&P 500 will outperform a fund of hedge funds.

Fortune’s Carol Loomis has unrivalled access to Buffett — she counts herself among his friends, and always helps him write his annual shareholder’s letter. So her report on the status of the bet, time stamped 8:30am, can be taken as definitive. Loomis doesn’t reveal the components of the fund-of-funds that Buffett is betting against, but she does reveal (“you are reading it here first”, she writes) the standings at the end of Year Four — that is, at the end of calendar 2011. The fund-of-funds has not done well over those four years: it’s down 5.89%. But Buffett’s index fund is doing even worse: it’s down 6.27%.

Loomis will always get these scoops, for as long as she’s close to Buffett. That’s fine. But then why did Bloomberg’s Katherine Burton decide to run a story on the exact same bet on the very same morning as Loomis’s scoop, under the headline “Buffett Seizes Lead in Bet on Stocks Beating Hedge Funds”?

The first effect of Burton’s story is simply to confuse everything. Fortune is saying that Buffett is behind; Bloomberg is saying that Buffett is ahead. If you read Fortune or the outlets which picked up Fortune, like the AP, then you’ll believe one thing; if you read Bloomberg or the outlets which picked up Bloomberg, like MSNBC, you’ll believe another thing. And if you read them both, you could be forgiven for thinking that someone is playing with your head.

A close reading of Burton’s story helps to reveal what’s going on here. For one thing, she’s reporting the status of the bet through February 29, rather than the status of the bet after four years. That is peculiar, not least because the fund-of-funds only reports annual results: Loomis was waiting to see what its 2011 returns were before she wrote her story. Burton, by contrast, despite being 25 minutes behind Loomis with her story, only knows what the fund-of-funds returned through the end of 2010. Here’s her explanation for how she calculates the performance of the fund-of-funds:

The hedge funds fell about 4.5 percent, based on Protégé’s index returns for the first three years and results since then for the Dow Jones Credit Suisse Hedge Fund Index, which has roughly tracked the group of unidentified funds when adjustments are made for extra fees.

In other words, when Burton’s story hit the web at 8:55am, it was already out of date: she extrapolated 14 months forwards from Loomis’s 2010 figures, rather than waiting for Loomis’s story to arrive and then extrapolating a mere 2 months forwards from the 2011 figures.

But in any event, Loomis was reporting the facts of the bet; Burton is just taking an educated guess. Hedge funds are by their nature unpredictable things. The fund-of-funds in this bet might have “roughly tracked” some hedge fund index for its first three years, but it can veer far off-index at any time, depending on how it’s put together. Which means that an unambiguous “Buffett Seizes Lead” headline is quite misleading.

That said, Buffett might well have seized the lead at the end of February, if Burton is right about the fund-of-funds tracking the Dow Jones Credit Suisse Hedge Fund Index. That index rose from 92.6 at end-2011 to 95.93 at end-Feb, a rise of 3.6%. We know from Loomis that at end-2011, the fund-of-funds was down 5.89%, which means that it stood at 94.11% of its initial value. If it grew from there by 3.6% in two months, it would have ended February at 97.5% of its initial value, for a loss of 2.5% overall.

The S&P 500, by contrast, rose from 1,257.6 at the end of 2011 to 1,365.7 at the end of February. That’s an increase of 8.6%, fully five percentage points greater than the rise in the hedge-fund index. We know from Loomis that Buffett was down 6.27% at the end of 2011; if his fund rose 8.6% from that level, it would have ended February at 101.8% of its initial level, for an overall gain of 1.8%.

It turns out, however, that even the Buffett side of the bet isn’t particularly easy to calculate: Burton reckons he was up 2.2% as of end-Feb, not 1.8%. But the 40bp difference there pales in comparison to what she’s estimating for the fund-of-funds: she says that it’s down 4.5%, rather than being down 2.5%. That difference, of 200bp, is really substantial.

Ultimately, the only thing we know for sure is that for four years in a row, the fund-of-funds has been in the lead, thanks to substantially outperforming the S&P 500 in 2008, the first year of the bet. At the end of five years, that might have changed: Buffett could well be back in the lead. And it’s even possible that someone with detailed knowledge of how the fund-of-funds is made up could trace the point at which Buffett took the lead back to February 2012. But no one has that information right now, or if they do have it, they’re not telling. The exact make-up of the fund-of-funds is a closely guarded secret.

In any case, the whole point of long bets is that they’re long-dated. This one has a ten-year maturity, and what happens even from year to year is not particularly important, let alone what happens from month to month. Yes, the S&P 500 had a very healthy run in January and February of 2012, and probably outperformed many hedge funds. But there are always going to be two-month periods where hedge funds underperform the index, and obviously the S&P 500 can’t rise by 4.3% a month for any sustained length of time.

So I’m a fan of the way that Loomis is reporting this, deliberately, using hard year-end numbers from the fund-of-funds, even if she has to wait 11 weeks from the end of the year before she gets them. Burton’s piece is significantly less informative even if it’s a couple months more up to date, and it’s also much less in sync with the underlying philosophy of the bet.

As for the decision to release Burton’s story on the exact same day that Loomis’s semi-official report came out, that just looks childish. It’s no secret that Loomis is very close to Buffett; let her have her scoop. It’s a perfectly good story, which in no way requires a Bloomberg spoiler.

COMMENT

@ dindjic Why? Surely anything can be a benchmark if you want it to?

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