5. Standard Chartered's Devils in the Details The great Italian poet Dante Alighieri probably has a ring in his Inferno for the evildoers at Standard Chartered. And one right next to it for their consultants at Deloitte & Touche. A batch of rogue bankers at Standard Chartered were accused of violating U.S. anti-money-laundering laws Monday. The alleged scoundrels were said to have pocketed millions in fees by teaming up with Iran's government to hide more than $250 billion in transactions from 2001 to 2010, according to Benjamin Lawsky, superintendent of New York's Department of Financial Services. As a result of its dastardly behavior, the British banking behemoth may lose its license to operate in New York state. Standard Chartered's actions "left the U.S. financial system vulnerable to terrorists, weapons dealers, drug kingpins and corrupt regimes, and deprived law enforcement investigators of crucial information used to track all manner of criminal activity," Lawsky said. He enforces the law and his name is Lawsky. We know. It's awesome. Far less awesome, however, was the reply by a senior Standard Chartered official in London who was told by a colleague that the bank's Iran shenanigans could cause "catastrophic reputational damage." "You f---ing Americans. Who are you to tell us, the rest of the world, that we're not going to deal with Iranians," responded this twit of a Brit. He could have said: "Sanctions? We don't need no stinking sanctions!" At least we would have gotten a chuckle if that was his retort. But, no, he had to insult America, showing not a smidgen of respect for his cousins across the pond. Then again, if there is a so-called special relationship involved in this sorry episode, it can be found between the London-based bank and its consigliere, Deloitte & Touche, which helped Standard Chartered hide the devilish details from regulators. Yes, as Standard Chartered did its demonic deeds, there was Deloitte & Touche at its elbow, steadfastly working at their satanic majesties request. All we can say is, get ready, guys. For all your troubles, you will soon have hell to pay.
4. Schulze's Imaginary Friends Somebody go dig up novelist Thomas Wolfe and send him to Minnesota. If he can't convince Best Buy ( BBY) founder Richard Schulze that you can't go home again, then nobody can. In either a crazed fit of nostalgia or just plain craziness, Schulze, who started the company in 1966, proposed a $24 to $26 per share purchase of the struggling big-box electronics retailer Monday. Schulze's offer would come at a premium of 36% to 47% to the company's Aug. 3 close in a buyout that would be the biggest since the financial crisis. Best Buy shares rose over 13% on Monday to around $19, limiting the stock's 2012 loss to 15%. "This proposal represents a unique win-win opportunity for everyone involved," Schulze said in a letter to Best Buy's board, adding that he planned to bring back executives from the company's glory days to turn things around. Not to rain on Schulze's attempt at a homecoming parade, but let's review the facts. In fiscal 2012, Best Buy lost $1.2 billion as margins and sales struggled to grow. Meanwhile, the Richfield, Minn.-based retailer shuttered dozen of stores and shed hundreds in staff in the past year, including Schulze as chairman and Brian Dunn as CEO over Dunn's "personal conduct" issues. And, just this week, ratings agency Standard & Poor's downgraded Best Buy's bonds to BB+, a sub-investment-grade rating otherwise known as "junk," as a result of Schulze's very own proposal. Oh, man. Take off the blinders, Schulzie-boy. We know this company is your baby. However, it's clearly time to let go, not get back in. And, to be honest, we aren't sure if he can pull it off anyway. Subtract Schulze's $1 billion equity stake in the company and he needs to line up an additional $7.8 billion in financing. That's no easy feat considering most private equity players are still digesting the dreck they purchased prior to the financial crisis, so even with Wall Street's short memory, it's hard to imagine them stomaching a deal this size. For his part, Schulze says he has the lenders to do the deal, even though some wacky Minnesota law says he doesn't have to name them. Schulze says in his letter that Credit Suisse is "highly confident it can arrange the necessary debt financing." To us and the market's arbitrageurs, however, that sounds an awful lot like Carl Icahn's bluster when he went after Clorox last year. During that failed bid, Jefferies similarly maintained that it was "highly confident" it could help Icahn raise $7.8 billion in debt, much to the market's skepticism. Of course, it was quite clear from the start of that escapade that Icahn was more interested in shopping the company than owning it. Once his offer failed to spawn a bidding war, the billionaire investor skulked off. Unless Amazon ( AMZN) steps in to buy Best Buy's stores -- heck, they already use the chain as its showrooms -- we can't imagine another bidder stepping up to top Schulze and his imaginary lenders. So, unlike Icahn, he really must be angling to take over the company. Too bad Best Buy looks more like a take under candidate at this point, despite Schulze's wishful and, undoubtedly, wistful thinking.
3. Pfizer's Foreign Investment Enough already with the Big Pharma bribery fines, Uncle Sam! Tell the drugmakers to add a line item on their income statements titled "Foreign Payoffs" and leave them be. Shares of Pfizer ( PFE) fell nearly 2% Tuesday, even while most other stocks finished to the upside, after the drug giant agreed to pay $60 million to settle a U.S. government probe of its use of illegal payments to win business overseas. Pfizer actually fessed up to paying off locals back in 2004, but it's taken the Justice Department this long to resolve the case. What took the Feds so long to figure it all out? Simple. What we call the 1977 Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, most other nations call the cost of doing business. OK, we're sorry. That may be a tad too simplistic. We are quite sure those countries would prefer that the spoils of business be merit-based, not a result of checkbook capitalism. And America certainly has its own patronage problems, also known as Congressional lobbying. Nevertheless, if you remember how Mexican officials shrugged off this year's Wal-Mart bribery scandal even as the New York Times had a conniption over it, then you understand our skepticism. As for this case, Reuters reports that eight of the world's 10 biggest drugmakers are getting ready to book charges related to the government's crusade so it's hard even for us to get too sanctimonious about the whole darned thing. And by now you know that nobody does holier-than-thou better than us! Last year, Johnson & Johnson ( JNJ) led the way, ponying up $70 million to settle charges that it paid kickbacks to win business in Greece, Iraq, Poland and Romania. Now Pfizer is getting busted for making improper payments to officials in Russia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kazakhstan, Serbia, the Czech Republic, China and Italy. You know what? Forget the line-item idea. With all those countries involved, let's just make bribery an Olympic event and be done with it.
2. Duke's Lack of Progress Finally, some light is being shed on the CEO shuffle at Duke Energy ( DUK) and, boy, is it showing the dark side of former Progress Energy CEO Bill Johnson (pictured, above). When we last left our friends at Duke in early July, CEO Jim Rogers was telling the North Carolina Utilities Commission (NCUC) that he was shocked when the board informed him that they were dumping Johnson from the top job following the merger between Duke and Progress, and installing him instead. Rogers informed the regulator at the time that the reason for the last-second change was his board's dislike for Johnson's "autocratic" style. Less than thrilled by the CEO bait-and-switch, the NCUC, which approves electricity rate-increase requests, opened an investigation as to whether it was misled after approving the utility merger June 29. Meanwhile, Johnson was paid $45 million in severance to silently slink off -- and, so far, has kept his part of the bargain. Well, the investigation is under way and while it probably won't derail the merger, it sure explains why a pair of high-ranking women made tracks after Johnson was initially appointed CEO. "Each shared their concerns and disheartening conversations with their new bosses from Progress with me many months before receiving their offers. I am disappointed. I have worked diligently to create a pipeline of strong women leaders," Rogers wrote to a Duke board member this May, adding that both female executives "sensed they could not succeed in the new company." How revealing! More importantly, how ironic! The former CEO of Progress Energy wasn't simply dumped because he was "autocratic," but because he showed an incomprehensible lack of progress.
1. HP Charges AheadHewlett-Packard ( HPQ) is once again leading the charge in Silicon Valley. Charge- offs, that is. The once-proud printer company announced Wednesday its plan to take a colossal $8 billion charge against its earnings when it reports third-quarter results Aug. 22, leading to a record loss of nearly $9 billion. The charge is due to a writedown of the value of its service business, definitively proving that the company overpaid when it picked up Electronic Data Systems in 2008 for $14 billion. HP has only posted one quarterly loss in the past 15 years for those keeping score. And for those more comfortable speaking in acronyms: EDS is no IBM ( IBM) so Q3 at HP is DOA. Sorry about that. Sometimes all this dumbness just gets us giddy. Anyway, Hewlett-Packard picked up EDS in order to transform itself from a printer maker into an information-technology company, just like IBM did so successfully. Too bad it couldn't make the change, as the division has seen flat revenue and declining profits for the past two years. Nor could it make the change to a PC or mobile-device company. Last quarter HP announced it was writing off $1.2 billion from the value of the Compaq brand name. HP purchased Compaq in 2002 for $25 billion. And, as for that $1.2 billion Palm purchase in 2010, well, we haven't gone through all the footnotes yet, but it's safe to say HP's accountants probably palmed that one off somewhere along the line. And if they haven't, then stay tuned. Yep, it sure is sad when goodwill goes bad. And it's even sadder when an American corporate icon like HP undergoes a massively expensive -- and very public -- identity crisis. Shares of the company have lost a quarter of their value this year and almost 15% since Meg Whitman took the CEO reins from Leo Apotheker last September. Which brings us to the British company Autonomy, which Apotheker acquired for $10.6 billion in cash with the goal of turning HP into a software giant. In May, Whitman told analysts on HP's quarterly earnings call that she was still optimistic about Autonomy's future despite its "significant decline" in annual revenue. Hopefully we will hear better things about Autonomy from Whitman when HP reports later this month. But even if they can't turn things around, it's no biggie. If they can't make a change, they can always take a charge. Until, of course, they can't.