Off the Wires

Clooney: Sanders is right about 'obscene' amount of money in politics

April 18th, 2016  |  Source: The Hill.com

Actor George Clooney, a major fundraiser for Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton, said that it’s “ridiculous” and “obscene” how much money goes into presidential campaigns.

In an excerpt of an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press” taped for Sunday, Clooney was asked if he thought the price of admission to attend a fundraiser the actor is hosting is an “obscene amount of money.”

“Yes, I think it’s an obscene amount of money,” Clooney responded. “You know, we had some protesters last night when we pulled up in San Francisco — and they’re right to protest, they’re absolutely right, it’s an obscene amount of money. The Sanders campaign, when they talk about it, is absolutely right. It’s ridiculous that we should have this kind of money in politics, I agree.”

The actor and his wife, Amal, hosted a fundraiser on Friday night for the former secretary of State, charging couples $353,400 to sit at a table with Clinton and the Clooneys. They are throwing another high-dollar fundraising event Saturday night.

In March, Clinton’s opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), used the word “obscene” to describe the price of admission for Clooney’s fundraiser.

“It is obscene that Secretary Clinton keeps going to big-money people to fund her campaign,” the Vermont senator said on CNN's "State of the Union."

“I have a lot of respect for George Clooney,” he added. “He’s a great actor. I like him. But this is the point. This is the problem with American politics, is that big money is dominating our political system, and we are trying to move as far away from that as we can.”


Israeli military struggles with rising influence of Religious-Zionists

April 15th, 2016  |  Source: Reuters

Nowhere is the growing clout and reach of religious nationalists in Israel more apparent than in its military. Some have begun to push back.

On a searing night in July 2014, Israeli troops gathered on the border with Gaza to prepare for war. Hamas militants had been firing rockets into Israel for days, and Israeli warplanes had begun bombing the Palestinian territory.

The orders for the Givati brigade, an elite infantry unit, came in a typed, single-page letter.

“History has chosen us to spearhead the fight against the terrorist Gazan enemy who curses, vilifies and abominates Israel’s God,” Colonel Ofer Winter, the unit’s commanding officer, wrote in the letter to his troops. He ended with a biblical quote promising divine protection for Israel’s warriors on the battlefield.

The letter quickly circulated on social media and from there to the press. Secular Israelis condemned it, saying it broke a decades-old convention that kept religion out of military missions.

Two years on, the letter remains a symbol of a profound shift within Israeli society: the rising power and reach of religious nationalists. The change has set up a battle for the type of country Israel should be, a battle between the country’s liberals and its more religious nationalist camp.

In its early years, Israel’s two main centres of power – the military and the government – were dominated by the secular and mostly left-wing elite who had founded the state in 1948. But over the past decade or so a new generation of leaders that combines religion and nationalism has emerged.

Religious-Zionism differs from secular Zionism in its historical perspective and messianic undertones. For Religious-Zionists, caring for places like Jewish settlements in the West Bank – the biblical bedrock of Judaism, but also claimed by Palestinians as their home – is a way of fulfilling a religious obligation and building the Jewish state.  

The community, sometimes referred to as the ‘national religious’, has increased its presence in both government and the civil service. This year, for the first time ever, the heads of the national police, the Mossad spy agency and the Shin Bet domestic security service are all Religious-Zionists.

Nowhere, though, has the shift been more pronounced than in the military. Most soldiers in the Israeli army are secular or observant Jews, though Druze and Bedouin Arab citizens serve as well. But over the past two decades, academic studies show, the number of Religious-Zionist officers in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) has seen a huge increase. The military has also felt the growing influence of rabbis who have introduced matters of faith and politics to the battlefield.

Some politicians and military leaders have begun to push back.

In January, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot announced he would remove a 15-year-old unit dedicated to “Jewish Awareness” from the military rabbinate – the department in charge of providing religious services within the ranks. The Jewish Awareness Branch has periodically drawn criticism from both inside and outside the military for pushing an ideological, right-wing and religious agenda. Some secular Israelis worry that too much religion in the military may lead to soldiers questioning who they should obey: their officer or God.

Read on here: http://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/israel-military-religion/

 


Putin says shares Russians' pain over economic hardship

April 14th, 2016  |  Source: Reuters

President Vladimir Putin assured ordinary Russians on Thursday that he was trying to relieve the hardships inflicted on them by the slowing economy and the financial knock-on effects of Russia's stand-off with the West.

Putin used a televised phone-in, an annual event when he fields questions from ordinary citizens around the country, to strike a conciliatory tone on foreign policy, saying Russia wanted friendly relations with the rest of the world.

Wrapping up the event after three hours and 40 minutes, Putin said he had heard a lot of impassioned questions from worried citizens. Many of the questions were about issues such as high inflation, poor public services and wage arrears.

"I share your concerns in nearly 100 percent of cases," Putin said. "We'll work together so that your problems are relieved."

Addressing public concerns over the economy is crucial for the Kremlin because Russians vote in a parliamentary election in September.

The phone-in did not feature criticism directed personally at Putin. Executives at state television, which is deferential to the Kremlin, controlled who had the chance to pose questions. His critics say the phone-in is a ritual designed to mask the lack of true democracy.

But the event provided an opportunity for Putin to show he has voters' interests at heart, in part by hauling officials over the coals for failing to protect citizens.

Putin took questions via video link from two women, Tatiana and Yelena, who said they had not been paid for months of work at a fish processing plant on a Pacific island, and that officials ignored their complaints.

The issue is a widespread one since Russia's economy slowed, with businesses that are struggling with falling sales often delaying wages.

The Russian president, live on air, instructed his prosecutor-general to think about firing the local prosecutor for failing to act on the women's complaints.

Read on here: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-putin-idUSKCN0XB12R


Peabody, world's top private coal miner, files for bankruptcy

April 13th, 2016  |  Source: Reuters

Peabody Energy Corp (BTU.N) filed for U.S. bankruptcy protection on Wednesday after a sharp drop in coal prices left it unable to service debt of $10.1 billion, much of it incurred for an expansion into Australia.

The Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing from Peabody, the world's biggest private-sector coal producer, ranks among the largest in the commodities sector since energy and metal prices began to fall in mid-2014 as once fast-growing markets such as China and Brazil started to slow.

Unlike most large corporate bankruptcies, Peabody's filing did not sketch out a plan for cutting debt, although it said it expected its mines to continue to operate as usual.

Peabody estimated its assets at $11.0 billion and liabilities at $10.1 billion as of the end of 2015, according to court documents.

The St. Louis-based company said its planned sale of mines in New Mexico and Colorado had fallen through and that its Australian operations were excluded from the bankruptcy filing.

Peabody has secured $800 million in debtor-in-possession financing from both secured and unsecured creditors, including a $500 million term loan, $200 million bonding accommodation facility and a letter of credit worth $100 million, it said.

"This process enables us to strengthen liquidity and reduce debt, build upon the significant operational achievements we've made in recent years and lay the foundation for long-term stability and success in the future," Peabody Chief Executive Officer Glenn Kellow said in a statement.

Shares of Peabody, which closed at $2.07 on Tuesday, were halted on Wednesday.

Debt troubles for Peabody date back to its $5.1 billion leveraged buyout of Macarthur Coal in 2011, just when prices peaked for the metallurgical coal that the Australian company supplies to Asian steel mills.

As demand for metallurgical coal fell, particularly in China, Peabody's financial woes intensified. The company took a $700 million writedown on its Australian metallurgical coal assets last year.

At home, the U.S. shale boom of the past few years made natural gas competitive with thermal coal, and the Obama administration's environmental regulations raised operational costs.

"2016 will probably go down as the worst year in history for U.S. coal," JPMorgan said in an analyst note to clients on Tuesday. U.S. production declined 31 percent in the first quarter from a year earlier, although stockpiles still remain high, the note said.

Producers accounting for about 45 percent of U.S. coal output have filed for bankruptcy in the current industry downturn, based on 2014 government figures.

Peabody reached an agreement with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in November to amend its disclosures to warn investors that concerns about the environmental impact of coal consumption could have a significant impact on demand for its products.

While coal use has stalled globally, largely because of China's economic slowdown and efforts to protect domestic miners and rein in rampant pollution, most analysts expect consumption to remain stable or rise in the future.

Some 500 coal-fired power stations are under construction. Eighty percent of them are in the Asia-Pacific region, where consumption is still growing in emerging markets as well as developed economies such as Japan and South Korea.


`Barclays Premier League' Winds Down Along With Bank's Ambitions

April 12th, 2016  |  Source: Bloomberg

Soccer league will have several top sponsors, not just one. Barclays deal was worth 40 million pounds to Premier League       

For the last 15 years, Barclays Plc has used the global popularity of Premier League soccer to gain footing in new markets. Next month, its reign as title sponsor ends, a reflection of the league’s growing ambitions and the bank’s shrinking ones.

Barclays’ strategy has changed dramatically in the three years since it last renewed the 40 million-pounds-per-year sponsorship ($57 million). About 20 billion pounds of profit has been wiped out by misconduct charges over the last five years, and its plans for global dominance have retrenched.

Since 2014 Barclays has withdrawn from its European retail operations in Spain, Italy and Portugal, and in March announced plans to leave Asia and Africa, regions where the Premier League counts some of its most avid fans. As well as turning away from seven Asian countries, Barclays is looking for a buyer for a 62 percent stake in Barclays Africa. The focus for now is on core business in the U.K. and the U.S.

It has also pulled back from other high-profile sponsorships, including tennis’s World Tour Finals. “The thing you pay the big money for -- which is to put your name on the top -- no longer was relevant for us as a business,” Barclays global head of sponsorships, Nathan Homer, said in an interview.

At the same time, the Premier League has grown unabated. Television revenue will be $2.5 billion a year next season, and the value of the title sponsorship has grown more than tenfold in 23 years.

To capitalize on its own popularity, the league has decided to forgo a title sponsor entirely. Like the National Football League, the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics, the Premier League will instead try to add sponsors in each of seven categories. Nike Inc. has become the official ball sponsor, Electronic Arts Inc. is the sports technology partner, and the league is close to naming an official beer.

Barclays will stay on as the official bank. “It couldn’t have suited us better,” said Homer, who said the role will cost Barclays about one-quarter of what it paid for the title sponsorship.

Looking back on one of soccer’s longest-lasting commercial relationships, Homer said Barclays got more than an advertising boost. The deal required the league to use the bank for all of its financial transactions, which have increased significantly in number and value over the years.

“Overseas rights have gone from just under 50 million pounds in year one to nearly a billion a year now -- all of that had to come through foreign exchange to become pounds in the bank,” he said. “So there’s a very attractive revenue side to becoming a partner with the Premier League before you even think about all the benefits a marketing partner would enjoy.”

Fourteen of the league’s 20 teams also bank with Barclays, giving the lender access to millionaire players, coaches and deep-pocketed owners. Meanwhile, the relationship gave Barclays instant recognition in its new target markets -- the Premier League is watched in 212 territories and its most-famous team, Manchester United, claims to have a global following of 659 million.

“As we expanded, it was a very simple awareness and brand stature that worked very efficiently: ‘If Barclays can afford to sponsor the Premier League they must be a serious player in the business,’” Homer said.

The new agreement gives Barclays the first right to any of the league’s banking needs, though its exclusive access to teams is over. Homer is confident most will stay with his bank. “It’s not as easy as saying I’m going change my beer from one to another and just change the barrel.”


PANAMA PAPERS: DAVID CAMERON FAVORITE TO RESIGN NEXT

April 8th, 2016  |  Source: paddypower.com

Irish bookmaker Paddy Power has been forced to cut David Cameron into 11/2 favourite to step down next in the Panama Papers scandal, after the Tory leader admitted  that he did have a profitable stake in his father’s offshore investment fund.

In Grand National week, Cameron’s long-overdue admission is the equivalent of a first fence faller, and Paddy has cut Cameron from 20/1 to just 11/2 to step down after a series of chunky bets in the Downing Street area.

Cameron is one of thousands of public figures and high-wealth individuals who have been identified since the scandal broke last week, after 11.5 million confidential documents providing details on over 214,000 offshore companies were leaked.

Over the past five days Downing Street staffers have repeatedly denied Cameron’s hand in the matter, but the PM came clean in an interview with ITV News last night – although reiterated he’d done nothing wrong.

The revelation has certainly trumped pig-gate for the our elected leader, and Cameron has hogged today’s front pages amid calls from Labour opposition for him to step down.

As the fallout from the unprecedented scandal continues, Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri remains solid in the betting at 8/1, while there’s been sweet money for Ukrainian leader Petro Poroshenko who has shortened from 10s into 8s.

Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif remains at 10/1, while President Xi Jinping of China, Russia’s Putin, and Francois Hollande are all friendless in the betting so far at 33/1 apiece.


Mega deals morph into mega problems for Wall Street

April 7th, 2016  |  Source: Reuters

If 2015 was a dream year for Wall Street's top dealmakers, 2016 is starting to take a nightmarish turn.

Some of the mega transactions that had champagne corks popping in boardrooms are running into antitrust problems and, in the case of pharmaceutical firm Pfizer Inc's (PFE.N) $160 billion takeover of rival Allergan PLC (AGN.N), political opposition to a deal that envisaged the biggest drug company in the United States moving to Ireland to lower its taxes.

The U.S. Treasury unveiled new rules this week that, while they did not name Pfizer and Allergan, had provisions that targeted a specific feature of their agreement and prompted both parties to walk away from what would have been the second-largest deal of all time.

The move by the Obama administration to suddenly change the rules has sent a chilling message to dealmakers and comes on top of a number of legal challenges to big transactions such as Halliburton Co's (HAL.N) takeover of rival oil services company Baker Hughes Inc (BHI.N) on antitrust grounds.

The political uncertainty and antitrust concerns mean that firms will think twice about future tie-ups that consolidate industries and move tax dollars offshore.

"As uncertainty increases on multiple fronts, companies are markedly more cautious and the number of transformational deals worth $10 billion or more has significantly dropped this quarter compared to last year," said Luigi Rizzo, head of mergers and acquisitions (M&A) for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

The new U.S. rules do not directly affect most inversion deals, in which an American company buys a foreign counterpart and then moves abroad to lower its tax bill, but they have sent a message to company bosses about the risks of attempting to move their tax addresses overseas.

Intercontinental Exchange Inc (ICE.N), the U.S. exchange considering a bid for the London Stock Exchange Group PLC (LSE.L), has ruled out structuring any possible deal for the LSE as an inversion, despite it being possible to do so, according to people familiar with the internal deliberations, who declined to be identified.

Intercontinental Exchange declined to comment.

Tax inversions have been a political hot button issue in Washington for years.

The rules unveiled this week were the Obama administration's third effort to stop U.S. companies renouncing their American citizenship but they are only a temporary stopgap.

Formal legislation to overhaul U.S. tax rules would be needed to bring a permanent end to the practice.

"We have succeeded in making it significantly harder for companies to strike inversion deals and redomicile overseas," said U.S. congressman Peter Welch. "But we still need action in Congress."

With a U.S. presidential campaign looming later this year there is much uncertainty about what shape such legislation would take, making deals all the more difficult to strike.

UNIQUE CHALLENGES

Last year was a record for M&A and a bumper year for mega matches. Out of the $4.6 trillion in deals inked, the number of individual transactions that exceeded $30 billion in value was 18 compared with seven deals worth more than $30 billion in 2014, Thomson Reuters data showed.

But the consequence of greater consolidation is increased scrutiny by antitrust officials. That was exemplified on Wednesday by the U.S. government filing a lawsuit to stop Halliburton from buying Baker Hughes, arguing the combination of the No. 2 and No. 3 oil services companies would lead to higher prices in the sector.

The Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which enforce antitrust law, have filed lawsuits to stop an unusually high number of deals in the past 18 months. FTC officials are in court this week to block a merger between Staples Inc (SPLS.O) and Office Depot Inc (ODP.O).

"It isn't just the number of proposed deals that makes this a unique moment in antitrust enforcement; it's their size and their complexity," U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in a speech on Wednesday.

"This represents a remarkable shift toward consolidation and it presents unique challenges to federal enforcers in our work to maintain markets that serve not just top executives and majority shareholders, but every American."

In Europe, meanwhile, talks between Orange SA (ORAN.PA) and Bouygues SA (BOUY.PA) to create a dominant French telecoms operator collapsed last week, amid competition concerns and a stand-off between Martin Bouygues and French Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron about the clout the billionaire would have gained in the former state monopoly, according to people familiar with the matter.

For bankers, scuttled deals cost money.

Investment banks on the Pfizer and Allergan deal, including Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, Centerview and Moelis, lost more than $200 million in fees when the companies walked, showed data from consultancy Freeman & Co.


Swiss police raid UEFA as Panama Papers scandal spreads

April 6th, 2016  |  Source: Reuters

Swiss police raided the European soccer body UEFA on Wednesday to seize information about a contract disclosed in the Panama Papers that was signed by Gianni Infantino, now head of the global soccer body FIFA.

The impact of the leaked documents from a Panamanian law firm is snowballing, with Iceland facing a political crisis after its prime minister stepped aside on Tuesday following revelations about his wife's finances.

Recently elected Infantino joined a growing list of public figures and political leaders whose financial arrangements have come under scrutiny after the release of the 11.5 million documents, which have caused public outrage over how the rich and powerful can hide money to avoid taxes.

Infantino said he was "dismayed that his integrity was being doubted" by media reports which said the contract he signed several years ago as a UEFA official sold broadcast rights at a low price to a company which sold them on at a far higher price.

Reuters, which has not seen the documents, was unable to confirm this and UEFA denied that the rights were sold at below the market price.

"UEFA can confirm that today we received a visit from the office of the Swiss Federal Police acting under a warrant and requesting sight of the contracts between UEFA and Cross Trading/Teleamazonas," UEFA said in a statement.

British Prime Minister David Cameron also faced another day of questions about his finances, because his late father was among the tens of thousands of people named in the documents from law firm Mossack Fonseca, which has denied any wrongdoing.

After having at first described it as a private matter, Cameron's office said on Tuesday that he and his family did not benefit from any such funds at present. Cameron also said he did not own any shares or have any offshore funds.

But his failure to say whether he or his family would benefit in future only intensified media speculation, with the story splashed across many newspaper front pages on Wednesday.


New U.S. tax rules throw $160 billion merger into doubt

April 5th, 2016  |  Source: CNN

Allergan shares are on track to open sharply lower Tuesday after the U.S. Treasury announced new policies that threaten Pfizer's takeover of the Ireland-based Botox maker.

The pending $160 billion merger between Pfizer (PFE) and Allergan (AGN) is the second-biggest takeover deal of all time, according to Dealogic.

The massive deal, announced in November, would see New York-based Pfizer shift its headquarters to Ireland, a move that could reduce its tax bill. The structure is emblematic of the "tax inversion" deals that have become popular in recent years.

Treasury rules announced Monday will clamp down on companies that try to reduce their tax bills by merging with foreign firms.

Pfizer and Allergan issued a joint statement on Monday saying they were reviewing the Treasury's announcement and wouldn't "speculate on any potential impact."

But worried investors pushed Allergan shares down by about 20% in premarket trading. If the stock opens at the reduced price, roughly $22.5 billion will be wiped from Allergan's market capitalization.

Pfizer shares edged higher by about 2.5% before the open.

Pfizer has been openly critical of the U.S. corporate tax system.

In 2014, it tried unsuccessfully to acquire British drug maker AstraZeneca (AZN) and it didn't hide the fact that tax savings were one of the main drivers.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew did not mince words when he talked about the problems of corporate inversions on Monday.

"Many of these companies continue to take advantage of the benefits of being based in the United States -- including our rule of law, skilled workforce, infrastructure, and research and development capabilities -- all while shifting a greater tax burden to other businesses and American families," he said.


World figures deny wrongdoing as 'Panama Papers' turn spotlight on tax evasion

April 4th, 2016  |  Source: Reuters

Governments across the world began investigating possible financial wrongdoing by the rich and powerful on Monday following a leak of documents from a Panamanian law firm which allegedly showed how clients avoided tax or laundered money.

The documents detailed schemes involving an array of figures from friends of Russian President Vladimir Putin to relatives of the prime ministers of Britain, Iceland and Pakistan and as well as the president of Ukraine, journalists who received them said.

While the "Panama Papers" detail complex financial arrangements benefiting the world's elite, they do not necessarily mean the schemes were all illegal.

The Kremlin said the documents contained "nothing concrete and nothing new" while a spokesman for British Prime Minister David Cameron said his late father's reported links to an offshore company were a "private matter".

Iceland's Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson could not immediately be reached for comment on the naming of his wife in connection with a secretive company in an offshore haven which brought opposition calls for him to resign.

Pakistan denied any wrongdoing by the family of Prime Minister Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif after his daughter and son were linked to offshore companies. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has not commented on his reported offshore links.

Australia, Austria, Brazil, France and Sweden were among countries which said they had begun investigating the allegations, based on more than 11.5 million documents from law firm Mossack Fonseca, located in the tax haven of Panama. Banks as well as individual clients came under the spotlight.

The documents were leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and more than 100 other news organizations. Mossack Fonseca has denied any wrongdoing.

"I think the leak will prove to be probably the biggest blow the offshore world has ever taken because of the extent of the documents," ICJC director Gerard Ryle said.

ARMS AND DRUGS?

The material covers a period over almost 40 years, from 1977 until last December, and allegedly show that some companies domiciled in tax havens were being used for suspected money laundering, arms and drug deals, and tax evasion.

Britain's Guardian newspaper said the documents showed a network of secret offshore deals and loans worth $2 billion led to close friends of Putin, including concert cellist Sergei Roldugin. Reuters could not confirm those details.

Putin's spokesman dismissed the reports, saying they aimed to discredit him ahead of upcoming elections.

"This Putinophobia abroad has reached such a point that it is in fact taboo to say something good about Russia, or about any actions by Russia or any Russian achievements. But it's a must to say bad things, a lot of bad things, and when there's nothing to say, it must be concocted. This is evident to us."

The British government asked for a copy of the leaked data, which could be embarrassing for Prime Minister Cameron, who has spoken out against tax evasion and tax avoidance.




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