Two Giant Banks, Seen as Immune, Become Targets – By BEN PROTESS and JESSICA SILVER-GREENBERG APRIL 29, 2014, 8:40 PM

The headquarters of the French bank BNP Paribas in Paris, left, and the Swiss bank Credit Suisse in Zurich.

Jacques Brinon/Associated Press and Arnd Wiegmann/ReutersThe headquarters of the French bank BNP Paribas in Paris, left, and the Swiss bank Credit Suisse in Zurich.

Federal prosecutors are nearing criminal charges against some of the world’s biggest banks, according to lawyers briefed on the matter, a development that could produce the first guilty plea from a major bank in more than two decades.

In doing so, prosecutors are confronting the popular belief that Wall Street institutions have grown so important to the economy that they cannot be charged. A lack of criminal prosecutions of banks and their leaders fueled a public outcry over the perception that Wall Street giants are “too big to jail.”

Addressing those concerns, prosecutors in Washington and New York have met with regulators about how to criminally punish banks without putting them out of business and damaging the economy, interviews with lawyers and records reviewed by The New York Times show.

The new strategy underpins the decision to seek guilty pleas in two of the most advanced investigations: one into Credit Suisse for offering tax shelters to Americans, and the other against France’s largest bank, BNP Paribas, over doing business with countries like Sudan that the United States has blacklisted. The approach applies to American banks, though those investigations are at an earlier stage.

In the talks with BNP, which has a huge investment bank in New York, prosecutors in Manhattan and Washington have outlined plans to extract a criminal guilty plea from the bank’s parent company, according to the lawyers, who were not authorized to speak publicly. If BNP is unable to negotiate a lesser punishment — the bank has enlisted the support of high-ranking French officials to pressure prosecutors — the case could counter congressional criticism that arose after the British bank HSBC escaped similar charges two years ago.

Such criminal cases hinge on the cooperation of regulators, some who warned that charging HSBC could have prompted the revocation of the bank’s charter, the corporate equivalent of the death penalty. Federal guidelines require prosecutors to weigh the broader economic consequences of charging corporations.

Benjamin M. Lawsky, left, New York’s superintendent of financial services, is one of the regulators who is said to have reached an understanding with prosecutors, like Preet Bharara.
Mike Segar/Reuters and Andrew Burton/Getty ImagesBenjamin M. Lawsky, left, New York’s superintendent of financial services, is one of the regulators who is said to have reached an understanding with prosecutors, like Preet Bharara.

With the investigation into BNP, the lawyers briefed on the matter said, prosecutors met in April with the bank’s American regulators: the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and Benjamin M. Lawsky, New York’s top financial regulator. The prosecutors who attended the meeting and are leading the investigation — Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in Manhattan; David O’Neil, the head of the Justice Department’s criminal division in Washington; and Cyrus Vance Jr., the Manhattan district attorney — left largely reassured.

In a recent speech to Wall Street lawyers, Mr. Bharara said this dynamic created a “gaping liability loophole that blameworthy companies are only too willing to exploit.”

Article continues:

U.S. Drugmaker Pfizer Doesn’t Like Paying U.S. Taxes, Wants to Become British So It Doesn’t Have To


Pfizer’s New York headquarters.

Photo by HENNY RAY ABRAMS/AFP/Getty Images

Pfizer, the American drugmaker known for its star pills Lipitor and Viagra, doesn’t want to be an American company anymore. In fact, it fancies an English accent. And it’s willing to pay (a lot) for it. Why would the New York-based company, founded in Brooklyn in 1849, want to live the expat life? It’s not the dolce vitait’s the taxes.

This week Pfizer said out loud what it had been whispering in the ear of London-based drugmaker AstraZeneca for months—it wants to acquire the British pharmaceutical company to the tune of $100 billion. The reasoning, however, has less to do with AstraZeneca’s business plan and more to do with its address. If Pfizer can hammer out a deal—AstraZeneca has, so far, rebuffed their offers—the company will be able to cut its Brooklyn roots and reincorporate as a British company. “Doing so would allow Pfizer to escape the United States corporate tax rate and tap into a mountain of cash trapped overseas, saving it billions of dollars each year and making the company more competitive with other global drug makers,” according to the New York Times.

Here’s what that means for Pfizer’s tax bill, via the Times:

There are several benefits of being effectively a British company. Pfizer currently pays an effective tax rate of 27 percent. Though it did not specify what the new rate might be, the British corporate tax rate is currently 21 percent and will soon fall to 20 percent. Analysts atBarclays estimated that for each percentage point less Pfizer paid in taxes, it would save about $200 million a year by reincorporating. People briefed on Pfizer’s discussions said that figure could be substantially higher. That means that Pfizer would be saving at least $1 billion a year in taxes alone.

Of course, it’s not that Pfizer doesn’t want to do business in the U.S.—it says it would keep its corporate headquarters in the U.S. and its listing on the New York Stock Exchange—it just doesn’t really want to pay taxes in the U.S. Or, as the Wall Street Journal puts it: “it would relocate largely in name only…” Pfizer, however, has already gone pretty far out of its way to avoid paying U.S. taxes, as the Journal reports, the company “has also left much of its profit from overseas outside the U.S. to avoid paying the taxes it would face if it brought the money home. Pfizer said between 70% and 90% of the nearly $49 billion in cash and equivalents the company has had on hand are outside the U.S.”

There are, of course, other non-tax benefits for Pfizer in the deal. Pfizer CEO Ian Read has stressed, the Journal reports, “that the main goals of the deal are increasing sales and eliminating redundant spending, not lowering taxes.” But, with the U.K. looking to aggressively lower its corporate tax rate to lure foreign companies coupled with political rumblings from Washington looking to crack down on the practice of corporate expatriation, Pfizer is looking to make its move before the political ground shifts below its feet.

‘Dark Wallet’ Is About to Make Bitcoin Money Laundering Easier Than Ever – BY ANDY GREENBERG 04.29.14 | 6:11 PM

From left, Cody Wilson and Amir Taaki. Photo: Andy Greenberg

From left, Cody Wilson and Amir Taaki. Photo: Andy Greenberg

Government regulators around the world have spent the last year scrambling to prevent bitcoin from becoming the currency of choice for money launderers and black marketeers. Now their worst fears may be about to materialize in a single piece of software.

On Thursday, a collective of politically radical coders that calls itself unSystem plans to release the first version of Dark Wallet: a bitcoin application designed to protect its users’ identities far more strongly than the partial privacy protections bitcoin offers in its current form. If the program works as promised, it could neuter impending bitcoin regulations that seek to tie individuals’ identities to bitcoin ownership. By encrypting and mixing together its users’ payments, Dark Wallet seeks to enable practically untraceable flows of money online that add new fuel to the Web’s burgeoning black markets.

“This is a way of using bitcoin that mocks every attempt to sprinkle it with regulation,” says Cody Wilson, one of Dark Wallet’s two 26-year-old organizers. “It’s a way to say to the government ‘You’ve set yourself up to regulate bitcoin. Regulate this.’”

Dark Wallet was conceived last summer by Wilson and Amir Taaki. Wilson first gained notoriety by creating the world’s first entirely 3D-printed gun; Taaki is an Iranian-British free-market anarchist and developer of high-profile bitcoin projects like the decentralized online marketplace prototype DarkMarket. Together they launched a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo in October that raised $50,000, along with tens of thousands more in bitcoin. The accompanying video promised what Wilson described as “a line in the sand” in the struggle over bitcoin’s political future. At a debate at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in March, Wilson described his intentions for Dark Wallet more directly: “It’s just money laundering software.”

Despite those provocations, financial regulators have kept mum about the project. The New York Department of Financial Services, which held hearings about bitcoin in January and says it plans to create a “bitlicense” for some bitcoin-based businesses, didn’t respond to a request for comment. In a statement to WIRED, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network wrote only that it’s “well aware of the many emerging technological efforts designed to subvert financial transparency. It’s certainly our business to be interested and vigilant with respect to any activities that may assist money laundering and other financial crimes.”

Article continues:

A young economist wins a prize for his work on the economics of news and opinion Apr 26th 2014 | From the print edition

THE John Bates Clark medal is awarded every year to an American economist under the age of 40. Past winners include such grandees as Milton Friedman and Paul Krugman. This year the American Economic Association honoured Matthew Gentzkow, an economist at the University of Chicago, for his work on a subject of particular interest to this newspaper: the volatile economics of the news business.

As Mr Gentzkow points out in recent research, newspapers’ woes are not due entirely to readers’ defection to free alternatives online. Time spent reading newspapers did indeed fall by half between 1980 and 2012, but most of the drop came before 2000, while the web was in its infancy. From 2008 to 2012, as time spent on the web as a whole soared, time spent reading newspapers fell much more slowly. Enchanting cat videos, in short, do not seem to have crowded out much news consumption.

Rather, it is a plunge in advertising that has hit newspapers hardest. Their ad revenue, adjusted for inflation, is back to the level of 1953. From 2008 to 2012 the revenue for every hour readers spent perusing a printed newspaper fell by almost half, as the web provided advertisers with an exploding supply of alternatives. The news is not all bad, Mr Gentzkow reckons: online ads can be better targeted to readers and are increasingly valuable to advertisers. Ad revenue per hour spent looking at newspapers’ online editions actually rose from 2008 to 2012. But readers spend vastly less time with online news stories than with their print counterparts. The web, in other words, is squeezing revenues where attention spans have proved durable and is boosting them where attention is fleeting.

Early in the web era publications needed to decide whether online news would cannibalise their existing business or complement it—and could therefore be given away. Many papers bet that online consumption might whet readers’ appetites for news, much as free airtime on the radio boosts rather than undermines album sales. Some enjoyed a brief rise in profits as a result, as fast-growing online-ad income supplemented earnings from print.

Yet in an analysis in 2007 of an earlier survey of the news market of Washington, DC, Mr Gentzkow found that this symbiosis was superficial. Some voracious readers reacted to free online news by consuming much more news overall. This helped total reading to rise, obscuring a shift among the majority of readers away from paid products towards free ones, Mr Gentzkow found. Had more newspapers charged for online content (as growing numbers, including The Economist, have since opted to do), print readership and profits might have been higher.

All the news that fits your beliefs

The travails of old media would trouble few outside the industry, but for the fact that the news business nurtures an informed citizenry, a public good of some value. Mr Gentzkow’s work also explores the effects of the upheaval in the industry on the marketplace for ideas. In particular, he examines the fear that both the provision and the consumption of news in America are becoming more partisan, with biased news outlets devoting little time in their programming to alternative points of view and biased consumers not bothering to seek them out elsewhere.

It is perfectly rational, argue Mr Gentzkow and a frequent collaborator, Jesse Shapiro, also of the University of Chicago, for readers to mistrust publications that challenge their prior convictions (that Elvis Presley is dead, for instance). Since readers seek out news that confirms their own views, publications have an incentive to specialise in an ideological niche, so as to cultivate a loyal audience. And that, it turns out, is what they do: slant in local papers tends to track local political beliefs rather than the ideological predisposition of newspaper owners or editors, the pair found in a paper published in 2010.

In competitive markets, however, this specialisation breeds a diverse marketplace, with lots of papers hewing to a variety of different world views. That, the authors reason, raises the odds that outright dishonesty in reporting will be exposed, and places a check on how distorted news can become. In a paper published in 2006 they found that more competitive media markets were less biased in their coverage of the 2000 presidential election, as measured by the share of time devoted to each candidate.

A diverse market would still be a worry, however, if it prompted readers to cocoon themselves in ideological “echo chambers”. Such self-segregation could impede transmission of accurate information and throw a wrench in the already creaky mechanics of democracy. Yet in a 2011 paper, Messrs Gentzkow and Shapiro conclude that these fears are overstated. The authors define a publication’s slant by examining the share of readers reporting a particular ideological leaning (“liberal” or “conservative”). They then examine detailed browsing data to see, for example, whether visitors to a given “conservative” site tend to stick with right-leaning news sources or venture more widely.

Online news is more segregated than television news or local newspapers, the authors find, but less so than national newspapers (and much less so than personal interactions among friends and family). Most consumers turn to mainstream sources for at least some of their news—on the weather, sports or business, say. Many of the readers who spend time at more partisan sites are wide-rangers, who are also more likely to end up at partisan sites on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum. Even more strikingly, segregation does not appear to be rising over time. Mr Gentzkow’s body of work reinforces the simple but reassuring point that what readers want most is to be informed.

Studies cited in this article:

Paul Ryan’s much-needed history lesson: What he really needs to learn about urban poverty1

Paul Ryan's much-needed history lesson: What he really needs to learn about urban poverty

Paul Ryan is intent on learning about poor people, a new glowing profile by BuzzFeed’s McKay Coppins explains, and he’s going to do it by talking to some. Ryan, you’ll recall, recently opined that a “tailspin of culture” within inner cities is effectively causing urban poverty, remarks that demonstrate just how much the congressman is in need of education on the topic.

The central problem with his remark about culture is that it ignores the long history of poverty within the urban centers of our country. Whereas Ryan and the GOP would like to present this dilemma as merely a cultural divide, a closer look at U.S. history shatters this oversimplified narrative. Back in the late 1800s, muckrakers like Jacob Riis and Lincoln Steffens described a strikingly familiar world where gangs, crime, and corruption reigned within American cities. This was an era when inner cities were dominated byEuropean immigrants, not African-Americans, yet still faced the same poverty and strife of today.

Written in 1890, “How the Other Half Lives” by Jacob Riis provides a glimpse of urban life familiar to the inner city youth of 2014. For example, gangs were as much a product of their environment back then as they are today. As explained by Riis, “The gang is the ripe fruit of tenement-house growth. It was born there, endowed with a heritage of instinctive hostility to restraint by a generation that sacrificed home to freedom, or left its country for its country’s good.” In this quote about gangs, Jacob Riis isn’t speaking about African-Americans. He is referring to European immigrants; Irish, Italian, Jewish, and Polish immigrants who lived in crowded New York tenements.

Riis doesn’t blame the various social and economic dilemmas of the tenements on a “tailspin of culture.” Rather, the famed journalist goes into great detail, uncovering the multitude of reasons why tenement life was so difficult on recent European immigrants. He describes the inhabitants of the tenements as suffering from overcrowded dwellings, corrupt political machines, life-threatening public health conditions, child labor, gangs, and juvenile crime. As Riis states in “How the Other Half Lives,” endemic poverty was entrenched in the tenements:

Article continues:

A New Poll Highlights the Splintered State of the Republican Party – Bob and Barbara Dreyfuss on April 29, 2014 – 12:00 PM ET

GOP convention

The 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

There’s good news and bad news for Chris Christie in a new nationwide public opinion poll released today by Fairleigh Dickinson’s Public Mind. The good news is that despite his nonstop troubles since last fall, the New Jersey governor runs pretty much even with the rest of the Republican party’s leading would-be candidates for 2016. (The poll tested Christie head-to-head with Hillary Clinton, along with similar matchups for Rand Paul, Jeb Bush, Paul Ryan and Mike Huckabee.) But that’s also the bad news. After his 60-percent-plus re-election win last November, Christie might have been positioned to be a clear front-runner for 2016. Now, not so much.

And there’s some more bad news for Christie and his GOP competitors: not one of them gets any traction—at least not so far, though it really too early to read too much into it—when pitted against Clinton. In the poll, Clinton leads Christie 46-36 percent, and she leads the rest of the field, too, by margins that are pretty much identical, given the poll’s margin of error: 48-37 vs. Paul, 49-33 vs. Bush, 49-36 vs. Huckabee and 46-38 vs. Ryan.

Some of what the poll measures is simply name recognition, says Krista Jenkins, associate professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson University in northern New Jersey and the executive director of its Public Mind polling unit. And in that case, Hillary Clinton is almost universally recognized, whereas the Republican candidates, at least nationally, are far less known.

It does, however, does raise an interesting question about Jeb Bush, whose last name, at least, is part of a dynasty at least as well known as the Clintons’. If so, perhaps there’s a small message in the poll results for Bush, despite his widely recognized name. According to the numbers, Bush does least well head-to-head against Clinton, especially among women, where Clinton beats Bush by a hefty margin of 55-30 percent. If it means anything, it could be that American voters react instinctively, and negatively, to “another Bush,” and not so much to “another Clinton.”

Article continues: