Sunday, June 29, 2008

Financial Telegraph predicts complete meltdown of US banking system

The Financial Telegraph had a rather alarming article yesterday. It's in Dutch, but Fran├žois Cellier has provided a translation.

American 'Meltdown' is the Reason for the Money Injection by Fortis

Votron stays on after a wave of criticism

by our correspondent
June 28, 2008, 09:10 a.m.

BRUSSEL/AMSTERDAM (DFT) - Fortis expects a complete breakdown of the American financial markets within days or weeks. This explains, according to the bank insurer, the series of interventions on Thursday with the aim of strengthening themselves by € 8 billion. "We are ready at the last moment. The U.S. is doing much worse than we had thought,” said Fortis chairman Maurice Lippens, who insists that CEO Votron shall not be replaced. Fortis expects bankruptcies among the 6,000 U.S. banks that have low coverage. "But the same goes also for Citigroup and General Motors, and thereby starts a complete meltdown in the U.S.”

Fortis yesterday increased its capital by € 1.5 billion by means of emission of new shares. By the end of last year, the Belgian-Dutch group already had increased its capital by € 13 billion through issuing new stocks for the takeover of ABN Amro, for which they paid € 24 billion. Lippens based his concerns on talks with bankers. "Two months ago, we didn't know yet that the situation is so dire in the U.S. And the situation will further worsen. We need a thick cushion of funds to survive the next 18 months, when we bring in ABN Amro.”

Two weeks ago, the U.S. investment bank and adviser to Fortis Merrill Lynch reported that certainly € 6.2 billion in additional capital would be needed. The VEB yesterday demanded clarification of Fortis: CEO Jean-Paul Votron had explained by the end of April that Fortis, by acquiring ABN Amro, wouldn't need to raise its capital. Yet within one year, € 30 billion in market capitalization have been destroyed. According to Votron's latest admissions, the stock value has tumbled by 19.4%, although it recovered yesterday by 4.4% to € 10.65.

The massive unrest surrounding the bank insurer has registered particularly with our Southern neighbors in Belgium like a bomb. While in the Netherlands, the discussion is limited to the financial world, it has become the talk of the day in Belgium. Not only is the bank in Belgium omnipresent, but the tumbling of the stock has hit hard hundreds of thousands of Belgian small investors directly.

All Belgian newspapers opened yesterday with disaster headlines, giving wide coverage to the free fall of the bank insurer's stock. ’Fortis crashes,' 'Disaster day for Fortis,’ and ’Fortis loses 5.3 billion,' reported three leading newspapers on their respective front pages.

The panic surrounding the group is so great South of the border that the national oversight commission CFBA felt compelled to issue a statement of reassurance to the desperate savers. “The emergency measure by Fortis is no reason to run to the bank and withdraw your savings”, said a CFBA spokesman. “The bank complies with all legal requirements, it only has set for itself very ambitious goals.”

Maurice Lippens claimed that all major shareholders have offered their “unanimous support” yesterday evening.

Just as in the Netherlands, the accusations are directed primarily a the address of CEO Jean-Paul Votron, who seems to have badly miscalculated in the takeover of ABN Amro. However, whereas the man from Brussels is only being asked in the Netherlands to pay back his bonus of € 2.5 million, the Belgians ask for his removal.

"A person who makes such grave errors must bear the consequences and therefore resign,” so chairman Huybregts of the Flemish Federation of Investments and Investors. The tumbling of the stock is for him proof that the takeover of ABN Amro was far too expensive and poorly timed.

“The former shareholders of ABN Amro are now taking a bath in champagne”, stressed Huybrechts. "A person making such grave errors must step down." Fortis is a stock for ordinary people, and you cannot mistreat their trust so recklessly.”

Also the Belgian newspaper de Standaard (the Standard) has hard words for the CEO: "The credit crisis has affected all banks, but this is no excuse. Fortis has tumbled much worse," so the commentator. “Fortis has always denied that another capital increase was to come. These were therefore either lies or ignorance. Both are equally bad, and therefore Votron should do the honorable thing. He is the only one who has earned money in the whole operation.”

According to the Belgian media, Fortis had planned to announce on Thursday that the bonus of Votron would be removed, but at the last moment, this hasn't happened. Also, it is being strongly speculated who should be his successor, whereby primarily the name of Filip Dierckx is being suggested.

Votron himself doesn't want to hear anything about stepping down. "The shareholders stand by me, and also the board has fully supported these operations that were initiated by me," said the beleaguered CEO of Fortis.

He also rejects outright to pay back his meanwhile controversial bonus. "What I do with my money is my own business. The bonus is unrelated to ABN Amro, but was paid for the activities of 2007," so Votron. The CEO is however willing to receive some of his salary in Fortis stock options.

Votron can still fully count on the support by chairman Lippens, who denied that the bank made a mistake with the takeover of ABN Amro. “Votron remains our CEO. To intervene at this moment would be difficult, [not] to do so shows true leadership.”

I'm really not sure what to make of this. The Financial Telegraph is supposedly a reputable paper, equivalent to the Financial Times. But there's been little to no coverage of this story in English. Fortis has been much in the news this week, but not their predictions of a US banking collapse. The closest is this Reuters article, which is very mild in comparison.

I gotta say, the Bank of Serta is looking better and better all the time.

UPDATE: The original Dutch article is now 404, but you can still see it in Google's cache.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Peak Swag

Awhile back, USA Today had this article about how high prices were impacting the sports world. There was the usual traveling costs and all, but there was also this, about the promotional items they give away at minor league baseball games:

"Everything we do is oil-based. The giveaways at the ballpark are plastic and that's oil-based. Hats aren't, but I have to put them on a boat, airplane or truck. So there's some derivative of an oil byproduct in everything."

Actually, hats probably are oil-based, at least the kind they give away, which are synethic, not wool.

I thought about this while I was a recent professional conference. I swear, a lot of people go to these things just to get the swag. They aren't interested in the presentations or workshops, just in getting all the free promotional items they can. Mugs, pens, frisbees, calendars, rulers, calculators, magnets, cupholders, t-shirts, bumper stickers, etc. The vast majority of it made with petroleum.

I am trying to reduce the amount of stuff I own, so I did not pick up any of the swag. I admit I am still using the plastic Hewlett-Packard coaster I got at a previous convention, years ago. The HP logo has long worn off it, but I still use it. Other than that, I have probably never used any of the hundreds of items I've gotten as swag over the years. So why take any more?

My colleagues, however, picked up stuff for me. They were afraid I would "miss out." Nice of them to think of me. But, er, is anyone really going to wear a pin shaped like a traffic cone, with flashing LEDs?

They also complained that there was very little swag this year, compared to previous years. A reflection of the rising prices and sinking economy, perhaps?

If swag ends up a victim of peak oil, well, I won't miss it much. I realize it provides jobs for a lot of people, but what a waste.

And I bought gas today, which I don't do very often. Ever since Katrina, I fill up when the gas gauge shows half a tank...just in case. But I drive so little that I still don't buy gas very often. The bad side of that is that it makes the sticker shock worse. Gas was $4.25 gallon today. The last time I bought gas, it was under $4. Yikes.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth

The museum gift shop features a colorful T-Rex sculpture

At the end of May, due to a combination of business and pleasure, I found myself in the midwest. I visited a friend in the Pittsburgh area, and we went to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. I'm a sucker for natural history museums, especially if they have dinosaurs. And the Carnegie has a lot of dinosaurs. They've been renovating their dinosaur exhibit for years, and this year, it's finally re-opening. The T-Rex part was still under construction (it's supposed to open June 15), which was a disappointment. But the rest of the exhibit was open, and pretty cool.

The museum parking garage is right by the steamworks. (Yes, it's still working.)

This tableau of dinosaur predation was supposed to illustrate the evolutionary diversification of dinosaurs.

The heart of the dinosaur exhibit, as viewed from the third floor balcony:

There's an Apatosaurus, a Diplodicus, and an Allosaurus. There's also a Stegosaurus, and several other beasties.

A closeup of the Allosaurus, stalking the Apatosaurus.

There are also fossils from air...

Including a replica of the famous Archaeopteryx lithographica, the "first bird":

And seas:

One of the coolest displays was of the feathered dinosaurs from Liaoning, China:

Too bad the T-Rex section wasn't open yet. I'll just have to go back some day.