Levine on Wall Street: Lotto Picks and Green Lasers

RBS had good earnings, banks are pitching Argentina, Cynk is still fake, so are on-field first-down lasers, airlines are buying back stocks. And, as always: mortgage settlements.

RBS had a good quarter.

Royal Bank of Scotland's profits are up, the stock is up, costs are being cut, the bank is being simplified, impairments are way way down, etc. "Significant legacy issues," as the saying goes, remain. Here are the FT Lex team liveblogging their reactions. The U.K. government is still well out-of-the-money on its 80 percent stake in the bank, but it's getting closer. And every result like this is I guess good news if you want simplified safer banking: Cutting the investment bank and cordoning off a "bad bank" seems to have worked wonders for RBS.

What's going on with Argentina?

Nobody seems to know yet? Like, there is not a lot of evidence of active settlement talks? And it's got less than a week until it defaults? But there is this:

"A lot of banks are actively pitching deals to Argentina," said Tony Volpon, head of emerging-markets research at Nomura Securities. "Argentina was Wall Street's best client for 10 years, and a lot of people think that may come back."

How can you not love Wall Street? I'm being partially serious here. The same financial-engineering ingenuity that lets banks come up with ways for, say, Renaissance Technologies to not pay taxes, also lets them come up with ways to actually solve real problems like Argentina's court-created inability to pay its debts. Sometimes. Apparently not now. Still, points for trying.


Bloomberg News went and actually tried to find out what's going on at Cynk, everyone's favorite $6 billion fake social network company. The answer is delightfully little. For instance, all of Cynk's many purported chief executives deny any involvement, or at least their grandfathers do:

The person identified in filings as Cynk’s chief executive officer until mid-June, Javier Romero, grew up in the island town of San Pedro, where everyone knows everyone. ... His weathered family home, constructed of plywood sheets, stands out as particularly decrepit in a poor settlement a little out of town. An overturned golf cart lies in front amid ferns strewn with buckets and trash. There’s an outhouse off to one side.

Romero’s grandfather, Joe, is sitting outside on a recent afternoon. He says Javier, whose age he gives as 26 or 29, has left for the U.S., where he’s studying to be a pilot. Asked about Cynk, he explodes. “He doesn’t own anything!” he says. “That is crap. All the crap on the Internet -- those are crap! He has nothing to do with it.”

Meanwhile in Chicago, a day-trading hobbyist "noticed Cynk's low price and suspiciously high volumes" and so ... bought it:

“The trick with trading penny stocks is being ahead of the curve,” he says. “You’ve got to get there before the pumpers do.” He bought 2,500 shares for $250, or 10¢ each, in 2013 and tucked them away in a file labeled “Lotto Picks.”

Others saw the same action and shorted the stock, with rather more unpleasant results. The point I suppose is that everyone involved in penny stocks -- the promoters, the buyers, the short sellers -- think they're pulling one over on someone. But only some of them are right.

Elsewhere in scams.

You know the Securities and Exchange Commission was excited to write the headline "SEC Announces Additional Charges in Football-Related Boiler Room Scheme," but the scheme is even better than that headline promises:

Seniors and other investors were pressured into purchasing stock in Thought Development Inc. (TDI), an unaffiliated Miami Beach-based company that stated its signature invention is a laser-line system that generates a green line on a football field for a first-down marker visible not only on television but also to players, officials, and fans in the stadium.

The SEC does not come out and say "the green lasers never existed," but you can sort of read between the lines. In any case the stock was pumped -- with false promises that the lasers were about to be adopted by the NFL -- and then dumped, etc. etc., with various SEC settlements and some related criminal pleas. And here is an even simpler scam where a stock transfer agent "brazenly misused his transfer agent authority to commit fraud by creating fake certificates and acting as if he was authorized by issuers to do so." Really it doesn't get easier than just printing pieces of paper, saying that they're stock, and selling them for money. Though this also seems pretty easy to catch.

Airlines are buying back stock.

"'It's hard to believe that less than eight months ago, American was in bankruptcy,' said Doug Parker, the company's chief executive," while announcing a $1 billion stock buyback and a 10-cent dividend. Continental is also doing a $1 billion buyback, and Delta did a buyback last year. Airlines are the near-perfect perfect illustration of the theoretical equity-as-an-option view of capital structure, where the equity is a call option on the assets of the firm struck at the value of the debt, and the equity holders (and the executives who represent them) want to maximize volatility. One way to do that is to take money out for shareholders when times are good, so the bondholders can't get it when times are bad. This article presents an alternative theory, with analysts talking about how airlines have finally learned discipline and turned the corner on their "punishing boom-bust volatility," but if I were an airline bondholder I'm still not sure I'd let them buy back stock. I guess that's why I'm not an airline bondholder.

Ooh more mortgage settlements.

The SEC has learned from earlier mistakes, doing a $275 million neither-admit-nor-deny settlement with Morgan Stanley outside of the courts:

The settlement, unlike the resolution of other prominent enforcements over the role of a bank in the financial crisis, is not subject to a judicial review by a judge because it was handled by the agency through an administrative proceeding.

I kind of never understood why the SEC wanted court approval of settlements in the first place, since the courts had some tendency to berate the SEC over those settlements. A settlement is just an agreement saying "we won't go to court." Surely there's a way to make that agreement without, you know, going to court. Apparently the SEC has figured that out. Elsewhere House Republicans want to see every word the Justice Department wrote internally about its settlements with JPMorgan and Citigroup, so expect some grandstanding there.

UBS is mad at prosecutors.

Apparently French prosecutors think that UBS helped its French clients evade taxes, and I don't know where they got that idea. But they launched a formal investigation, which has required UBS to post bail of 1.1 billion euros, and UBS is mad, both about the investigation ("We will continue to defend our case strongly. ... We have been cooperating with the authorities trying to resolve this for quite a long time.") and about the bail ("We consider both the legal basis for the bail amount and the method of calculation to be deeply flawed and will appeal.’") Maybe, I don't know, I'm still hung up on the concept of bail. Isn't bail the money you put up to stay out of jail? If UBS doesn't pay, will it go to jail? Is it not too big to jail?

Things happen.

Liquid-O-Meter. Babble. Ken Griffin is getting divorced. Burger King Is Run by Children. The internet is public. Bad parking punished. Chair horrible. The history of the high five. Six Reasons LinkedIn Is the Place to Find Love. (Six!)

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    To contact the author on this story:
    Matthew S Levine at mlevine51@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor on this story:
    Toby Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

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