Consumer confidence at seven-month high in September

NEW YORK, Tue Sep 25, 2012 – Consumer confidence jumped to its highest level in seven months in September as Americans were more optimistic about the job market and income prospects, a private sector report showed on Tuesday.

The Conference Board, an industry group, said its index of consumer attitudes rose to 70.3 from an upwardly revised 61.3 in August. It was the highest level since February and topped economists’ expectations for 63, according to a Reuters poll.

August was originally reported as 60.6.

“Despite continuing economic uncertainty, consumers are slightly more optimistic than they have been in several months,” said Lynn Franco, director of The Conference Board Consumer Research Center, said in a statement.

The expectations index climbed to 83.7 from 71.1, while the present situation index gained to 50.2 from 46.5.

Consumers’ labor market assessment improved. The “jobs hard to get” index slipped to 39.9 percent from 40.6 percent the month before, while the “jobs plentiful” index rose to 8.3 percent from 7.2 percent.

Looking six months ahead, 16.3 percent expected income increases, up from 16 percent, while 14.1 percent anticipated decreases, down from 16.7 percent.

Consumers also felt better about price increases with expectations for inflation in the coming 12 months down to 5.8 percent from 6 percent.

Apple sold more than 5 million iPhone 5 in first three days

CUPERTINO, Calif., Mon Sep 24, 2012 – Apple Inc. sold more than 5 million iPhone 5 smartphones in the three days after the new device hit the marketplace on Sept. 21, the company said on Monday.

Apple said it sold out its initial supply of iPhone 5s, as demand for its latest smartphone exceeded initial supply.

While the majority of pre-orders have been shipped to customers, many are scheduled to go out in October, Apple said.

U.S. poised to hand over $197 million to another solar panel start-up

LOS ANGELES, Mon Sep 24, 2012 – A tiny solar company named SoloPower will flip the switch on production at a U.S. factory Thursday, a major step toward allowing it to tap a $197 million government loan guarantee awarded under the same controversial program that supported failed panel maker Solyndra.

SoloPower has initiated a strategy to differentiate it from struggling commodity players in the solar panel industry. Still, there are several similarities between SoloPower and Solyndra – which became a lightning rod in the U.S. Presidential campaign this year after taking in more than $500 million in government loans and then filing for bankruptcy.

Like Solyndra, SoloPower is a Silicon Valley start-up and uses the same non-traditional raw material in its solar panels. And, like its now-defunct peer, SoloPower is one of just four U.S. panel manufacturers to clinch loan guarantees under the Department of Energy’s $35 billion program to support emerging clean energy technologies. The DOE payments to SoloPower will come on top of the $56.5 million SoloPower has collected in loans, tax credits and incentives from the state of Oregon and the city of Portland, where its first factory will be located.

And, perhaps most importantly, SoloPower is entering the market at a time of cutthroat competition from cheaper solar products made in China.

Though global demand for photovoltaic solar installations is expected to grow about 8 percent this year, rapid expansion of panel manufacturing in Asia in recent years – combined with a pullback in government incentives in key European markets – has left a glut of solar panels in the market, sending prices down 30 percent this year alone.

Companies that make those panels are now struggling to survive. Even the world’s largest solar panel maker, China’s Suntech Power Holdings Inc, warned on Friday that it may be delisted by the New York Stock Exchange because its share price, which reached $90 in 2008, is now less than $1. Debt-heavy Suntech has also been hurt since it said in July that its partner in a solar development fund might have defrauded it with a bogus collateral pledge of hundreds of millions of German bonds.

U.S. EPA probes possible crimes at Chevron’s Calif. refinery: report

HOUSTON, Mon Sep 24, 2012 – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is investigating possible criminal violations by Chevron Corp. at its San Francisco Bay-area refinery in Richmond, Calif., according to a report by the San Francisco Chronicle.

The investigation is unrelated to state and federal probes of an Aug. 6 explosion and fire that shut the central crude oil refining unit at the 245,000 barrel-per-day Richmond refinery, according to the Chronicle report.

Chevron told the newspaper that it was cooperating with the investigation, which began early this year, prior to the fire.

California pollution investigators have also been investigating the use of the 3-inch (7.6-centimeter) pipe, which allowed emissions from a hydrocracking complex to bypass the refinery’s pollution control equipment on the way to the refinery’s safety flare system, at the discretion of the complex’s operator.

Chevron told the Chronicle the use of the pipe was inadvertent.

A Chevron representative was not immediately available on Sunday to discuss operations at the Richmond refinery.

Gasoline, autos boost retail sales in August

WASHINGTON, Fri Sep 14, 2012 – Retail sales rose for a second straight month in August, boosted by automobiles and high gasoline prices, but the underlying tone pointed to modest economic growth in the third quarter.

Retail sales increased 0.9 percent, the largest increase since February, the Commerce Department said on Friday, after a downwardly revised 0.6 percent rise in July that was previously reported as a 0.8 percent advance.

While the gain last month was above economists’ expectations for a 0.7 percent rise, details of the report pointed to an only modest increase in consumer spending this quarter after sluggish demand restricted the economy to a 1.7 percent annual growth pace in the April-June period.

That suggests third-quarter economic growth would still be insufficient to cut into high unemployment, which on Thursday prompted the Federal Reserve to launch a third round of bond purchases and push its pledge to hold interest rates near zero through at least mid-2015 from late 2014.

The rise in sales last month was led by gasoline stations, reflecting a 28 cents per gallon increase in the pump price. Gasoline sales surged 5.5 percent, the largest increase since November 2009, after rising 0.4 percent in July.

Automobile sales increased 1.3 percent, the most since February, after gaining 0.1 percent in July.

Excluding gasoline and autos, retail sales edged up 0.1 percent after rising 0.8 percent the prior month.

SEC probes some Wall Street trades after 2008 meet with Henry Paulson: WSJ

NEW YORK, Fri Sep 14, 2012 – The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is probing possible insider trading activities by Wall Street professionals who were present in a private meeting with the then Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson in 2008, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing people familiar with the investigation.

The SEC is trying to find out if Paulson suggested in the meeting that the government was willing to bail out struggling mortgage-finance companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the WSJ said.

Subsequently, the federal government took over Fannie and Freddie amid heavy losses less than two months after the meeting.

SEC recently sent subpoenas to parties who were present at the July 2008 meeting, the Journal said adding that Paulson hasn’t been handed one.

Parties present at the meeting included Taconic Capital Advisors, GSO Capital Partners, now part of Blackstone Group LP, Lone Pine Capital LLC, Och-Ziff Capital Management Group LLC and TPG-Axon Management LP, WSJ said.

Taconic confirmed the receipt of a subpoena and declined any wrongdoing, the Journal said.

Goldman ends two-year program for new hires at entry level

NEW YORK, Fri Sep 14, 2012 – Goldman Sachs Group Inc. has ended a two-year training program for recent college graduates after running it for a quarter century as the U.S. investment bank found it was not meeting its aim of retaining new talent.

Goldman’s decision came after the New York bank fired a handful of analysts over the past year for signing on to work at other financial companies in violation of their contracts.

“We think the historic two-year program is no longer the best approach for hiring and developing the careers of analysts in our banking and investment management divisions,” Goldman Sachs spokesman David Wells told Reuters.

Wells said that making this change will allow Goldman “to emphasize the longer-term career opportunities available at the firm.”

He added that Goldman will continue to provide the skills and time needed to understand the company’s businesses.

By doing away with the two-year program, Goldman will not have to commit to keeping analysts and paying them for a set period of time. That gives the firm flexibility to cut analysts sooner if their work is not up to par, or if it has to cut costs.

Likewise, analysts can leave to take another role at a competitor whenever they choose if they decide Goldman is not the right place for them.

Analysts who start work in 2013, will no longer be eligible for the two-year program, Wells said.

BlackRock to lower fees on some ETFS to better compete

NEW YORK, Mon Sep 10, 2012 – BlackRock Inc. will announce lower fees on some of its core iShares exchange-traded funds in the fourth quarter to better compete with lower-cost products, CEO Laurence Fink said on Monday.

The changes will only apply to some ETFs with lower-fee competition and will not be a “wholesale fee change on everything,” Fink told attendees at the Barclays’ Global Financial Services Conference in New York.

Exchange-traded funds are baskets of securities, like mutual funds, but they trade on exchanges, like individual securities. They are cheaper than mutual funds and allow investors to trade throughout the day, with simultaneous pricing, unlike mutual funds, which price at the end of the day.

Over the past few years, BlackRock’s iShares ETFs have been losing U.S. retail market share as Vanguard Group has aggressively rolled out cheaper ETFs.

There are 15 investment strategies in which iShares has one or two ETFs that compete directly with Vanguard ETFs but cost more, according to a recent report by Bernstein Research. In all of those categories, Vanguard is taking business away from BlackRock.

This is most notable with one of BlackRock’s biggest ETFs, the $35 billion iShares MSCI Emerging Markets Index Fund, from which investors withdrew w$1.14 billion in the three years ending July 31, according to Bernstein.

Navistar fires back after Icahn criticizes CEO switch

WARRENVILLE, Ill., Mon Sep 10, 2012 – Navistar International Corp. defended itself on Monday against activist investor Carl Icahn, who had said the U.S. truck and engine maker’s August hiring of a new chief executive officer was ill-advised.

The company, whose shares fell nearly 3 percent, accused Icahn of engaging in “threats, attacks and disruptions” after he made his criticisms public on Sunday.

Icahn, Navistar’s third-largest shareholder, said the truckmaker had not discussed the CEO switch with his firm, and he called the hiring of former Textron Inc. CEO Lewis Campbell a “worse-than ill-advised move.”

The company, which makes International-brand heavy trucks as well as school buses and recreational vehicles, dismissed Icahn’s complaint.

“Navistar maintains an ongoing dialogue with its shareholders and appreciates their input and views,” the company said. “After a year of dialogue, we are extremely disappointed that Mr. Icahn has chosen to pursue his unproductive tactics of threats, attacks, and disruption.”