Ex-Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer to buy Clippers for $2B

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Former Microsoft Corp CEO Steve Ballmer has purchased the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers franchise for $2 billion, a record for a professional basketball team, sole trustee Shelly Sterling announced on Friday.

In a news release from Greenberg Glusker, Sterling’s counsel, she said she had signed a binding contract to sell the team to Ballmer on behalf of the The Sterling Family Trust, which owns the club.

“I am delighted that we are selling the team to Steve, who will be a terrific owner. We have worked for 33 years to build the Clippers into a premiere NBA franchise. I am confident that Steve will take the team to new levels of success.”

The agreement will need to be approved by the National Basketball Association’s Board of Governors before it is finalized. The NBA did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“I will be honored to have my name submitted to the NBA Board of Governors for approval as the next owner of the Los Angeles Clippers.  I love basketball,” Ballmer said in a statement. “And I intend to do everything in my power to ensure that the Clippers continue to win – and win big – in Los Angeles.”

On Thursday, Ballmer outbid two groups, one led by media mogul David Geffen that offered $1.6 billion and included TV talk show maven Oprah Winfrey and Oracle Corp CEO Larry Ellison, a source close to the process told Reuters. A group of Los Angeles investors also bid $1.2 billion for the team.

Bank of America Merrill Lynch acted as the financial advisor in the deal, Sterling’s statement said.

~ Reuters with inputs from USA Today

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Sworn in as India’s leader, Modi speaks of a ‘glorious future’

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Narendra Modi was sworn in as India’s prime minister in an elaborate ceremony at New Delhi’s presidential palace on Monday, after a sweeping election victory that ended two terms of rule by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

Millions of Indians watched the inauguration live on television as the 63-year-old Hindu nationalist leader, once thought of as too divisive to lead the world’s largest democracy, took his oath along with his cabinet members in the palace forecourt.

The low-caste son of a tea stall-owner, Modi won India’s first parliamentary majority after 25 years of coalition governments, giving him ample room to advance economic reforms that started over two decades ago but stalled in recent years.

Many supporters see him as India’s answer to the former U.S. President Ronald Reagan or British leader Margaret Thatcher. One foreign editor has ventured Modi could turn out to be “India’s Deng Xiaoping”, the leader who set China on its path of spectacular economic growth.

Modi said the election had delivered a mandate for “development, good governance and stability”.

“Together we will script a glorious future for India. Let us together dream of a strong, developed and inclusive India that actively engages with the global community to strengthen the cause of world peace and development,” he said in a statement.

~ Reuters

Ukraine voters seek leader to save nation, rebels block vote in east

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<A man holds his daughter’s hand after casting his ballot in Ukraine’s presidential elections at a polling station in the eastern Ukrainian town of Krasnoermeisk>

 Ukrainians voted on Sunday for a president they hope will save their country from bankruptcy, dismemberment and civil war, but eastern cities were turned into ghost towns where armed separatist fighters kept polling stations shut.

The election marks the culmination of a revolution that erupted last November, forced a pro-Russian president to flee in February and spiraled into an existential crisis since March when Moscow responded by declaring its right to invade Ukraine.

The main candidates, including frontrunner Petro Poroshenko, a confectionery magnate, are promising closer ties with the West in defiance of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“These are extremely important elections. We have to make sure Ukraine becomes a truly independent country, a powerful independent state that nobody will be able to push around,” said pensioner Mihailo Belyk, 65, casting his ballot at a crowded polling station in a southeastern district of the capital Kiev.

But in the Russian-speaking eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, where pro-Moscow fighters have proclaimed independent “people’s republics”, men with guns succeeded in blocking a vote that would imply their regions are still part of Ukraine. Nor was any vote held in Crimea, which Russia annexed in March.

Ukrainian officials hailed a high voter turnout but said only about 20 percent of polling stations in the two restive eastern regions were working. Just 16 percent of the 3.3 million people in Donetsk region would have access to a ballot box. No polls were open in the regional capital, a city of one million, where streets stayed empty with people scared to venture out.

Putin, who branded eastern Ukraine “New Russia” last month, has made more accommodating noises of late, saying on Saturday he would respect the voters’ will. He has announced the pullback

of tens of thousands of Russian troops massed on the border.

But the absence of more than 15 percent of the electorate from the election could give Moscow an excuse to raise doubts about the victor’s legitimacy and continue applying pressure on the new president in Kiev.

 

~ Reuters

Thailand’s army declares martial law, denies coup

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Thailand’s powerful military chief intervened Tuesday for the first time in the country’s latest political crisis, declaring martial law and dispatching gun-mounted jeeps into the heart of the capital with a vow to resolve the deepening conflict as quickly as possible.

The move stopped short of a coup and left the nation’s increasingly cornered caretaker government intact, along with the constitution.

Despite a steady stream of army edicts throughout the day that expanded the military’s power and included censorship of news and social media, life continued normally, with residents largely unfazed by the declaration. But the intervention, which follows six months of crippling protests that killed 28 people and injured more than 800, left the country at another precarious crossroads — its fate now squarely in the hands of the military.

“The key going forward will be the military’s role in politics,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “If they play the role of enforcer of law and order and even mediator … this could be a resolution to the impasse.”

But if they don’t, “we can expect protests and turmoil from the losing side.”

Thailand, an economic hub for Southeast Asia whose turquoise waters and idyllic beaches are a world tourist destination, has been gripped by off-and-on political turmoil since 2006, when former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was toppled by a military coup after being accused of corruption, abuse of power and disrespect for Thailand’s king.

His overthrow triggered a power struggle that in broad terms pits Thaksin’s supporters among a rural majority against a conservative establishment in Bangkok.

The army action came a day after Thailand’s caretaker prime minister refused to step down, resisting pressure from a group of senators calling for a new interim government with full power to conduct political reforms.

It also followed threats by anti-government protesters to intensify their campaign to oust the ruling party, and an attack last week on protesters that killed three people and injured over 20.

~ AP

Credit Suisse fined $2.5 billion after pleading guilty to U.S. tax charge

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Credit Suisse has agreed to pay a $2.5 billion fine to authorities in the United States for helping Americans evade taxes after becoming the largest bank in 20 years to plead guilty to a U.S. criminal charge.

The bank’s guilty plea resolves its long-running dispute with the United States over tax evasion, but could have implications for the clients and counterparties that do business with the group.

Credit Suisse said it had not seen a material impact in the past few weeks on its business, and that clients faced no legal obstacles from doing business with it despite the guilty plea.

Switzerland’s second largest bank escaped what could have been the worst outcome for its business – its top management stayed in place and it will not have to hand over client data, protected by Swiss secrecy laws. And the New York state bank regulator decided not to revoke the bank’s license in the state.

U.S. prosecutors said the bank helped clients deceive U.S. tax authorities by concealing assets in illegal, undeclared bank accounts, in a conspiracy that spanned decades, and in one case began more than a century ago.

“This case shows that no financial institution, no matter its size or global reach, is above the law,” Attorney General Eric Holder said at a news conference in Washington.

“We deeply regret the past misconduct that led to this settlement,” Credit Suisse CEO Brady Dougan said on Tuesday.

The Justice Department has not often pursued such convictions of financial companies, especially large ones that could become destabilized following an indictment. But U.S. politicians have pushed for tougher punishment for big banks in response to the 2007-2009 financial crisis.

Credit Suisse will pay the penalties to the U.S. Department of Justice, the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Reserve and New York’s banking regulator, the New York State Department of Financial Services. It had already paid just under $200 million to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

~ Reuters

Wal-Mart sales growth weakest in five years, outlook cautious

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Wal-Mart Stores Inc forecast second-quarter profit below analysts’ estimates after reporting its smallest growth in quarterly sales in nearly five years, as a severe winter kept shoppers from its stores.

Shares of the world’s largest retailer fell as much as 3.4 percent before the bell on Thursday.

Wal-Mart is the latest retailer to flag a colder-than-usual winter for weak sales. Department store operator Macy’s on Wednesday cited the harsh winter for a 1.7 percent decline in quarterly sales.

Shoppers found it difficult to visit Wal-Mart’s gargantuan stores, mainly located on the outskirts of towns and cities, as winter storms snowed out access routes.

The company has also been struggling with a sharp cut in benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the largest U.S. anti-hunger program. At least one in five of Wal-Mart’s customers relies on food stamps.

“Like other retailers in the United States, the unseasonably cold and disruptive weather negatively impacted U.S. sales and drove operating expenses higher than expected,” Chief Executive Doug McMillon said in a statement.

The company said its second-quarter forecast reflected increased investments in its membership only Sam’s Club stores and higher costs related to the cuts in the food stamp program.

Wal-Mart, which gets more than half of its sales from groceries, said sales at U.S. stores open for at least a year were relatively flat in the first quarter.

Bad weather hurt same-store sales by about 20 basis points, while customer visits fell 1.4 percent, the company said. Cuts in the food stamp program had a 50-basis-point impact.

The net income attributable to Wal-Mart fell to $3.59 billion, or $1.11 per share, in the first quarter ended April 30, from $3.78 billion, or $1.14 per share, a year earlier.

Adverse winter weather reduced earnings by 3 cents per share.

The company earned $1.10 per share from continuing operations, missing the average analyst estimate of $1.15 per share, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Total revenue rose 0.8 percent to $114.96 billion, missing the average analyst estimate of $116.27 billion.

Wal-Mart’s revenue growth has not dropped below 1 percent since the second quarter of fiscal 2010, when the company posted a 1.4 percent decline.

The company said it expected second-quarter earnings of $1.15-$1.25 per share from continuing operations, missing the average analyst estimate of $1.28 per share.

The Bentonville, Arkansas-based company’s shares were down 3.2 percent at $76.20 in premarket trading on Thursday.

The stock has fallen 1.4 percent in the past 12 months, compared with an 8.8 percent rise in the Dow Jones Industrials index and a 6.4 percent rise in the Dow Jones global retailers index.

~ Reuters

UK lawmaker says Snowden leaks prompt ‘insidious’ claims about spies

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Supporters of former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden use “insidious” language that blurs lines between spying in democratic and authoritarian states, a senior British lawmaker said on Thursday.

Malcolm Rifkind, chairman of parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee which oversees the work of Britain’s spy agencies, said their staff had “noble motivations” and no desire to be “all-seeing” or “all-hearing”.

Britain’s security agencies, like their U.S. counterparts, have faced great scrutiny since Snowden, a former contractor with the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), disclosed details of their work to newspapers.

Snowden caused an international uproar last June when he leaked documents revealing the extent of surveillance and electronic intelligence gathering by his former employers and by their British equivalent, GCHQ.

“Unfortunately, the insidious use of language such as ‘mass surveillance’ and ‘Orwellian’ by many of Mr. Snowden’s supporters to describe the actions of Western agencies blurs, unforgivably, the distinction between a system that uses the state to protect the people, and one that uses the state to protect itself against the people,” Rifkind said.

“It is ironic that Mr. Snowden, in the name of privacy and the rule of law, chose China and Russia from which to launch his attack on the United States,” he said in a lecture at Oxford University.

“GREATER DEGREE OF INTRUSION”

In the wake of his leaks, Snowden fled the United States, where he faces espionage charges, and has since been granted temporary asylum in Russia.

Civil liberties groups, parts of the media and lawmakers from all parties have argued that Snowden’s disclosures about the scale of government monitoring show it needs to be reined in and security agencies put under greater oversight.

But British spy chiefs say Snowden leaks have put operations at risk. Last week, a senior security official said data showed terrorists had substantially changed their methods of communication because of the leaks.

Rifkind has been a staunch supporter of the intelligence agencies since the Snowden disclosures were made. Last July, his committee cleared GCHQ of allegations its spies had circumvented the law by using data gathered by a clandestine U.S. program.

He said the communication over the internet meant there was likely “to be a considerably greater degree of intrusion into the privacy of the public by the security services”, which left some anxious they were conducting general surveillance.

“Our agencies are not, and do not wish to be, ‘all-seeing’ nor ‘all-hearing’. Their capabilities have been designed to pursue their lawful, narrowly defined objectives,” said Rifkind.

“True public servants operate with noble motivations, lawful authority and (are) subject to rigorous oversight. That is how those who work for our intelligence agencies see themselves. That is how most of the public see them.”

~ Reuters