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Monday, May 19, 2014

Monday, May 19, 2014 - Still Too Big to Jail

Financial Review with Sinclair Noe

DOW + 20 = 16511
SPX + 7 = 1885
NAS + 35 = 4125
10 YR YLD + .02 = 2.54%
OIL + .58 = 102.16
GOLD - .10 = 1293.60
SILV - .01 = 19.44

Merger Mania Monday. Late yesterday, AT&T announced an offer to buy DirecTV for $48 billion, or $95 per share. The combined AT&T-DirecTV would serve 26 million customers; that would make it the second-largest pay TV operator behind a combined Comcast-Time Warner Cable, which would serve 30 million under a $45 billion merger proposed in February. The Comcast deal still faces regulatory hurdles.

AT&T and DirecTV promised consumer benefits like more economical bundles that tie mobile phone, pay TV and Internet service together on a single bill. The deal could face regulatory scrutiny from the Federal Communications Commission and Department of Justice. Unlike the cable company tie-up, the AT&T-DirecTV merger would effectively cut the number of video providers from four to three for about 25% of US households. That's a situation that could result in higher prices for consumers and usually gives regulators cause for concern.

The value that DirecTV offers that no other national TV provider offers is a special deal for football fans; for $240 to $330 you can buy a special package that gets you all the NFL football games, including your hometown favorite no matter where you live. That’s why DirecTV paid an estimated $4 billion to the NFL for the latest Sunday Ticket contract; that deal expires at the end of the upcoming NFL season. If the Sunday Ticket arrangement were not to be extended, AT&T would reportedly have a legal out, according to terms of the takeover.

Part of the value of DirecTV is what it isn’t. DirecTV does not offer fixed-line or mobile Internet service, and its rights to airwave frequencies for satellite TV are not the kind that AT&T can use to improve its mobile phone network. If AT&T can convert DirecTV’s customers into high-speed Internet subscribers, they could have 25% of all pay TV subscribers and then two companies would control 55% to 60% of all Internet subscriptions in the US.

The board of AstraZeneca has rejected the improved, and apparently final $119 billion takeover offer from US drugmaker Pfizer. Pfizer, which is the world's second-biggest drugmaker by revenue, has been courting No. 8 AstraZeneca since January. Yesterday, Pfizer raised the offer 15% to $119 billion; that would be the richest acquisition ever among drugmakers and the third-biggest in any industry. AstraZeneca didn't take long to reject the new offer, its board arguing Pfizer is making "an opportunistic attempt to acquire a transformed AstraZeneca, without reflecting the value of its exciting pipeline" of experimental drugs.

Pfizer's offer comes amid a surge of other deals among drugmakers. Those deals include Switzerland's Novartis agreeing to buy GlaxoSmithKline's cancer-drug business for up to $16 billion, to sell most of its vaccines business to GSK for $7.1 billion, plus royalties, and to sell its animal health division to Eli Lilly for about $5.4 billion. Canada's Valeant Pharmaceuticals has also made an unsolicited offer of nearly $46 billion for Botox maker Allergan, which has turned it down, so far.

Law enforcement agents have arrested more than 90 hackers accused of infecting more than half-a-million computers worldwide with malicious snooping software. The suspects were charged with developing, selling and marketing a remote access tool, or “RAT,” that allowed users to infiltrate computers, view files and steal personal data from unwitting victims. Talk about creepy; the malware could even take over your webcam and take pictures and videos of you. The original creator of the software, who founded an organization called “Blackshades,” was arrested in June 2012, but investigators said an international ring of hackers continued to sell and disseminate the software after his arrest, reaching thousands of people in more than 100 countries; 19 countries participated in the arrests, and more than 300 searches had been conducted in what law enforcers described as one of the largest cybersecurity operations in history.

The United States charged five Chinese government officials with allegedly orchestrating cyber-attacks against six major American companies. It marks the first time the US has formally charged foreign government officials for explicitly acting at the behest of a foreign government in cyber-crimes. The companies targeted by hackers were Alcoa, Westinghouse, Allegheny Technologies, US Steel, United Steelworkers Union, and Solar World.

Attorney General Eric Holder said: “In some cases, they stole trade secrets that would have been particularly beneficial to Chinese companies at the time they were stolen. In others, they stole sensitive, internal communications that would provide a competitor, or adversary in litigation, with insight into the strategy and vulnerabilities of the American entity. In sum, the alleged hacking appears to have been conducted for no reason other than to advantage state-owned companies and other interests in China, at the expense of businesses here in the United States.”

The Justice Department has criminally charged Credit Suisse AG and two of its units with conspiring to willfully help Americans evade taxes. A Virginia federal court filing accuses Credit Suisse of conspiring to in part "advise the preparation and presentation of false income tax returns and other documents to the Internal Revenue Service.'' The four-page criminal information charges the bank with "assisting clients in using sham entities'' as the purported owners of secret offshore accounts and "soliciting IRS forms that falsely stated under penalties of perjury that the sham entities … owned the assets in the accounts.''

The criminal case follows a Senate subcommittee investigation that found the bank provided accounts in Switzerland for more than 22,000 US clients totaling $10 billion to $12 billion. The report said Credit Suisse sent Swiss bankers to recruit American clients at golf tournaments and other events, encouraged US customers to travel to Switzerland and actively helped them hide their assets.

Credit Suisse has apparently agreed as part of a settlement to plead to one count of conspiring to aid tax evasion. It would mark the first time in more than 20 years that a major bank has plead guilty to criminal wrongdoing. But make no mistake, this was a negotiated guilty plea that does not bear the consequences of criminal guilt. Credit Suisse will pay about $2.6 billion in penalties and hire an independent monitor for up to two years, which sounds exactly like a civil penalty. Recognizing that criminal charges could prompt regulators to revoke a bank’s license to operate, the corporate equivalent of the death penalty, prosecutors met with regulators to discuss punishing Credit Suisse without putting it out of business and imperiling the economy. The biggest challenge facing Credit Suisse could be that some of its own clients, such as pension funds, have internal requirements that prohibit them from doing business with an entity that has pleaded guilty to a crime.

Otherwise, this amounts to another slap on the wrist. The CEO and Chairman keep their positions. Credit Suisse will admit to a statement of facts that shows the U.S. tax evasion was widely fostered by the bank, the people said. The firm won’t have to disclose the names of US account holders under terms of the agreement.

The Credit Suisse plea won’t be the last. BNP Paribas is expected to plead guilty in coming weeks to doing business with countries like Sudan and Iran that the United States has blacklisted; BNP is also expected to pay more than $5 billion in fines. And eventually, we could see criminal charges brought against American banks such as JPMorgan and Citigroup, which are the subjects of criminal investigations, but those inquiries are at an earlier stage and it is unclear whether they would result in criminal charges. The Justice Department's highest-profile settlement over sales of risky mortgage securities in the run-up to the financial crisis — the $13 billion deal among the department, state regulators and JPMorgan Chase — was a civil case, and no bank executives were charged. Federal prosecutors in California have been conducting a related criminal investigation.

So for now we have a new strategy for controlling the illegality of the big banks: charge them with criminal activity and punish them with civil penalties. So what we have, in the end, seems to be a version of the anemic civil settlements and deferred-prosecution agreements that banks always get when they commit crimes. As usual, it is little more than the cost of doing business. Eric Holder can say that no bank is too big to jail, but then he folds like a tortilla when it comes to pursuing criminal charges that actually carry criminal penalties. For now, the government's message to banks remains the same: Go ahead and break the law. If worse comes to worst, your low-level bankers will take the fall, and your shareholders will pick up the tab.

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