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The Biz Roundup January 18

Two headlines, same business page, same newspaper.

Bailout Is a Windfall to Banks, if Not to Borrowers
. . . Most of the banks that received the money [TARP bailout funds] are far smaller than behemoths like Citigroup or Bank of America. A review of investor presentations and conference calls by executives of some two dozen banks around the country found that few cited lending as a priority. An overwhelming majority saw the bailout program as a no-strings-attached windfall that could be used to pay down debt, acquire other businesses or invest for the future. . . .

Obama Urged to Move Swiftly to Rescue Banks
A growing chorus of officials and Wall Street executives have urged President-elect Barack Obama to move immediately to shore up the banking industry as its crisis deepens. . . .

(New York Times, January 18) I’m telling you, Keanu Reeves came down from Planet Zero and zapped all the financial geniuses in the world with his Dada gun. You think that’s crazy? Exhibit number one: Tristan Tzara explained the TARP program way back in 1918: “DADA doesn’t speak. DADA has no fixed idea. DADA doesn’t catch flies. THE MINISTRY IS OVERTURNED. By whom? By Dada.”

Wasn’t Ponzi a character in Happy Days?

US futures regulators are seeing a jump in the number of “Ponzi” schemes coming to light in their markets as the $50bn fraud allegedly perpetrated by Bernard Madoff prompts fraudsters to confess.

The development is a sign that the fall-out is spreading beyond the markets in which Mr Madoff was active as the collapse of his fund prompts widespread client redemptions. . . .

Many cases were the result of investors, aware of the high-profile Madoff case, challenging their investment managers over the high returns they appeared to be generating for them.

(“CFTC sees rise in number of ‘Ponzi’ schemes,” Financial Times, January 18) Numbers never lie, people do. Anyway, it really is all about which primal emotion happens to be ruling at the time. When it’s greed, then folks love the big returns. “12% return? Yeah!!” When it’s fear, then the big returns prompt them to call their lawyers. “12% return? Aiyeeee!!”

The other housing crisis

If the city’s numbers are accurate, Los Angeles has been losing a massive supply of affordable housing, while city leaders repeatedly take credit for approving 10,000 to 14,000 new units during each boom year — one of the busiest construction periods since the end of World War II. In the face of widespread neighborhood resistance to this most recent boom, city planners approved often-sprawling luxury complexes in Hollywood, along Wilshire, on the Westside, in the Valley and downtown — while the city was hemorrhaging its existing cheap rental stock.

(“L.A’s Hidden Housing Disaster,” LA Weekly, January 14) It is estimated that over 90% of the rental housing built in L.A. in the last ten years is affordable only for people with annual incomes over $135K per year. The loss of affordable rentals and the deleterious effect of the mortgage crisis on rental prices (they’ve gone up) all over the country is my vote for the most significant unreported economic story of 2008. While I atavistically distrust the ability of municipal governments to guarantee affordable housing, in many cities we’ve allowed the construction boom to pass without shoring up affordable housing across the income spectrum. That’s an anchor around the business economy of the region.

How do you say “Jim Carrey sucks” in Italian?

Universal Pictures, the studio arm of NBC Universal, has bought a stake in a leading Italian film production company in a move that affirms Hollywood’s increasing interest in international cinema markets. . . .

Universal Pictures is keen to invest in local language films. Other studios, namely Walt Disney and Sony Pictures, are also stepping up their efforts internationally.

(“Universal Pictures buys stake in Italy’s Cattleya,” Financial Times, January 18) Since I do a fair amount of work in the movie industry, this move is overdue by decades. And this is not about foreign films being distributed in the States. It’s about getting Hollywood more securely into international markets.

Guess what? They ain’t buying bad or boring movies at Sundance anymore. Who’d’ve thunk?

Amid a tough economy, a veritable decimation of specialty-film divisions and a run of less-than-stellar returns for last year’s crop of Sundance faves, sellers are coming in with much more modest hopes than in other recent editions. And buyers aren’t looking to disabuse them of that outlook. . . .

Last year’s most-ballyhooed Sundance sales found no glory at the domestic box office: Focus Features’ $10 million worldwide acquisition “Hamlet 2,” Searchlights $5 million “Choke,” Overture’s $3.5 million “Henry Poole Is Here,” Paramount Vantage’s $1 million-$2 million “American Teen,” and two Sony Pictures Classics pickups, ‘The Wackness” and ‘Baghead” (which were bought for under $1 million). Overture will finally open its $2 million ’08 pickup “Sunshine Cleaning” on March 13.

(“Sundance expectations tempered,” Variety, January 15) For anyone with experience dealing with the utter irrationality of film investors and distributors, we’ve now entered a period where everyone is being “fiscally conscious” and only interested in “movies that work.” Think about that for a second. That means that all those eager beaver deep-pocketed investors and distributors were “fiscally unconscious” over the last few years funding and buying movies that didn’t work. Yeah, that sounds right. That’s my experience. Lewis Carroll said it best: “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.” “How do you know I’m mad?” “Because you’re here.”

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