December 8, 2023

Olbermann Will Return to ESPN

ESPN is expected to announce on Wednesday that the former network mainstay Keith Olbermann, who contentiously departed in 1997, will return to host a one-hour, nightly show for ESPN2 later this year, according to three executives with knowledge of the deal but not authorized to speak about it publicly.

Olbermann, 54, became renowned for co-anchoring ESPN’s “SportsCenter” with Dan Patrick — arguably the most auspicious pairing in the history of the show or the network. He left the show briefly to help launch ESPN2 in October 1993.

The move to bring Olbermann back after a 16-year absence was the result of 14 months of intense discussion within ESPN and its parent, the Walt Disney Company.

Within ESPN, there was concern about asking Olbermann back because he left the network under emotionally charged circumstances and because it was feared by some that Olbermann had become too politicized as the host of his interim MSNBC program “Countdown,” which aired from 2003 through January 2011.

 On his new show, Olbermann will be free to discuss matters other than sports, including pop culture and current events, but not politics, the two-year pact specifies.

While some ESPN insiders reportedly voiced the opinion that Olbermann was part of the network’s past, not its future, his star quality is almost unmatched in the sports television arena; he seems to draw a crowd. Rumors had been bubbling for weeks that ESPN would put aside the difficulties of the past and invite Olbermann back.

Some of Olbermann’s years since leaving ESPN have been professionally stormy, but controversy has always been part of his public persona. While some of his other network tenures had rocky periods, and some ended badly, his sports knowledge and on-air charisma have never been questioned.

ESPN executives said Olbermann will help it face the challenge presented by the launch of Fox Sports 1, a rival all-sports network that just announced plans for a potentially similar series to star Regis Philbin, 82.

Richard Sandomir contributed reporting.

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Italy’s New Tool for Tax Cheats: the ‘Redditometro’

So this month, not without controversy, the National Revenue Agency decided to try a new tack. Rather than attempting to ferret out how much suspected tax cheats earn, the agency began trying to infer it from how much they spend.

The new tool, known as the “redditometro,” or income measurer, aims to minimize the wiggle room for evasion by examining a taxpayer’s expenditures in dozens of categories, like household costs, car ownership, vacations, gym subscriptions, cellphone usage and clothing. If the taxpayer’s spending appears to be more than 20 percent greater than the income he or she has declared, the agency will ask for an explanation.

In a country that is desperate for revenue to straighten out its ailing public finances — and where newspapers routinely publish articles about Lamborghini-loving proletarians — one might expect the redditometro to attract some support, at least among Italians who file truthful tax returns. Yet the redditometro has run into strong opposition, not least from the nation’s suffering retailers, who are worried that it will discourage consumer spending and sink their businesses further. Others have criticized it on civil rights grounds, saying it is overly intrusive.

However it is received, the measure reflects the government’s widening effort to persuade more Italians — some say, to bully them — to comply with the tax code.

“This tool is part of a broader strategy of tension, which is the real objective,” said Andrea Carinci, a professor of tax law at the University of Bologna. “Not to create panic, but to make taxpayers understand that they have to be virtuous, because there is no escaping. The revenue agency wants to give a message to frighten people.”

The message is being received.

Serena Sileoni, a legal expert with the Bruno Leoni Institute, an Italian research organization, said in an interview on Radio 24 that forcing taxpayers to keep receipts to document their spending amounted to “an act of psychological terrorism.”

Even before the redditometro was introduced, the Italian tax authorities had been steadily adopting tougher measures that have begun to bite. The financial police said last week that in 2012, they uncovered more than 8,600 full-blown tax evaders — individuals who were not in their files at all — with more than $30 billion in undeclared income. Another $23 billion in income that should have been declared on Italian tax returns was unearthed abroad, they said.

Even so, those figures represent a relatively small part of Italy’s tax collection shortfall. The national statistics agency estimates that as much as 18 percent of Italy’s gross domestic product comes from the underground economy; if taxes were paid on all of that money, the state would take in as much as $162 billion more each year.

When the redditometro was first presented in November, the tax authorities said that by their analyses, about one-fifth of all Italian households exhibited “contradictory results” in their returns. Such contradictions do not necessarily imply tax evasion, officials hastened to add, but they would be enough to warrant closer scrutiny in some cases.

The redditometro cross-checks spending against the type of household — say, young single adults, families with children, or retirees — as well as where the taxpayer lives. It also considers national averages for various kinds of spending, calculated by the national statistical agency, Istat.

Critics decry what they say is a presumption of guilt, and say the hunt for tax evaders is having a chilling effect on parts of the economy.

Sales of domestic sports cars and luxury autos plummeted last year, in part because of higher taxes and tighter tax scrutiny, industry experts say. Other big-ticket luxury goods are also suffering. “People feel under such scrutiny, they’re afraid — and that stops them from purchasing items that are seen as luxury goods,” said Raffaella Cortese, the owner of a gallery in Milan that specializes in contemporary art. “It’s paralyzing for our field.”

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Bucks Blog: Wednesday Reading: Campaign Against Co-Sleeping Sparks Controversy

December 07

Wednesday Reading: Campaign Against Co-Sleeping Sparks Controversy

A campaign against co-sleeping sparks controversy, Amazon offers extra discount for price-checking shoppers, travel lessons from the world of academia and other consumer-focused news from The New York Times.

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Letters: Creativity and Fulfillment

Opinion »

The Thread: Dead in the Water?

The bizarre controversy surrounding the flotilla to Gaza gets washed ashore in Greece.

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You’re the Boss: A.R.C. Loans Gone But Hardly Forgotten

The Agenda

The Small Business Administration’s special stimulus-funded loan program, known as America’s Recovery Capital, may be gone, but the controversy surrounding it lingers. In March, the agency’s independent Inspector General released a report estimating that of the 4,559 A.R.C. loans made through January 2010, nearly half “were not originated and closed in compliance with S.B.A.’s policies and procedures, resulting in approximately $66.5 million in inappropriate loan approvals.” If those loans default, the report warns, the banks that made them should not expect to be fully repaid by the S.B.A.

The A.R.C. loan program was conceived as a lifeline for sound businesses navigating the ragged shoals of recession. Companies could borrow up to $35,000 to retire existing debt, defer payments on the new loan for a year, and then take five more years to repay the obligation — with no interest or fees charged to the borrower. (The government would pay those.) The S.B.A. estimated that it had enough money to fund about 10,000 loans, and some observers predicted the program would be fully subscribed within a few months.

But many bankers were wary from the outset, and within two months of the program’s inauguration, it became clear that lenders were not eager to participate. In part that was because all of the required underwriting work made the loans not very profitable, if not unprofitable. But bankers also worried that standards for determining eligibility were untenable — businesses had to be both, in the language of the law, “viable” yet “experiencing immediate financial hardship” — and that the government would try to wrangle out of its obligation to make good on defaulted debt. “While the loan is 100 percent guaranteed, it’s only 100 percent guaranteed if you follow all of the underwriting guidelines, and some of those guidelines are very fuzzy,” Bob Seiwert, of the American Bankers Association, told The Times in August 2009. “If you miss one, you put your whole loan at risk.”

By the time the program expired at the end of last September, only 8,869 loans for $287 million had been made, well short of the amount of money available for lending.

Now the bankers’ fears appear well-founded. The inspector general’s audit found that among what it called “material origination and closing deficiencies,” one in four loans went to borrowers who could not adequately show they were viable. One in 10 loans went to businesses that could not prove hardship — in some cases, the investigators found, “the financial information actually contradicted the claimed financial hardship.” And, the report noted pointedly, “the S.B.A. is released from liability on the guaranty, in whole or in part, if the lender fails to comply materially with any of the provisions of the regulations” or does not otherwise act “in a prudent manner.”

The S.B.A., responding to the audit, defended its lenders and insisted that the law gave the agency the flexibility to waive the procedures so long as “the intent of the provision was met” and making the loan “did not violate the law.” And because the inspector general did not give banks the opportunity to correct mistakes, the agency said, “the true extent of the deficiencies is not known.”

Regardless of whether the inspector general’s estimates of errors prove accurate — and mistakes in underwriting don’t necessarily lead to a default — the report shows just how fraught efforts to intervene and save small businesses from the jaws of recession can be. Bob Coleman, who publishes a newsletter for the S.B.A. lending industry, noted that the S.B.A. inspector general received additional funding to investigate regular 7(a) loans that were made with 90 percent guarantees and reduced fees that, like the A.R.C. loans, were also funded by the Recovery Act. “More audits like this one will continue,” he warned readers recently.

Meanwhile, the S.B.A. continues to try to burnish A.R.C.’s reputation. Recently the agency named tiny Peoples Bank of Mississippi of Mendenhall, Miss., one of its Lenders of the Year in the agency’s flagship general business, or 7(a), loan program. (There are two awards, one for large lenders and one for smaller institutions.) The award, according to the nomination guidelines, recognizes “lenders that have used S.B.A. loan programs to help the maximum number of small-business owners obtain financing that they need to grow their businesses.” Among the criteria for selection are growth in overall loan volume and reaching “underserved” (read: disadvantaged) borrowers.

Peoples Bank saw decent growth in the dollars it lent last year, but it was hardly among the biggest gainers, and at the end of the year ranked only 156th among 7(a) lenders. What distinguishes Peoples Bank from the rest of the pack, as alert Agenda readers may remember, is its prodigious  A.R.C. loan lending. By the time the program ended, Peoples had funded 292 loans — more than any other bank save giants Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase and West Coast regional powerhouse Zions First National Bank.

So far, said Dennis Ammann, Peoples president and chief executive, the portfolio seems to be holding up well. True, fewer than 40 borrowers have begun repaying their A.R.C. loans, but only two borrowers have shuttered. “The others seem to be doing well,” Mr. Ammann said. “They’re all current on this debt, if they’ve started making payments, or if they have other debt, they’re current on that.

“Most of these folks just needed that cash-flow help. That was the biggest thing.”

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