Always looking for new empires to conquer, Microsoft (MSFT) Chairman Bill Gates has set his sites on security software. On Feb. 15 he laid out plans to make computing safer for consumers and businesses, pushing Microsoft further into the $10 billion security business. It plans to give away its newly acquired anti-spyware software, which vows to stymie programs that sneak onto PCs and steal personal info. And it will release a more secure version of its Internet Explorer Web browser.
Will the moves quiet critics who complain Microsoft's software is full of security holes? Not likely. The tactics are incremental at best -- and unlikely to stem all the malicious programs flowing through the Net. But Gates has plans for that, too. Later this year, Microsoft will enter the consumer antivirus software market, squarely competing with longtime partners like Symantec (SYMC) and McAfee (MFE). "I'm optimistic that...we will be able to mitigate the security problems," Gates said. And maybe find a new niche for Microsoft in the process.
Stung by criticism from Capitol Hill, public health groups, and even some of its own staffers that it's incapable of spotting safety problems with drugs, the Food & Drug Administration is scrambling to change its ways. The latest moves: On Feb. 15, the White House said the FDA will set up a new drug-safety board to oversee medicines on the market. Such a body, the agency hopes, might lead to faster action on drugs like Vioxx, which was withdrawn after being linked to heart problems and stroke. The agency also plans to get information to doctors and the public faster with a Drug Watch Web page. And on Feb. 14, the Bush Administration nominated acting head Lester Crawford to be the agency's official chief, providing some long-needed permanent leadership.
The blows keep coming for American International Group (AIG) and its chairman, Maurice "Hank" Greenberg. On Feb. 14, the insurance and financial-services giant said it had received subpoenas from federal and state regulators regarding so-called finite insurance products that help companies smooth earnings. AIG already paid $126 million to settle federal charges regarding the sale of similar products, and now investigators are looking at whether it inappropriately used them elsewhere. On Feb. 15 , two employees pleaded guilty to bid-rigging and price-fixing in a separate probe. The news has some investors clamoring for more transparency on transactions from Greenberg as well as more independent oversight. Says analyst Brandon Rees of the AFL-CIO's office of investment: "Shareholders should not assume AIG is out of the woods yet."
Housing proved surprisingly resilient in a snowy January, as new construction rose 4.7%, to an annual rate of 2.16 million, the highest in almost 21 years. December's number was revised to show a jump of 14.3% vs. the 11% gain reported earlier. Stronger job growth and mortgage rates still below 6% are fueling demand, but home construction will likely slow in coming months. Mortgage applications to buy homes and builders' sentiment have weakened recently.
The NASD on Feb. 16 charged the distributors of the American Funds with improperly directing $100 million in trading commissions over a three-year period to 50 brokerage firms that were the top sellers of its mutual funds. The third-largest fund company, with $656 billion in assets, American has been under investigation for more than a year by the Securities & Exchange Commission and the California Attorney General regarding similar issues (BW -- Feb. 21). American Funds says that it stopped the payments in late 2003, shortly before they were banned by the SEC. American may request a NASD hearing. Possible sanctions include fines or NASD expulsion.
-- The NHL canceled its 2004-05 season, a first for any major league sport.
-- Yahoo! and Showtime will simulcast the Mar. 7 initial episode of Fat Actress.
-- Died: Lawrence Rawl, 76, Exxon CEO at the time of the 1989 Valdez oil tanker spill.
LeapFrog Enterprises (LF) fell with a splat on Feb. 16, sliding 10%, to $10.90. Faced with stiff competition in its core educational toy products, the former Wall Street darling reported an unexpected loss for the holiday quarter, as well as layoffs and an executive reshuffling.