The leveraged-up less well off and profits

Americans are borrowing more, renting more rather than owning, eating in class="mandelbrot_refrag">restaurants more and saving less, leading inevitably to questions of sustainability.

That’s true both for Americans and for the corporations whose profits they create.

What’s more, the kind of financing backing all this indicates that a goodly bit of the balance sheet straining activity is concentrated lower down the income and wealth scale.

Juxtapose this with vertiginous rates of corporate profitability (and intriguing hints that a top may have been hit) and you have the making of some serious upcoming tests for the class="mandelbrot_refrag">economy and stock market.

 
 
 

First, let’s look at Americans and their cars. A record 27.9 percent of all new car sales so far this year were leases, according to Edmunds.com, while those who did decide to buy did so with record-long loan terms of 66 months on average.

Interestingly, leasing, which historically has been associated with high-earners in tony metropolitan areas (think real estate salespeople in California) has been spreading both geographically and down the income table.

The share of leases of sub-compact cars has rocketed 187 percent since 2008, according to Edmunds, and among compact cars by 131 percent.

As leases are cheaper now but hugely more expensive over a lifetime, this paints a picture of consumers who may be having trouble affording the basics using leases as a way to get vital transportation.

That sobering thought is partly supported by the numbers on the percentage of Americans who own homes, which at 64.8 percent in the first quarter is in the midst of a multi-year fall, albeit from unsustainable heights during the real estate bubble. This reflects that home loans are, probably appropriately, harder to get, but also in part speaks to the difficulties many have with living expenses and employment.

And yet the Restaurant Performance Index, a trade association barometer of the health and wellbeing of the industry, is much higher, as you would expect, than during the recession and now stands solidly in territory seen in 2006 and early 2007.

Combine this with a very low 4 percent personal savings rate and the expansion of consumer debt as measured by the Federal Reserve and you have a picture of an class="mandelbrot_refrag">economy which, if not doing terribly well, seems to be placing a higher priority on consumption now rather than income in the future.

Household balance sheets are still improving as assets rise in value, but the kind of debt being taken on, from car leases to student loans, is often concentrated among the less wealthy.

At some juncture incomes will need to expand more rapidly to make these loans and investments come good.

BEST OF ALL POSSIBLE WORLDS?

For investors, this trend toward borrowing among the less well off poses several questions.

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In theory, all of this describes a great backdrop for asset owners, though a bit of a dystopian one. House and equity prices are high and rising, while wage growth is anemic and corporate profit margins extremely high.

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That those who have missed out on the asset appreciation party are leveraging up to buy goods like cars and educations, pumping more money into the economy, would seem to support a continued run up in asset prices.

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Perhaps they have, but something may be turning.

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While U.S. post-tax profits as measured in first-quarter GDP appear to still be in an uptrend and margins extremely high, some of the underlying figures are showing weakness.

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Albert Edwards, of Societe Generale, points out that a different measure, “economic profits,” which removes profits on inventory and uses an economic rather than tax basis for depreciation, has shown a sharp fall. Headline profits are up 5.3 percent year on year, but economic profits are down 6.8 percent.

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A core measure of corporate cash flow as measured in GDP is also down for the quarter, perhaps explaining low investment and also perhaps indicative of the extent to which profitability comes from financial class="mandelbrot_refrag">engineering and corporate cheese-paring rather than revenue generation.

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“The bottom line is that the U.S. profit margin cycle has begun to turn down at long last,” Edwards writes in a note to clients. “It is doing so from elevated but not unprecedented levels.”

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To be sure, a borrowing binge, even one based on small cars, can go on for a long time, just like high stock market valuations. Unlike housing, as in 2006, borrowing for tuition, cars and restaurant meals would seem to have a lower potential ceiling.

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We, and the stock market, may be close.

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(James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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(At the time of publication James Saft did not own any direct investments in securities mentioned in this article. He may be an owner indirectly as an investor in a fund. You can email him at jamessaft@jamessaft.com and find more columns at blogs.reuters.com/james-saft)

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(Editing by Dan Grebler)

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Silicon Valley's ageist culture is bad for workers - and business

class="mandelbrot_refrag">Google confessed last week that it has a miserable record hiring and retaining women and minorities.

The tech giant responded to public pressure - including protests led by the Rev. Jesse Jackson at the company's annual meeting - by releasing data about the gender and ethnic makeup of its workforce, and the numbers aren't pretty. Women make up just 30 percent of Google's workforce, and the company is 61 percent white. Asians represent 30 percent of Google's workers, but Hispanics represent 3 percent and African Americans just 2 percent.

Yet class="mandelbrot_refrag">Google didn't disclose one of the most important diversity statistic about its workers: their age.

 
 
 

Age plays second fiddle in Corporate America to racial and gender workforce diversity, but it needs to be addressed. The country is getting grayer; workers need - and want - to stay employed longer.

"It is hard to address these kinds of challenges if you're not prepared to discuss them openly, and with the facts," said Laszlo Bock, Google's senior vice president of people operations, in a statement accompanying the data release. Yet no facts were forthcoming on age diversity in the data disclosure, or when I asked the company about it directly this week.

Workforce diversity problems aren’t unique to Google, of course. But Silicon Valley has a uniquely youth-oriented work culture, and ageism is rampant. If you doubt it, see Noam Scheiber’s excellent report in the current issue of The New Republic (bit.ly/1mpiK8X). Scheiber focuses on the difficulty older entrepreneurs have raising money to start businesses, but he also gets into the youth culture of established tech companies that seem to think they're exempt from federal - and California - age discrimination laws.

“Silicon Valley has become one of the most ageist places in America," he writes. "Tech luminaries who otherwise pride themselves on their dedication to meritocracy don’t think twice about deriding the not-actually-old.”

The federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) of 1967 makes it illegal for employers to discriminate based on age in hiring or firing practices. And in California, workers are protected from age discrimination via the California Fair Employment and Housing Act.

Google settled a high-profile, multimillion-dollar age discrimination case brought under the California statute in 2011 by Brian Reid, a former professor at Stanford University who holds a PhD in computer science.

Reid was fired by Google at age 54. Neither Google nor Reid would discuss the case, but the court record opens a window into the youth-oriented culture of Silicon Valley companies.

Reid’s lawsuit alleged that supervisors and other employees made derogatory age-related remarks to Reid, including that his opinions and ideas were “obsolete” and “too old to matter,” that he was “slow,” “fuzzy,” “sluggish” and “lethargic.” Other co-workers called him an “old man,” an “old guy,” and an “old fuddy-duddy,” Reid charged.

Fairness issues aside, there's a strong case to be made that a diverse workforce is good for business. Google's Bock made that point last week in an interview about the data release on the PBS NewsHour, noting research showing that product teams are more productive when they are less homogenous.

“There are 7 billion potential users on the planet of our product, and we're going develop the best product if they actually have some input into what we are building and we understand where they are coming from,” he said.

Google should be applying this thinking to aging, too. The aging of the global population is creating demand for new products and services at an unprecedented pace. Dick Stroud, an England-based class="mandelbrot_refrag">marketing consultant and author specializing in the 50-plus market, has estimated that in 2010, there were 375 million people over age 60 in the United States, Northern Europe, Japan, China and India. That number will nearly double by 2030, and the growth in their spending power will outpace that of every other age group.

“You don’t know what you don’t know,” says Katy Fike, a gerontologist and co-founder of Aging 2.0, a business accelerator in San Francisco focused on spurring class="mandelbrot_refrag">innovation in products and services for the 50-plus market. “Younger engineers aren’t going to realize that these opportunities exist, or they may not have the right sensitivity on issues like usability challenges or how our senses change with age.

“The people who understand the needs of this market are older adults and those who work with them every day. Companies that aren’t tapping into that aren't going to make the best products.”

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Companies that win will have a multigenerational approach, says David DeLong, an expert in organizational behavior whose research is focused on challenges posed by an aging workforce. “Companies that have diverse class="mandelbrot_refrag">markets need teams that approach things through a diverse lens,” he says.

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DeLong adds that a growing number of his clients - especially in precision manufacturing - recognize a need for age balance. “A lot of companies also are recognizing that older and younger workers balance one another’s skills. Older workers might have an invaluable knowledge of a manufacturing process, but young workers know the new technologies.”

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(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)

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Pimco's Gross sees 'New Neutral' real policy rate close to zero percent

Bill Gross, manager of the world's largest bond fund at Pimco, said Thursday the firm believes the 'new neutral' inflation-adjusted federal funds rate will be close to 0 percent as opposed to 2-3 percent in prior decades.

"If 'The New Neutral' rates stay low, it supports current prices of financial assets," Gross said in his latest investment letter. "They would appear to be less bubbly."

Pacific class="mandelbrot_refrag">Investment Management Co, which manages $1.94 trillion in assets, introduced its new-neutral outlook in May. New Neutral suggests the global class="mandelbrot_refrag">economy is transforming from a post-financial crisis recovery period called the New Normal in 2009, toward stability characterized by modest economic growth over the next three-to-five years.

"Commonsensically it seems to me that the more finance-based and highly levered an class="mandelbrot_refrag">economy is, the lower and lower real yield levels must be in order to prevent a Lehman-like earthquake," Gross said in Thursday's letter to clients. The collapse of Wall Street firm Lehman Brothers in 2008 sent the financial crisis into high gear.

"If the price of money is the basis for an economy's prosperity – and it is increasingly so in developed global economies – then central class="mandelbrot_refrag">banks must lower the cost of money to maintain that prosperity – and keep it low."

With economies expanding more slowly than before the financial crisis, central class="mandelbrot_refrag">banks all around the world are likely to keep key interest rates low, cushioning lending rates from a sharp rise.

On Thursday, the European Central Bank cut interest rates to record lows, imposing negative rates on its overnight depositors to cajole banks into lending more and to fight off the risk of deflation. In the United States, the fed funds rate is anchored near zero, with many economists expecting it to begin rising in mid-2015.

But Gross suggested yields will be dictated by how high the Fed eventually hikes rates and that the New Neutral suggests that "the real policy rates will be frigidly low for an extended period of time." Consequently, yields across the credit class="mandelbrot_refrag">markets may stop at a lower point than in past rate cycles.

As of April 30, Gross' Pimco Total Return Fund, which has $229 billion in assets, held 41 percent of them in U.S. government-related securities, 19 percent in mortgage assets and 12 percent in U.S. credit.

Gross, who has used his investment letters as a platform for his views on life, said on Thursday that our modern age is becoming more virtual than physical, "which I find increasingly depressing if only because I've failed to keep pace. I don't even own a cellphone."

He said: "My view is that there is time stored in that cellphone but its vintage may be somewhat sour, as compared to the sweetness of the here and now. The most unfortunate aspect of this new virtual reality stored deep within "inner space" is that more and more people, especially young people, are evolving to believe that these experiences are 'natural.'"

(Reporting by Jennifer Ablan; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Nick Zieminski and Richard Chang)

Brokers' slip-ups add to Wall Street's cyber-attack anxiety

The most cutting-edge technology cannot contain one of the biggest cyber hacking threats on Wall Street: sloppy actions by brokers and other industry employees.

Brokerage firm workers have taped sensitive passwords to their computer monitors and stored them in binders labeled "passwords," according to officials from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), Wall Street's industry-funded watchdog.

Some firms give login information to temporary workers and forget to cut them off after their assignment is complete. At the regulator's conference in May, examiners traded tales of brokerage firm behaviors they had found that could lead to security breaches.

One firm, for example, used the very-guessable "username" as the username and "password" for the password that gave access to the company's router, enabling access to the firm's sensitive data.

The problems are coming to light as major online security breaches in other industries are making Wall Street jittery and as financial services industry regulators are focusing on these issues.

Information security professionals said in an interview that Wall Street's demand for their expertise has exploded, especially among small brokerages that do not have safeguards in place. At the FINRA conference, the cyber-security session was so packed many professionals sat on the floor

Security breaches could trigger privacy law violations and trouble with financial regulators, which have noted a spate of breaches in other sectors and companies, including class="mandelbrot_refrag">eBay Inc, Target Corp, Neiman Marcus Group LLC and other retailers.

FINRA and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission are looking into measures that brokerages and asset managers have put in place to safeguard against cyber attacks. On Tuesday, the top Massachusetts securities regulator announced cyber audits of state-registered financial advisers.

TRAIN, DON'T COMPLAIN

The heightened focus on cyber security is sparking change at smaller firms, which often do not have procedures or systems in place to prevent hacking, said Joseph Rivela, chief strategist for Breach Intelligence LLC, a Farmington, Connecticut information security firm. "Many firms are far behind the curve," Rivela said.

Large brokerages typically have more established procedures and technology in place to prevent hacking, Rivela said. But even their employees can be duped. For example, firms have been facing a rash of incidents in which scam artists pose as customers and make wire transfer requests. FINRA has disciplined numerous sales assistants who transferred funds without first verifying those requests with the actual customers.

Educating employees about scams is a key step, said Rocco Grillo, who heads a global information security unit at Protiviti, a division of California-based Robert Half, in an interview.

Other security threats include "phishing" emails that purport to be from clients and ask for personal data, as well as fake wireless hot spots that scam artists set up in public spaces to invade firms' systems, Grillo said.

Some companies hold employees accountable for information security breaches by withholding bonuses or even firing them, Grillo said.

(Reporting by Suzanne Barlyn; Editing by Linda Stern and Steve Orlofsky)

Building a financial advice business you can sell

Isn't it ironic? Most independent financial advisers have no exit strategy and let their firms die through attrition, according to research from Fidelity Investments and consulting firm FP Transitions.

That scenario is bad for clients, and it means advisers reap no benefits from the businesses they invested years building.

A firm is an adviser’s largest asset, says Waldemar Kohl, vice president of practice management for Fidelity Institutional Wealth Services. “It’s bigger than their home, bigger than their retirement plan" so advisers should think about how they can tap that value when they leave the industry.

Advisers who formulate a plan to sell - either via succession plan to employees or a family member - or to an unrelated third party, can secure a lifetime income stream and a business that continues to serve valued clients.

CREATING VALUE

After an adviser friend sold her practice for a significant sum, Olympia, Washington-based planner Nancy Nelson sought a valuation through succession planning firm FP Transitions. The experience was eye-opening.

“Cash flow can look great, but if you’re a one-man band, it’s not attractive to a buyer because when you go, the revenue goes,” she says.

Based on FP’s recommendations, Nelson streamlined her firm to make her firm buyer-ready. She created standard operating procedures and an infrastructure that could run without her, got rid of problem clients, outsourced compliance, and transferred the knowledge that only she had into the company's customer relationship management class="mandelbrot_refrag">software.

She also gave her two administrative staffers more responsibility, to get clients comfortable with them. “I was slowly pulling myself out, so it would be a seamless transition if I left,” she says.

Shortly after taking all these steps, Nelson successfully sold her business to a third-party buyer and retired at 62.

While an outside sale can work out well, sellers typically can benefit more with a succession plan that gradually transfers ownership to insiders, says FP Transitions’ founder, David Grau, whose firm conducted over 1,200 valuations of independent practices last year, most in the $1.5 million to $2 million range.

Advisers who do the gradual transfer can sell for as much as seven times the firm's annual revenue, while third-party sales tend to brings in much less — about twice annual revenue, topping out at $1 million, he said.

The common thread among successful transitions — and the step most advisers miss — is long-term planning.

They figure they’ll sell “someday,” but by then it’s too late, says John Anderson, a succession planning consultant for outsourcing firm SEI. He tells advisers to set aside one morning a week for planning, and to expect it to take years to develop a business to the point where it can be turned over or sold to someone else.

“A misconception is that the transition phase of handing off the business is short,” he says. “It’s not.”

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(Editing by Linda Stern and Lisa Shumaker)

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JPM investment bank boss says 'laser focus' on costs cuts

JPMorgan's new solo head of its investment bank said he would be "laser focused" on reducing costs as the industry is likely to face a tough couple of years in terms of growing revenues.

"For the next year or two the industry's top-line will probably struggle. The long-term trends are good, but in the short term we need to adjust to the new reality," said Daniel Pinto, London-based chief executive of the corporate and investment bank (CIB) at class="mandelbrot_refrag">JPMorgan Chase & Co., the biggest U.S. bank by assets.

Rivals including Barclays and UBS are in the process of shrinking their investment class="mandelbrot_refrag">banks in a bid to slash costs, after a slump in trading revenues over the past year and tougher regulations are forcing banks to hold more capital and making some areas unprofitable.

But Pinto, who took sole charge of CIB in March after running it for two years with Michael Cavanagh, said there would be no big change in strategy.

"We need to be laser focused at looking at every item of cost, every item of capital and liquidity," he told Reuters on the sidelines of the Institute of International Finance's spring meeting. "In this environment, you need to be really efficient in every single thing you do."

U.S. class="mandelbrot_refrag">banks have cut back less than European rivals and have won market share. While JPMorgan has retreated from physical class="mandelbrot_refrag">commodities trading like some other banks, Pinto said JPMorgan's model was based on scale, a full product offer and global reach.

"There is no doubt that everything banks do is more costly in terms of capital, controls, liquidity and everything. If you don't have the scale it's more difficult to absorb fixed costs. Cutting parts of the business may not work - you may cut an area that's not profitable today, but a client will want to trade it the next quarter," he said.

He said savings can come from improving efficiency in processes, locations and technology, and compensation was likely to come down across the industry given banks' lower revenues.

However, he added the bank would still be able to pay competitively and make good returns to shareholders.

"This is a people business, and in order to have the best you need to pay well."

Pinto, 51, has spent his career at JPMorgan and companies the bank subsequently acquired. The Argentinian is seen, along with chief operating officer Matthew Zames, as a potential successor to CEO Jamie Dimon - who is one of the longest serving bank bosses but is not expected to step down any time soon.

RISK APPETITE WANES

JPMorgan said on May 2 that second quarter revenue from bond and equity trading was on track to decline around 20 percent from a year ago, based on lower client activity. Analysts expect other banks to show a similar drop.

"In general we are continuing with the same guidance," said Pinto, adding that investors' appetite for risk had been diminished by some big calls taken at the start of the year that went wrong.

"When you start a year like that, you end up in a situation where risk appetite is low," he said.

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Investors misjudged bets earlier this year on U.S. growth due to the impact of bad weather, the performance of cyclical class="mandelbrot_refrag">stocks, and a sharp bounce in some emerging class="mandelbrot_refrag">markets.

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Pinto said he was bullish on growth prospects for emerging class="mandelbrot_refrag">markets, but JPMorgan's expansion in some countries may be slowed by the need to implement tougher controls.

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    "In the short-term, until we are fully adjusted to consent orders, new controls and regulations, we have been going slower in certain countries," he said.

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JPMorgan's CIB business has 52,000 staff in 60 countries and made an underlying profit of $9.7 billion last year.

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It had revenues of $24.7 billion last year, ranking first with a 13.4 percent share across the top 13 banks, according to consultancy Tricumen, compared to revenue of $29 billion in 2009 and a market share of 12.4 percent.

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Its underlying return on equity across CIB was 17 percent last year and has been between 15 and 19 percent in each of the last four years, well ahead of most rivals.

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(Editing by Sophie Walker)

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Blackstone seeded hedge fund Sureview Capital shuts down: sources

Sureview Capital, a small hedge fund which received starting capital from one of the industry's most powerful investors, Blackstone Group, shut down last month, people familiar with the matter said on Friday.

The fund was founded by John Wu with seed money from Blackstone Alternative Asset Management in 2011 and last reported assets of $427 million on a regulatory filing.

At the end of the first quarter Sureview, which specialized in picking class="mandelbrot_refrag">stocks, listed class="mandelbrot_refrag">CBS Corp as its biggest position and said it owned shares in class="mandelbrot_refrag">Yahoo Inc and class="mandelbrot_refrag">Facebook Inc, all of which suffered losses in March and early April. Sureview, based in Greenwich, Connecticut, did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.

The industry sources requested anonymity because class="mandelbrot_refrag">hedge funds are private.

When it launched, Sureview was viewed as a potential new heavy hitter in the $2.7 trillion industry, not only because of Wu's resume, which included working at Kingdon Capital and Tiger Management before that, but more importantly because of Blackstone's seal of approval.

Considered one of the industry's savviest investors, Blackstone invests roughly $55 billion in class="mandelbrot_refrag">hedge funds and has raised more than $2 billion for its two so-called seeding funds, which help get new fund managers started. Competition for a piece of those assets, usually distributed in $100 million to $150 million chunks, was fierce, fund managers familiar with the selection process have said. Blackstone has seeded fewer than 20 new hedge fund managers.

Industry analysts have said it is generally expected that not every manager in a seeding fund will mature and that some will shut down.

Wu had a tough start in 2011 but returns were strong in 2013. This year, the fund struggled during the first quarter, the people familiar with the fund and its performance said.

Running a hedge fund has been especially difficult recently with the industry's performance paling in comparison to the broader stock market.

Hedge funds lost money in April and March, and are up only 1.71 percent in the first five months of this year, according to data from Hedge Fund Research.

(Reporting by Svea Herbst-Bayliss; Editing by Richard Chang)

Thai junta tracks Internet posting to capture protest leader


EU says firms like Google and Facebook must meet privacy rules

Companies based outside the European Union must meet Europe's data protection rules, ministers agreed on Friday, although governments remain divided over how to enforce them on companies operating across the bloc.

The agreement to force Internet companies such as Google ( id="symbol_GOOGL.O_0">GOOGL.O) and class="mandelbrot_refrag">Facebook ( id="symbol_FB.O_1">FB.O) to abide by EU-wide rules is a first step in a wider reform package to tighten privacy laws - an issue that has gained prominence following revelations of U.S. spying in Europe.

Vodafone's ( id="symbol_VOD.L_2">VOD.L) disclosure on Friday of the extent of telephone call surveillance in European countries showed the practice is not limited to the United States. The world's second-largest mobile phone company, Vodafone is headquartered in the United Kingdom.

"All companies operating on European soil have to apply the rules," EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding told reporters at a meeting in Luxembourg where ministers agreed on a position also been backed by the Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ).

Non-European companies with operations in Europe currently comply with data protection laws in the country in which they are based, which some say leads to "jurisdiction shopping" whereby businesses set up shop in countries with a more relaxed attitude to privacy.

But under the new rules all EU countries will have the same data protection laws, meaning companies will no longer be able to challenge which laws apply to them in court.

Earlier this year a German court ruled that class="mandelbrot_refrag">Facebook was subject to German data protection law even if its European headquarters are located in class="mandelbrot_refrag">Ireland.

Facebook declined to comment on Friday's agreement.

class="mandelbrot_refrag">Germany and the European Commission, the EU executive, have been highly critical of the way the United States accesses data since former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden last year revealed U.S. surveillance programmes.

Disclosures that the United States carried out large-scale electronic espionage in class="mandelbrot_refrag">Germany, including bugging Chancellor Angela Merkel's mobile phone, provoked indignation in Europe.

"Now is the day for European ministers to give a positive answer to Edward Snowden's wake-up call," Reding said.

Commenting on Vodafone's disclosure, she said: "All these kind of things show how important it is to have data protection clearly established."

DISAGREEMENT REMAINS

The reform package, which was approved by the European Parliament in March, has divided EU governments and still needs work to become law despite Friday's progress.

While ministers also agreed on provisions allowing companies to transfer data to countries outside the European Union, there was no decision on how to help companies avoid having to deal separately with the bloc's 28 different data protection authorities.

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That issue was thrown into stark relief by a ruling from Europe's top court requiring Google to remove links to a 16-year-old newspaper article about a Spanish man's class="mandelbrot_refrag">bankruptcy.

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The search engine has since received tens of thousands of requests across Europe, and under current rules has to deal with each national authority.

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A "one-stop-shop" arrangement would allow companies to deal exclusively with the data protection authority in the country where it has its main establishment. But governments are concerned about a foreign data protection authority making binding decisions that they would then have to enforce.

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For example, if a complaint originated in Denmark against a company based in class="mandelbrot_refrag">Ireland, the Danish authorities would have to implement a decision by the Irish data protection body, something that is both legally and politically difficult.

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(Additional reporting by Francesco Guarascio in Luxembourg; Editing by Andrew Roche)

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Mexican iFone to seek damages after iPhone ruling

Mexican telecommunications company iFone said on Friday, after winning a trademark ruling, it aims to seek damages from three local cellphone providers for using the Apple brand iPhone to sell services.

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The Mexican Institute for Industrial Property (IMPI), Mexico's trademark body, on Thursday said it had ruled against class="mandelbrot_refrag">America Movil, Telefonica and Iusacell. It upheld a complaint by iFone SA de C.V. that their use of the "iPhone" name to market smartphone plans infringed the Mexican company's rights.

Iusacell is jointly owned by Televisa and TV Azteca, which dominate the television market.

That decision opened the door to a civil suit against the three cellphone providers, which iFone lawyer Eduardo Gallastegui said the company would pursue.

"So as to claim the damages the law gives us a right to due to the infringement," he said.

According to the law, Gallastegui said, iFone could expect to claim at least 40 percent of the value of the three cellphone companies' sales made using the iPhone name. That claim could be worth more than $1 billion, he added.

The cellphone providers have the right to appeal the IMPI's decision and iFone has not yet begun its suit. The case is likely take a long time, Gallastegui said.

IMPI said it had found for iFone because the three companies were class="mandelbrot_refrag">marketing services for something registered as a product, the iPhone. That caused confusion with iFone's business, the IMPI said. Apple was not directly affected by the decision.

However, Gallastegui said he believed Apple would have to pay compensation to the three Mexican phone companies if iFone was awarded damages in a civil suit.

"The one that started this whole controversy five years ago was Apple. They're the ones who tried to cancel the brand name of iFone," the lawyer said.

Apple in 2009 sued iFone over use of the brand name. But the U.S. company eventually lost the case.

Mexico's iFone registered its name in 2003, some four years before Apple introduced the iPhone, the IMPI said. (Reporting by Dave Graham; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

U.S. spy agency joins Facebook, Twitter

The CIA, which has long trolled social media to try to uncover global trends and track evil-doers, officially joined Twitter and class="mandelbrot_refrag">Facebook on Friday.

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The spy agency cast the move as an effort to better get out its message and engage directly with the public, but its first Twitter message, sent out shortly before 2 p.m. EDT (1800 GMT), did not indicate there would be major revelations.

It said simply: "We can neither confirm nor deny that this is our first tweet."

The lack of content did not dampen interest: in less than 90 minutes, the CIA account had nearly 84,000 followers, and that number was climbing fast.

The Central Intelligence Agency has long had a public website, and maintains official accounts on YouTube and Flickr, the photo-sharing site.

"By expanding to these platforms ( class="mandelbrot_refrag">Facebook and Twitter), CIA will be able to more directly engage with the public and provide information on CIA’s mission, history, and other developments," CIA Director John Brennan said in a statement.

Among the items to be posted are artifacts from the CIA's (non-public) museum, and updates to its "World Factbook," a compendium of world leaders, maps and similar information.

Critics say the Obama administration is more secretive than its predecessors. It has cracked down on once-normal interactions between reporters and intelligence officials.

In recent directives, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has banned intelligence officials from speaking to reporters without permission, even about unclassified information, and also from citing news articles based on unauthorized disclosures.

The CIA's Facebook page is www.facebook.com/central.intelligence.agency. Its Twitter "handle" is @CIA.

(Reporting by Warren Strobel. Editing by David Storey and Lisa Shumaker)

UPDATE 2-Uber snags $1.2 bln in new funding; seen valued at $18 bln

Uber Inc has raised $1.2 billion from mutual funds and other investors in a funding round valuing the fast-growing rides-on-demand service at $18.2 billion, one of the highest valuations ever for a Silicon Valley startup.

Uber Chief Executive Officer Travis Kalanick announced the funding round on Uber's blog Friday.

The funding, eclipsed only by the likes of class="mandelbrot_refrag">Facebook Inc before it went public, is a vote of confidence by investors in four-year-old Uber's growth potential.

"Uber is one of the most rapidly growing companies ever, and we believe there are opportunities for continued tremendous growth," Joan Miller, a spokeswoman for Summit Partners, an investor in the funding round, said by telephone.

Investors hope the company, which allows users to summon a ride on their smartphones, can expand globally and diversify into logistics.

The investors in the round valued Uber "pre-money" at $17 billion, the blog post said. The $1.2 billion infusion took the startup's valuation to $18.2 billion.

Fidelity Investments put in about $425 million, Wellington Management added $209 million and class="mandelbrot_refrag">BlackRock Inc contributed $175 million, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Venture firms Summit Partners, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, class="mandelbrot_refrag">Google Ventures and Menlo Ventures also participated in the round, a person familiar with the matter said.

Kleiner's investment came from its Digital Growth Fund, run by former stock analyst Mary Meeker, known for her bullish recommendations during the first dot-com boom. Her fund has had recent hits, including traffic app Waze, acquired last year for $1.1 billion by class="mandelbrot_refrag">Google.

Uber, which did not give details about its latest investors, operates in 128 cities across 37 countries.

Kalanick said he expected to close a second round of funding from strategic investors of about $200 million.

Uber originally started with a luxury town-car service, but in many cities has since added UberX, a low-frills service with nonprofessional drivers using personal cars.

Competitors to Uber include Flywheel and Hailo, which connect passengers and taxis; and Lyft and Sidecar, which link passengers and drivers who use their personal vehicles.

While Uber has grown rapidly since its 2010 launch in San Francisco, it has run into serious regulatory issues. Ordinances keep it out of cities such as Las Vegas, Miami and Vancouver, British Canada.

In some places, including Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., Uber and similar companies face lawsuits from taxi companies hoping to keep the new competition out.

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In Colorado, Governor John Hickenlooper signed a bill on Thursday that legalized drive-for-hire services in consumers' own vehicles, including UberX.

In California, ridesharing is currently regulated through the state's Public Utilities Commission, although taxi drivers and Uber itself are challenging that authority.

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Uber sometimes offers promotional deliveries, such as roses around Valentine's Day or Christmas trees. Earlier this year, it launched a regular courier delivery service for small packages in Manhattan. (Editing by David Gregorio, Jeffrey Benkoe and Jonathan Oatis)

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UPDATE 1-U.S. FDA approves Biogen's hemophilia A drug Eloctate

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said on Friday it approved class="mandelbrot_refrag">Biogen Idec Inc's long-lasting hemophilia A drug, Eloctate, adding another product to the company's nascent portfolio of drugs for non-malignant blood disorders.

Hemophilia A is a rare, inherited blood-clotting disorder that can lead to prolonged bleeding, bruising and joint and tissue damage. It is caused by deficient levels in the body of factor VIII, a protein needed to clot the blood.

 
 
 

The FDA's ruling followed its approval in March of Biogen's hemophilia B treatment, Alprolix. Biogen developed both drugs with Swedish Orphan Biovitrum AB, or Sobi, and expects the products to form the basis of a new non-malignant blood disorder portfolio.

"We see Alprolix and Eloctate as the anchor tenants in a growing franchise," said Douglas Williams, Biogen's head of research and development. "We're in this space to stay."

Biogen's biggest products are currently the multiple sclerosis drugs Avonex, Tecfidera and Tysabri.

Eloctate is expected to generate annual sales of $1.5 billion by 2019, according to the average estimate of six analysts polled by Thomson Reuters. Sales of Alprolix are expected to generate annual sales of $286 million over the same time period.

Current treatments for hemophilia B generate about $1 billion a year, according to Biogen, while the market for hemophilia A therapies is worth about $6 billion.

Hemophilia A is the more common form of the disease, affecting about 16,000 people in the United States, Biogen said. Hemophilia B affected about 4,000 people.

Hemophilia drugs must be infused two to three times a week to prevent bleeding episodes. Eloctate cuts the number of doses needed per week to between three and five days.

Biogen has not set a price for the drug, but Tony Kingsley, head of commercial operations, said the cost for patients who switch from a short-acting product to Biogen's longer-acting product should be roughly the same, even though they will be dosing themselves less frequently.

Last month, Weston, Massachusetts-based Biogen and Stockholm-based Sobi said they would donate hemophilia drugs for use in developing nations in quantities large enough to treat tens of thousands of patients over the next decade.

The drugs will primarily be used in those nations for emergency treatments rather than preventative care.

(Reporting by Toni Clarke; Editing by Sandra Maler and Peter Cooney)

Blackstone seeded hedge fund Sureview Capital shuts down - sources

Sureview Capital, a small hedge fund which received starting capital from one of the industry's most powerful investors, Blackstone Group, shut down last month, people familiar with the matter said on Friday.

The fund was founded by John Wu with seed money from Blackstone Alternative Asset Management in 2011 and last reported assets of $427 million on a regulatory filing.

At the end of the first quarter Sureview, which specialized in picking class="mandelbrot_refrag">stocks, listed class="mandelbrot_refrag">CBS Corp as its biggest position and said it owned shares in class="mandelbrot_refrag">Yahoo Inc and class="mandelbrot_refrag">Facebook Inc, all of which suffered losses in March and early April. Sureview, based in Greenwich, Connecticut, did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.

 
 
 

The industry sources requested anonymity because class="mandelbrot_refrag">hedge funds are private.

When it launched, Sureview was viewed as a potential new heavy hitter in the $2.7 trillion industry, not only because of Wu's resume, which included working at Kingdon Capital and Tiger Management before that, but more importantly because of Blackstone's seal of approval.

Considered one of the industry's savviest investors, Blackstone invests roughly $55 billion in class="mandelbrot_refrag">hedge funds and has raised more than $2 billion for its two so-called seeding funds, which help get new fund managers started. Competition for a piece of those assets, usually distributed in $100 million to $150 million chunks, was fierce, fund managers familiar with the selection process have said. Blackstone has seeded fewer than 20 new hedge fund managers.

Industry analysts have said it is generally expected that not every manager in a seeding fund will mature and that some will shut down.

Wu had a tough start in 2011 but returns were strong in 2013. This year, the fund struggled during the first quarter, the people familiar with the fund and its performance said.

Running a hedge fund has been especially difficult recently with the industry's performance paling in comparison to the broader stock market.

Hedge funds lost money in April and March, and are up only 1.71 percent in the first five months of this year, according to data from Hedge Fund Research. (Reporting by Svea Herbst-Bayliss; Editing by Richard Chang)