"I visualized myself becoming another Benny Goodman." -- Alan Greenspan, Federal Reserve chairman, speaking to high schoolers about his childhood dreams Is Wall Street providing the hedge-fund industry with too much easy money? Some 25% of hedge funds are borrowing more money to make trades than they were a year ago, according to a survey released May 20 by financial-services consultant Greenwich Associates. Another 20% of funds say brokerages, eager to do business with hedge funds, also lowered collateral requirements on some trades.
Hedge funds aren't required to reveal the size of their borrowings. But with the booming industry forecast to hit $1 trillion in assets worldwide this year, that figure won't be small.
The trend is alarming. Remember Long-Term Capital Management? It used its $140 billion in assets to make trades worth $1 trillion through similar moves. After the global bond-market crisis in 1998, 14 investment banks and the Federal Reserve needed to come to its rescue. The concern now is that hedge funds are leveraging their bets to the hilt, and if something does go wrong -- be it a spike in interest rates or a major bond default -- any distress could quickly ripple through the industry. Says Greenwich consultant Tim Sangston: "This market may be growing faster than it should." Could this be another bubble in the making? Clearly, Google wants to be more than an Internet search engine. It already is planning a smattering of services in which search is often just a peripheral component, including e-mail, social networking, and software to find information stored on PCs. What's next? It could provide software to build Web sites.
Briefly mentioned deep in Google's SEC filing on Apr. 29 is the acquisition of Ignite Logic, purchased just days earlier. The search giant didn't describe Ignite's business in the documents, and execs aren't talking. But a former Ignite employee says the El Dorado Hills (Calif.) startup is building a software tool that lets small businesses and individuals create Web sites much faster than they can with existing programs.
Ignite's business could be a good fit. Key competitor Yahoo! (YHOO) has long offered its own site-building tools, creating close ties between it and online merchants. As Google pushes its own shopping service, dubbed Froogle, such relationships with merchants could prove valuable. "It's healthy for them to try things out," says Forrester Research (FORR) analyst Charlene Li. Sure, just as long as Google doesn't try to juggle too many new ideas at once. The hot-button debate over vouchers, which give taxpayer money to private schools, has focused only on primary and secondary education -- until now. On May 10, Colorado passed the first-ever law giving vouchers to college students.
Now private colleges in Colorado are eligible to receive state funds through the program. But the vouchers are only for students from low-income families. Under the new law, those students can get up to $1,200 in state money to use for tuition at in-state private colleges. That may not go far: Tuition at the private University of Denver runs about $20,000 a year.
Still, voucher advocates say low-income kids will be more likely to go to college if they see that the state has set aside money for them. "We're trying to change the psychology among low-income families," says Rick O'Donnell, executive director of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education.
Colorado's example may spur on other states. The Washington state legislature passed a college-voucher bill earlier this year, but the governor vetoed it. If the plan works in Colorado, voucher proponents may have a new model they can push. Politicians may rail at "Benedict Arnold CEOs" who ship work abroad, and unions may bemoan the loss of U.S. factory jobs. But when it comes to home-improvement products, Americans don't care where the stuff is made. Seven out of 10 people say they don't look at the country of origin when shopping for such items as power tools or wallpaper, says pollster TeleNation. The percentage is higher for those age 18-24: Nearly 85% of 1,000 young adults polled in mid-March didn't know where various goods came from -- nor did they care. This could speed an offshore trend as nationalistic seniors are succeeded by laissez-faire youth. The upcoming disaster flick The Day After Tomorrow, due out May 28, dramatizes the risks of climate change. May-be it should be required view-ing for energy execs. At their annual meetings, Apache (APA), Anadarko (APC), and Marathon (MRO) all faced shareholder resolutions calling for increased disclosure of CO2 emissions. (None passed.)
Amid new environmental constraints in Europe and elsewhere, Valero (VLI), Devon Energy, and ChevronTexaco (CVX) all adopted similar measures before their meetings. That's one way to quell a storm. Last summer, Williams College senior Mark Orlowski got a grant to research how universities vote the proxies on stock they hold. He found that most don't. Now the political science major is on a mission: By fall he wants to inspire peers at 35 colleges representing $100 billion in endowments to become social investment activists.
On Apr. 21 Orlowski and four others started Responsible Endowments Coalition, which provides organizing guides to help students encourage schools to invest their endowments responsibly. "It's crucial to line up university investment values with campus values," he says.
Entrepreneurial ventures are old hat for Orlowski, who at 16 left high school to start a Web consultancy in his hometown, Great Barrington, Mass. Now 21, he stopped taking clients to attend college. After graduation in June, he plans to make the coalition a full-time nonprofit venture, using his startup skills -- this time as a social entrepreneur. For millions of gay Americans, May 17, the day same-sex marriage became legal in Massachusetts, will be remembered as a mile-stone in their battle for equality. But when it comes to health insurance, Social Security, and other benefits, newly married gay couples won't be treated as well as heterosexual couples -- because many benefits are governed by federal law defining a spouse as a person of the opposite sex.
Married gays won't be eligible for Social Security survival benefits or family medical-leave benefits. Federal tax laws also require companies to report the premiums they pay to insure the spouse of a gay worker as taxable income to the employee. With heterosexual couples, such premiums are not considered taxableincome. That means health insurance will be more costly for gays. And they won't be able to file a joint federal tax return or take advantage of other married benefits, including inheriting a spouse's estate tax-free.
Now that gays have the right to marry, some Massachusetts employers won't offer domestic-partner plans that extend benefits to unmarried same-sex couples. As of July 1, Staples (SPLS) will require same-sex employees in Massachusetts to get married if they want health and life-insurance benefits for their partner. But gays in most other states must affirm only that they're in a committed relationship. Massachusetts' law is just the start of what's likely to be a long battle for equality. Much has been made of the U.S. snub of French wine. American sales fell 13% in 2003 -- with the strong euro and tension over Iraq. Why, then, is E. & J. Gallo Winery, No. 1 in America, set to launch its first French brand in the U.S. in September?
The answer is simple: Last year, U.S. sales of vin fran?ais still topped the import chart, at $1.1 billion. And a popular brand such as Gallo is likely to be a winner, says Marc Engel of researcher B/R/S Group.
Gallo's French label, Red Bicyclette, will consist of three varietals -- syrah, merlot, and chardonnay -- from French producers in the Languedoc region. The bottles, sporting a cheerful label depicting a beret-wearing Frenchman and his baguette-carrying dog, will be priced from $10 to $12.