"I made 50 million bucks yesterday. That's a flame-out I could get used to." -- Conrad Black, after being forced out as CEO of media giant Hollinger International After watching former Big Five accounting firm Arthur Andersen implode after its Enron (ENRNQ) Corp. entanglement, the surviving Big Four aren't leaving much to chance. PricewaterhouseCoopers and Deloitte & Touche each have shed about 500 clients in the past 18 months because of liability concerns. With earnings being restated at a record clip, shareholder lawsuits have increased. "We have tightened up our standards," says Gregory Weaver, the head of Deloitte's U.S. audit practice. Ernst & Young has parted ways with more than 200 clients. KPMG declined to comment.
The departed clients are mostly smaller concerns whose accounting was either too aggressive -- or they were unwilling to pay more when the Big Four requested premiums for their extra risk. The lost business will cost E&Y close to $100 million this year, while PwC expects a $52 million hit. "When you see what a single failure can do to your reputation, it's a lot easier to avoid the risk," says PwC Vice-Chairman John O'Connor. An extra measure of caution could ensure that the Big Four stay that way. You can get life insurance if you smoke or sky-dive. But good luck if you plan to visit Israel, Colombia, Kenya, or Saudi Arabia. Some big U.S. insurers, including Allstate Corp., won't insure anyone, for any price, who plans in the next three years to visit one of those countries or the other 22 now on the State Dept.'s travel-warning list.
The blacklisting of travelers to Israel is especially odd because it's the only country on the list where the life expectancy of its citizens is greater than in the U.S. Even with the Palestinian intifada, Israel's death rate from intentional injury -- approximately 11 per 100,000 people last year -- is lower than the U.S. rate of about 17. In fact, Israeli life insurers do just fine selling policies domestically.
Couldn't insurers make money by covering travelers to warning-list countries at rates reflecting the actual risk of visiting those countries? "That's not our niche," says Allstate spokeswoman Rebecca Hirsch. And at Georgia State University, Harold Skipper Jr., a professor of risk management, says insurers like to rely on "easy decision rules" -- and the State Dept. list is a ready-made one. An uptick in spending may bode well for Democrats. That's if the spenders use the Democratic Party Platinum Visa card, expected from Providian Financial early next year. The Democratic National Committee gets 1 cents for every dollar spent using the card. Providian says the move isn't political. "[The Party's] a large prospective client list," a spokesman says. Providian also has approached the GOP. And it has spread the wealth itself: Since 2000, Providian has given $239,250 to Republicans and $282,250 to Democrats, even though CEO Joseph Saunders is a registered Republican. Maybe he's waiting for the RNC Visa. Attention, check writers: The end of the float is near. Between automated teller machines and debit cards, check processing was long overdue to speed up. On Oct. 28, President George W. Bush signed a bill known as Check 21, which lets banks exchange digital images of checks, reducing processing costs and fraud. Translation: Most checks will clear in a day, not two to five days.
The legislation has been a favorite of bankers since the 1980s. It gained urgency after September 11, when the transportation system broke down, halting shipments of checks between banks. The new system will save banks about $2.1 billion a year, says Small Value Payments, an electronic payment company owned by 22 large banks.
What's good for bankers may not be good for consumers. Check 21 sinks consumers' ability to write checks first and deposit funds later. "People will refrain from writing checks until they have money in their accounts," says Paul Murphy Jr., CEO of Southwest Bank of Texas. The bill doesn't go into effect until Oct. 28, 2004, so check floaters can beat the system a bit longer. American Airlines (AMR) has found a novel way to pay for internal "newscasts" to employees: selling ads.
In American's deal with Affinity Online Media, Affinity will sell advertising for each of 10 broadcasts it produces in the next year. Affinity will cover the costs and keep the revenue, saving American $30,000 per show. The December newscast will carry ads from Hertz (HJA), Avis, and Coca-Cola (KO). Workers, however, won't see ads from Southwest (LUV) or JetBlue (JBLU). American can still screen advertisers. John Garamendi is the master of disaster. As California's first elected State Insurance Commissioner, he helped oversee recovery efforts after the Oakland Hills fires and the Northridge earthquake in the early '90s. Now, he's tackling the aftermath of the Southern California wildfires, which have generated 7,900 claims covering more than $2 billion.
Garamendi, 57, an advocate for consumers' rights, is helping the latest fire victims. After previous disasters, insurers stopped writing policy that guaranteed full replacement of property. So those whose homes have appreciated may be in the hole financially. That makes them easy prey for insurance crooks who promise to recoup more than a policy is worth -- for a fee -- then disappear. Garamendi is investigating 31 possible fraud cases and is holding workshops for victims: "We're trying to make sure the victims don't get burned twice," he says. If you're a space buff with a few million bucks to spare, you might want to check out an unprecedented auction on eBay. A Poway (Calif.) company, SpaceDev, is offering to build and launch your very own low-orbit satellite for the buy-it-now price of $9.5 million. That gets you exclusive use of a satellite similar to the one it built for scientists at the University of California at Berkeley to study temperature fluctuations in deep space.
SpaceDev hopes to sell two or three satellites on eBay this year. If you're the winning bidder, you can control your bird from home via the Internet. To recover some of the cost, you can rent temporary control to others, like a time share, or sell pictures of the earth taken from space. Both ideas, however, seem to fall in the if-you-have-to-ask-you-can't-afford-it category.
Perhaps more realistic is the ego appeal: There might be a TV documentary chronicling the first private-person satellite mission, from design and assembly of the spacecraft -- with your participation -- to the bird's fiery reentry into the atmosphere after circling the globe for a year or so. "We've got to move space out of the government sector," says SpaceDev Chief Executive James Benson. "That's how space will flourish as a business."
So far, interest in the auction hasn't taken off. The only bid -- $250,000 -- falls far short. But SpaceDev plans to run auctions until early December. So there are still plenty of shopping days left if you're looking for that perfect gift for the billionaire who has everything. Some democratic Presidential hopefuls aren't just leaning on their rich pals for campaign money. They're tapping their staffs for campaign cash -- especially when it's time to meet quarterly fundraising goals. About 40% of donations from staffers came in the last days of each of the past three quarters, says watchdog Opensecrets.org. "That's awfully fortuitous timing," says Carol Darr, a political science professor at George Washington University.
Senator Joseph Lieberman raised the most from staffers: $25,000. Senator John Edwards, Representative Richard Gephardt, and former Vermont Governor Howard Dean each took in more than $20,000, while Senator John Kerry got $5,800. "We like to practice what we preach," says a Lieberman spokesman. And it helps to keep the boss happy.