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For some at Bear, opportunity knocks

Last updated on: March 20, 2008 12:44 IST

Well, that didn't take long. The shock and anger that had consumed Bear Stearns' 14,000 employees on Sunday afternoon had, by mid-week, yielded to a sense that the door of opportunity may have just opened.

At least for some of the top talent at Bear, that is. Some of the other major Wall Street firms are beginning to ring up Bear brokers with offers of jobs and healthy signing bonuses - as much as $2m, according to Bloomberg News.

This applies to only a small group at Bear - the 550 or so brokers who handle big accounts of individuals.

Still, $2m could take a bit - if only just a bit - of the sting out of the losses they took from the collapse in Bear's share price. If only Joseph Lewis, the British financier who bought a 9 per cent stake in Bear last year for $1.1bn only to watch the value plunge, could figure out a way to ease the pain.

A bit too specific

One of the most striking features of the presidential election campaign under way in Taiwan has been the absence of the passion that has gripped the entire society in past races.

The same, however, cannot be said of the stock market. Foreign analysts have been outbidding each other with ambitious index targets, thinking that the polls could bring a new start in economic links with China - which in turn could trigger a re-rating of the island's long-undervalued market.

Last week, the Taiwan Stock Exchange signalled the game had gone too far after local media reported that Timothy Moe, a Hong Kong-based analyst at Goldman Sachs, had predicted that the bourse's key index, the Taiex, would fall off a cliff should the ruling Democratic Progressive party win; on the other hand, it would soar should the opposition Kuomintang come first.

The exchange paid Goldman's Taipei office an unannounced visit and demanded to know how the newspaper got hold of the research report. Taiwanese law indeed prohibits analysts publicly issuing overly specific predictions, and the Goldman incident sent foreign brokerages scrambling to 'clean' their mailing lists.

But that will be the end of it - for all Goldman could say was that it didn't know how the research got out, and all the exchange can do is live with that. There are only two more trading days before the polls anyway.

Silent partner

China might be locked in a battle with the large Anglo-Australian miners over iron ore contract prices but it will be sharing the podium with BHP Billiton during this year's Beijing Olympics.

The 'Big Australian', as BHP is known, has the grand title of Official Diversified Minerals and Metals Sponsor to this year's Olympics, a role the Chinese may now find a little irksome given fractious talks over iron ore contract prices and China's recent moves to freeze iron ore shipments emanating from Western Australia.

In return for an unspecified amount of cash plus 13.4kg of gold, more than a tonne of silver and nearly seven tonnes of copper to make the medals for the Olympic and Paralympic games, BHP is able to use the Olympics logo to promote its business.

But the Chinese are probably thankful that BHP has not gone in for high-profile advertising and billboards to promote its Olympics sponsorship deal. Instead, it has opted for a more low-key approach and is using its Olympics association to promote itself to employees and customers.

It should be lost on no one that China is the world's biggest customer of iron ore - and generates close to 20 per cent of BHP's sales.

More to come?

Open season, it seems, has been declared on Germans holding secret bank accounts outside their borders.

Hard on the heels of recent revelations about data theft at two Liechtenstein banks, Wednesday's Stuttgarter Nachrichten, a leading newspaper in the south German state of Baden-Wurttemberg, carried a story that regional officials had been contacted by an anonymous source offering information about more secret accounts - this time in Switzerland.

Officials at the state finance ministry in Stuttgart confirmed the report, but stressed caution as the source was indeed unidentified and had simply said it would make contact again.

Prosecutors in the northern German city of Bochum, who have been spearheading investigations into some of the Liechtenstein accounts, were even more circumspect, noting that the purported 30,000 clients affected seemed an awfully large number.

What will be next? So far only little Luxembourg, that other favoured tax haven for Germans, has evaded mention. Given the rising orders of magnitude, maybe the next 'leak' will be about 300,000 undeclared German accounts in that tiny nation.

Quick take

Observer has nothing but admiration (and gratitude) for providers of those rush transcripts of presidential speeches and corporate conference calls. Still, every now and then one of them produces a howler, as was the case with Lehman Brothers' earnings conference call this week.

According to the transcript, this was one of the call's last questions: "And then I think you guys said that the update on lavatory assets ..." reads the start of the analyst's question. Later, they are called 'laboratory' assets. Give the transcriber credit for trying to sound out words that aren't exactly used every day. Few had heard of "Level 3" assets until about a week ago.