How the U.S. cracked open secret vaults at UBS

Daylife/Reuters Pictures used by permission

After the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, Switzerland’s largest bank was teetering. UBS, which was more than three times bigger than Lehman in terms of assets, had to write down some $50 billion during that tumultuous period.

Investors the world over breathed a sigh of relief on October 16 when the Swiss government rescued UBS. But unbeknownst to them at the time, the bank faced a potentially devastating crisis on a very different front.

One day after the bailout, top executives from UBS and Swiss regulators were summoned to a closed-door meeting in New York by U.S. officials who were conducting a wide-ranging tax fraud investigation that centered on the bank.

The UBS delegation, led by newly-appointed Group General Counsel Markus Diethelm, arrived armed with the results of an internal report highlighting instances of tax fraud within the bank, insiders told Reuters. The plan was simple: admit guilt, settle the case quickly and move on.

But Kevin Downing, the U.S. Department of Justice Tax Division Attorney who had been investigating UBS since the middle of 2008, chose that meeting to drop a bombshell: he wanted the bank to disclose names of U.S. tax evaders as a condition for a settlement.

That put UBS in the nightmarish position of either breaching nearly a century of Swiss bank secrecy or risking indictment in the United States…

Interviews with insiders and a review of documents reveal previously undisclosed details about how the sprawling tax case was resolved — at several points in the process, for example, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was involved.

The confrontation also pushed UBS closer to the brink than is commonly realized. And while the bank ultimately defused the situation by coughing up $780 million and agreeing to hand over some client names, the damage to its huge and increasingly important wealth management operation still weighs heavily on the Swiss banking flagship.

RTFA. It might not make a great movie; but, it’s a hell of a tale for anyone who knows anything about international banking. Serious changes just beginning to be forced onto the old boys network – especially by the reinforcements brought into play by Obama.

Kudos to Kevin Downing getting it past the Cheney/Bush mafia.

Feed yard greenhouse gas study begins

That steaming pile ain’t topsoil

U.S. scientists say they are starting a study to determine greenhouse gas emissions from feed yard operations.

Texas A&M University scientists at AgriLife Research in Amarillo, Texas, said they will measure three greenhouse gases: nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide and methane.

Assistant Professor Ken Casey and research chemist Al Caramanica said they will use a Varian gas chromatograph with three detectors set up for automatic injection of gas samples from gas-tight vials. That, they said, will allow simultaneous detection of all three gases from samples taken at feed yards.

“This work will focus primarily on nitrous oxide,” Casey said, noting the gas has approximately 310 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide.

“We are part of a larger effort to quantify what emissions of greenhouse gas are from feed yards,” he said. “We want to understand the variability and circumstances that create the greatest emissions and determine methodologies that identify the right numbers. Then we want to help identify management practices that can keep them at the lowest possible levels.”

Sorry, I can’t help it. I don’t go out of my way to offend Texas readers of this blog – unless they’re some kind of reactionary git – which can happen anywhere. BUT –

Amarillo is the ultimo place on Earth to run these tests. If you’ve ever overnighted in Amarillo, say, during a nice hot July – you know the odors wafting from the feed lots scattered strategically in and around Amarillo can match any stench on the planet. My clients there used to joke that their biggest fear during a line storm wasn’t tornados; but, a lightning strike setting fire to the atmosphere!

Breastfeeding rooms hidden in health care law

With her 5-week-old daughter crying in a bathroom at Nordstrom, and not knowing how to get the baby to latch on to her breast, Garima Nahar found herself surrounded by other women. Some offered tips, but one woman told the new mother to cover up or turn the other way.

“I had to kind of hide my tears and just be brave in front of her, because, you know what, ‘I have a crying baby and I don’t want to deal with you right now,’ ” said Nahar, a software manager in Chicago, Illinois.

Women across America have felt uncomfortable in public situations when breastfeeding their children. Sarah Hood of Fayetteville, Arkansas, who works in advertising, got stares when breastfeeding her son in the open.

Working mothers like Nahar and Hood have had to carefully tailor their schedules so that they can pump milk in the middle of the day, and avoid stares when they put bottles in the communal refrigerators. Some have to use a bathroom stall to pump milk, as there is no other space available.

Nursing mothers will now get additional support, thanks to page 1239 of the health care bill that President Obama recently signed into law. It requires employers to provide “a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from co-workers and the public, which may be used by an employee to express breast milk.” Only companies with less than 50 employees can claim it’s an undue hardship…

A recent study in the journal Pediatrics showed breastfeeding a child for the first six months of life would save nearly 1,000 lives and billions of dollars each year. That’s because breastfeeding reduces the risk of certain illnesses such as pneumonia, according to the study. Much of the cost comes from excess premature deaths, the study authors said.

Part of the question takes us back to what bloody century does our nation belong to? Not the part that studies and learns, not the part that marches towards health and happiness? It seems to be the loudmouthed crowd that Congress seems to listen to at least as much as the lobbyists paying their country club bar bill.

RTFA. It’s long and useful. It’s amazing that this is a tougher question to deal with in the 21st Century than the centuries which felt women shouldn’t have the right to vote or equal opportunity at a job.

Something’s wrong with Right Whales

A few years ago, right whales began washing up on the shores of Argentina’s Patagonian coast. So far, researchers have counted a total of 308 dead whales since 2005.

These right whales in the waters around Peninsula Valdés are amidst the largest die-off of great whales ever recorded. Whatever is killing them remains unknown.

About 88 percent of the whale deaths were calves that were less than three months old. Curiously, many of the corpses had unusually thin layers of blubber. The deceased calves found comprise almost a third of all right whale calve sightings in the last 5 years…

“Península Valdés is one of the most important calving and nursing grounds for the species found throughout the Southern Hemisphere,” said Dr. Howard Rosenbaum, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Ocean Giants Program and a member of the IWC’s Scientific Committee. “By working with the government of Argentina, the Province of Chubut, the IWC, and our diverse team of experts and specialists, we can increase our chances of solving this mystery, the critical next step to ensuring a future for this population of southern right whales…”

The southern right whale is one of the world’s great conservation success stories. Unlike the North Atlantic and North Pacific right whales (both of which number in the low hundreds), southern rights have managed to rebound from centuries of commercial whaling, with populations growing at approximately 7 percent annually since 1970. Growing up to 55 feet in length and weighing up to 60 tons, the southern right whale is now the most abundant species of right whale in the world.

Ensuring their long-term survival may take quicker feet than the average study group, conference or, especially, government committee. No one has determined the cause of the die-off, yet.

Guardian Eyewitness

Protesters v Police in Thailand

Eyewitness is Guardian’s first service that has a mode specially designed for the iPad. I enjoy the hell out of it. One of the most satisfying apps I have found – so far. Not that I’m looking for many.

My essential review of the iPad only takes two sentences:

The iPad easily replaces a laptop used as a laptop. It does not replace a laptop used as a desktop computer.

Works for me.

The world’s most dangerous cities?

Jerusalem is tied near the bottom of the livability list – with Beirut

Being on guard might come naturally to many city dwellers, but in some places urban life requires more than just vigilance.

CNN takes a look, in no particular order, at 10 cities in the world that have been deemed dangerous by a number of surveys.

We looked at Mercer’s latest global report on personal safety and Foreign Policy magazine’s most recent report on murder rates, as well as reports by Forbes and security watchdog Citizen’s Council for Public Security.

These surveys base their findings on factors such as internal stability and effectiveness of law enforcement, as well as official crime statistics and media reports.

Reputation deserved?

Cities that rule the world — those on the rise

Photo by simontoplis

Which cities rule the world? When it comes to economic activity, political and intellectual influence and great places to live, one recent report holds few surprises.

New York, London and Tokyo all rank high in all of these categories, according to a 2010 survey of top world cities by property consultancy Knight Frank…

Knight Frank measures cities on four factors — economic activity, political power, knowledge base and quality of life — and then aggregates the scores to rank world cities…

According to its list, New York leads global powerhouses overall, overtaking London, which had topped the table last year.

Despite a reversal at the top in 2010, the leading four cities — New York, London, Paris and Tokyo — remained significantly ahead of any competition, scoring well ahead of their nearest rival, Los Angeles.

While these heavyweights rule on several fronts now, there are several up-and-coming cities to consider.

Chief among these emerging contenders is Berlin. Thanks to its quality of life, it was the highest overall riser in the survey, moving from 13th to eighth place.

Although Berlin remains outside the top 10 for its economic activity, political power and knowledge and influence, it is now rated by Knight Frank to be second in the world behind Paris for quality of life.

Beijing emerged as the second highest climber in the report, now ninth overall in the world, up from 12th in 2009.

As a political power, Beijing rose from seventh to fourth in the survey, overtaking London, Paris and Tokyo.

RTFA for the details, Top Ten. I’ve spent time in many of these and I think I’d be mellow in most – if I still cared to live in a city.