American Express: The Economy is Worsening

June 25 (Bloomberg) — American Express Co., the biggest U.S. credit-card company by purchases and cash advances, said customers are falling further behind on their debt, signaling the economy is worsening.

“Business conditions continue to weaken in the U.S. and so far this month we have seen credit indicators deteriorate beyond our expectations,” Chief Executive Officer Kenneth Chenault said in a statement today announcing the company would receive as much as $1.8 billion in a settlement with competitor MasterCard Inc.

American Express and rivals Capital One Financial Corp. and Discover Financial Services have fallen by more than a third in the past 12 months in New York trading as consumers absorb the housing slump, rising unemployment and higher food and fuel bills. New York-based American Express adopted a “cautious view” for the year in January after cardholder spending slowed and overdue payments rose in December.

“If you look at the employment situation, clearly that’s deteriorated, and consumer confidence is down as well,” said Sanjay Sakhrani, an analyst with KBW Inc. in New York who has a “market perform” rating on the stock. “Both play a key role in the credit-card industry.”

The Federal Reserve today left its benchmark interest rate at 2 percent, saying “uncertainty about the inflation outlook remains high.” Consumer prices rose 4.2 percent in the 12 months ended in May, the fastest pace since January, while the unemployment rate rose by the most in more than two decades.

Consumer Confidence

Confidence among Americans dropped to the lowest level in 16 years, the Conference Board said yesterday.

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Tribune Co. Plans Sharp Cutbacks at Papers

Tribune Company newspapers like The Los Angeles Times and The Chicago Tribune will quickly cut costs – by printing fewer papers and employing fewer journalists – top company executives said on Thursday.

Samuel Zell, the chairman and chief executive of Tribune, and Randy Michaels, the company’s chief operating officer, revealed the cuts during a conference call with Wall Street analysts.

They also said the struggling company has looked at the column inches of news produced by each reporter, and by each paper’s news staff. Finding wide variation, they said, they have concluded that it could do without a large number of news employees and not lose much content.

Mr. Michaels said of the changes, “This is going to happen quickly.”

Mr. Zell said, “I promise you he’s underestimating the level of aggressiveness with which we are attacking this whole challenge.”

They said the company would aim for a 50-50 split between ads and news across all the news pages (excluding classified ads and advertising supplements). Mr. Michaels said this would mean eliminating 500 pages of news a week across all of the company’s 12 papers.

“If we take, for instance, The Los Angeles Times to a 50-50 ratio, we will be eliminating about 82 pages a week,” Mr. Michaels said, leaving the smallest papers of the week at 56 news pages.

Since being taken over in an $8.2 billion deal that took the company private in December, Tribune has downsized newspapers that had already been trimmed under the previous regime. During the call and in a note from Mr. Zell to Tribune employees, the executives signaled that bigger cuts are coming.

Mr. Michaels said that, after measuring journalists’ output, “when you get into the individuals, you find out that you can eliminate a fair number of people while eliminating not very much content.” He added that he understood that some reporting jobs naturally produce less output than others.

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Oil hits new high as Israel calls strike on Iran ‘unavoidable’

Oil prices leaped to record highs yesterday as Israel warned about Iranian nuclear sites and the dollar slumped on the biggest jump in American unemployment for 22 years.

The global crude price ended a run of lower prices earlier this week as it jumped by more than $9 a barrel to $136.79 (£69.44) – it has risen by over $14, or 10%, in just two days. The week before last saw an all-time high of $135.09 a barrel but, by Wednesday this week, prices had receded to as low as $122.

Already jittery oil markets were sent into spasms by remarks from Israel’s transport minister that an attack on Iranian nuclear sites looked “unavoidable”. Iran is a big Opec oil producer and any attack on the country would threaten oil supplies from the whole region.

Prices were also boosted by a prediction from investment bank Morgan Stanley that crude prices might reach $150 by July 4.

Earlier in the day the dollar – in which oil is priced – had fallen against the euro partly on speculation that the European Central Bank might consider raising interest rates to curb inflation.

But subsequently markets were rocked by a monthly report from the US showing that unemployment suffered its biggest monthly rise since February 1986.

Shares on Wall Street dived after the US unemployment rate unexpectedly??? jumped to 5.5%, intensifying fears that the world’s biggest economy is sliding into recession.

The Dow Jones industrial average lost nearly 300 points, or 2.2%, to around 12,320. In London the FTSE 100 closed the week down 1.5%, or 88 points, at 5,906.

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Up to 25,000 on Wall St. face the axe, report says

NEW YORK-New York City’s financial sector might only slice 15,000 to 25,000 jobs in the current downturn, which could prove shorter than the mayor has predicted, the city comptroller said.

In contrast, the financial sector that is such a vital part of the city’s economy slashed 40,200 jobs in the previous 2000 to 2003 retreat that straddled the Sept. 11, 2001 air attacks, Comptroller William Thompson said in a report.

Battered by profit-gouging subprime mortgage loans, New York Stock Exchange member firms that do business with the public lost $7.3 billion (U.S.) last year, and the current job-losing cycle that began in August 2007 should run through March 2009, Thompson added.

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Economist challenges government data

Oakland economist John Williams doesn’t seem like the kind of guy to pick fights with the government.

He’s slow moving and soft spoken, conservative in politics and personal habits, a pale and portly 59-year-old who favors Oxford shirts, Rep ties and sensible shoes. Williams is the sort who pays his taxes on time, waits when the signal says “Don’t Walk” and snaps to attention when the national anthem is played.

But don’t be fooled. The New Jersey native is leading a one-man crusade to expose official economic data as grossly misleading at best and, at worst, a pack of lies.

His Shadow Government Statistics Web site (shadowstats.com) has become a magnet for those convinced that official data put a happy-talk gloss on the nation’s economy. The growing popularity of the site, which costs subscribers $175 a year, is testimony to the deep suspicion many Americans harbor about government information as the economy falls into a swoon.

“There’s something wrong with the numbers,” said ShadowStats subscriber Harry Seitz, a retiree in Davie, Fla. “Over the years, (Williams) has essentially been proven correct.”

By Williams’ estimation, the government’s calculation that unemployment was 5 percent in April and that inflation was 4 percent and economic growth 2 percent over the last year, is fantasy. It might even be disinformation.

An update e-mailed to ShadowStats subscribers at the beginning of the month warned darkly that “GDP (gross domestic product) and Jobs Data Appear Rigged” and “Despite Manipulated Data, the Recession Deepens.”

By his reckoning, the economy shrank 2.5 percent in the year that ended in March, unemployment is really 13 percent and year-over-year inflation is 7.5 percent.

Government economic data are “out of touch with common experience. That’s why people used to believe the numbers but no longer do,” Williams said during an interview in his modest one-bedroom apartment near Lake Merritt.

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Surging inflation will stoke riots and conflict between nations, says report

Riots, protests and political unrest could multiply in the developing world as soaring inflation widens the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots”, an investment bank predicted yesterday.

Economists at Merrill Lynch view inflation as an “accident waiting to happen”. As prices for food and commodities surge, the bank expects global inflation to rise from 3.5% to 4.9% this year. In emerging markets, the average rate is to be 7.3%.

The cost of food and fuel has already been cited as a factor leading to violence in Haiti, protests by Argentinian farmers and riots in sub-Saharan Africa, including attacks on immigrants in South African townships.

Merrill’s chief international economist, Alex Patelis, said this could be the tip of the iceberg, warning of more trouble “between nations and within nations” as people struggle to pay for everyday goods. “Inflation has distributional effects. If everyone’s income moved by the same rate, you wouldn’t care – but it doesn’t,” said Patelis. “You have pensioners on fixed pensions. Some people produce rice that triples in price, while others consume it.”

A report by Merrill urges governments to crack down on inflation, describing the phenomenon as the primary driver of macroeconomic trends. The problem has emerged from poor food harvests, sluggish supplies of energy and soaring demand in rapidly industrialising countries such as China, where wage inflation has reached 18%.

Unless policymakers take action to dampen prices and wages, Merrill says sudden shortages could become more frequent. The bank cited power cuts in South Africa and a run on rice in Californian supermarkets as recent examples.

“You’re going to see tension between nations and within nations,” said Patelis.

The UN recently set up a taskforce to examine food shortages and price rises. It has expressed alarm that its world food programme is struggling to pay for food for those most at need.

Last month, the World Bank’s president, Robert Zoellick, suggested that 33 countries could erupt in social unrest following a rise of as much as 80% in food prices over three years.

Merrill’s report said the credit crunch has contributed to a global re-balancing, drawing to a close an era in which American consumers have been the primary drivers of the world’s economy.

In a gloomy set of forecasts, Merrill said it believes the US is in a recession – and that American house prices, which are among the root causes of the downturn, could fall by 15% over the next 18 months.

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As Jobs Vanish, Food Stamp Use Is at Record Pace

Driven by a painful mix of layoffs and rising food and fuel prices, the number of Americans receiving food stamps is projected to reach 28 million in the coming year, the highest level since the aid program began in the 1960s.The number of recipients, who must have near-poverty incomes to qualify for benefits averaging $100 a month per family member, has fluctuated over the years along with economic conditions, eligibility rules, enlistment drives and natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, which led to a spike in the South.

But recent rises in many states appear to be resulting mainly from the economic slowdown, officials and experts say, as well as inflation in prices of basic goods that leave more families feeling pinched. Citing expected growth in unemployment, the Congressional Budget Office this month projected a continued increase in the monthly number of recipients in the next fiscal year, starting Oct. 1 – to 28 million, up from 27.8 million in 2008, and 26.5 million in 2007.

The percentage of Americans receiving food stamps was higher after a recession in the 1990s, but actual numbers are expected to be higher this year.

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Americans fear harder times

Public’s feelings about economy are bleakest since ’73, survey indicates Americans are bracing for rising unemployment and shrinking salaries, a gloomy outlook that could translate into a serious cutback in consumer spending, the primary engine of the economy.

A survey of about 2,500 households found that Americans feel worse about the economy’s prospects than at any time since 1973, when Americans struggled with soaring oil prices and runaway inflation.

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Jobless Claims Jump by 22,000

WASHINGTON (AP) – The number of newly laid off workers filing for unemployment benefits rose last week to the highest level in nearly two months, providing more evidence that the weak economy is drying up jobs.The Labor Department said Thursday that applications for jobless benefits totaled 378,000 last week. That was an increase of 22,000 from the previous week and was a far bigger jump than had been expected.

The four-week average for new claims rose to 365,250, which was the highest level since a flood of claims caused by the 2005 Gulf Coast hurricanes.

The current economic slowdown, which many economists believe has already turned into a full-blown recession, is starting to show up in the labor market in terms of higher layoffs and weaker hiring numbers.

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A worker prepares the walls for a new home at the Huntington Homes modular home factory in East Montpelier, Vt., Tuesday, March 11, 2008. The troubles in housing with falling sales and prices in many parts of the country have acted as a drag on the overall economy, contributing to a serious slowdown that many analysts are worried could push the country into a recession. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)

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