May 19, 2022

Bits Blog: Zynga Releases New Games and a New Platform

Mark Pincus, founder and chief executive of Zynga, announced new games Tuesday.Noah Berger for The New York TimesMark Pincus, founder and chief executive of Zynga, announced new games Tuesday.

9:01 p.m. | Updated
SAN FRANCISCO — “Oh, thank you for saving me!” squeals Giselle the Lovely Maiden in CastleVille, the latest effort from the game company Zynga.

Giselle the Lovely Maiden is not the only one who needs some help getting through the Gloom. Zynga itself must keep up the momentum as it prepares for an expected $20 billion public offering in a manic market. It is the unquestioned leader in casual gaming and one of the most successful Internet start-ups of any kind, but some of its most recent player statistics look rather static.

Zynga executives put on a show for the media on Tuesday at the company’s headquarters here. They introduced several games, including CastleVille, Bingo, Hidden Objects and a sequel to its early hit, Mafia Wars, as well as new ways of playing old games.

They also talked about something that might be even more significant to the company’s future stockholders: a new playground that would leave it less captive to the whims of Facebook, its crucial partner.

The larger game that is playing out is Zynga’s effort to redefine itself. Fifty-nine million people around the world played one of its games every day during the second quarter, a wildly impressive number for a company less than five years old. But the number of players is essentially unchanged from the fourth quarter of 2009.

And most of that playing is done via Facebook, which takes 30 percent of the revenue that Zynga makes on its site and wields the power in the relationship.

In opening the festivities, Mark Pincus, Zynga’s founder and chief executive, said the company was not just trying to make the next hit game. It has much bigger designs.

What Zynga is calling Project Z will be a new platform, an environment tailored just for games. Executives described it as a Web site done in partnership with Facebook, but were murky on any financial aspects since their company was in its quiet period preceding a public offering, as mandated by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Clearly, however, Project Z shifts the balance of power back toward Zynga.

The platform might eventually do a lot more than that.

“The world belongs to platforms. Everyone wants to be a platform,” said Lou Kerner, an analyst with Wedbush Securities. “Look at Facebook: Two hundred thousand people are writing code to make it better, and none of them are on Facebook’s payroll.”

Mr. Kerner sees Zynga making that same leap. “If they can build and control a vibrant gaming ecosystem and tax it appropriately, they can create significant shareholder value,” he said.

In this outcome, Zynga would be a little like a movie studio, distributing the work of others. For the moment, however, it is living and dying by its own hits.

Cityville, its biggest game, has picked up a little steam recently with 13.5 million daily users, according to AppData. FrontierVille, however, has been sliding faster than a pioneer bitten by a varmint. Introduced in June 2010, FrontierVille peaked with nine million daily players but now has about 5 percent of that.

Meanwhile, the popularity this summer of the Sims Social, a casual game from a big rival, Electronic Arts, proved that the Zynga formula could be successfully captured by others.

Mr. Pincus stressed that Zynga was focusing on expanding the notion of play, including getting gamers to do more during brief stints on mobile devices — “a five- or 15-minute experience that feels like a meal.”

Several of the new games are variants of current games designed for mobile devices. “There are about a billion PCs out there and four billion mobile devices,” said the chief mobile officer, David Ko. “The opportunity is enormous.”

Zynga needs a wide reach because its games are free. Nearly all its revenue comes from selling virtual goods to the “whales,” the 5 percent of its players who want to get ahead quickly, say, by buying tractors or weapons. The larger the pool of casual players, the more whales.

CastleVille, which will be introduced before the end of the year, aims for mass appeal. In addition to the hapless Giselle, characters include the Sexy Pirate Sonja, George the Friendly Miner and Antonio, who in a short clip shown to the reporters dazzled a couple of medieval babes when he took off his shirt. If this is too mushy for some players, they can spend their time defending their castle from “beasties,” creatures whose bark and bite was left for the moment to the imagination.

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DealBook: Diligence and Trust Are Needed to Grapple With Bank Data

Wells Fargo corporate headquarters in San Francisco. Of the four largest banks in the country, it has the most exposure to residential real estate.Noah Berger/Bloomberg NewsThe headquarters of Wells Fargo in San Francisco. Of the four largest banks in the country, it has the most exposure to residential real estate.

Some people stay sharp in their old age by doing crossword puzzles. Some play memory games or Scrabble or cut back on the heavy drinking.

That’s minor league stuff. If you really want to give your brain a workout to stave off the ravages of mental decline, I recommend trying to read bank financial statements.

In my last column, I wrote about how many bad residential mortgage loans the big banks had on their balance sheets, using numbers from a site called, which does the punishing work of wading through regulatory filings known as call reports and aggregating the data.

Take Wells Fargo. About $41.3 billion, or 19.5 percent, of its $212 billion worth of residential first-mortgage customers were either late in paying or had been classified as “nonperforming,” according to the site.

This was in line with calculations by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which estimates that about a fifth of residential loans on bank balance sheets nationwide are delinquent or in the process of being written off.

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Turn to Wells Fargo’s filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission for a full picture, according to Wells. It’s a happier, alternate universe in which $15.6 billion, or 7 percent of $223 billion, of first-mortgage loans are tagged late or “nonaccrual,” a charmingly opaque euphemism for bust.

Two helpful representatives from Wells Fargo gave me a raft of reasons to disregard the call reports and trust the S.E.C. filings. Their main argument is that the federal figure includes a bucket of loans Wells wrote down when it bought Wachovia in 2008.

When Wells Fargo bought Wachovia, it set aside a huge reserve for those loans — mostly pick-a-pay deals, where the borrower could choose to make a minimum payment, with the downside that the rest of the monthly amount owed was tacked onto the outstanding balance. The loans aren’t performing well, but they are doing better than Wells expected back then, which makes investors even more confident that the bank will eventually kick some of that reserve back to the bottom line.

In addition, the representative pointed out, the call figure was an analysis that added up different figures from several bank divisions. But Wells has some divisions that don’t file call reports yet make a modest number of mortgage loans. (All big banks are holding companies with multiple subsidiaries.)

(Disclosure: the pick-a-pay loans were made by Golden West Financial, which was sold to Wachovia in 2006 by Herb and Marion Sandler, the principal financial backers of ProPublica.)

To be fair, banks do file mountain ranges of disclosure documents. They report to the S.E.C. (which protects investors), the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (which insures borrowers), the O.C.C. (which regulates banks) and the Federal Reserve (which also regulates banks with slightly different responsibilities).

Day after day, they push out news releases that run dozens of pages. They prepare reams of special presentations for investors, the most recent of which from Wells ran 51 pages, on top of a 41-page news release. The S.E.C. filing from the quarter was 162 pages.

The numbers and presentation differ slightly in all of them and often differ from other banks’ presentations, stirring a struggle among outsiders to compare apples and bananas. No professional admits this publicly, but many investors and analysts privately acknowledge that they can’t fully track the data gushing each quarter from the nation’s banks.

Even if they could somehow reconcile all the numbers, analysts would still be significantly in the dark. In many instances, banks’ financial disclosures are drawn from estimates that only management teams are privy to. Even the simplest of concepts — how much capital a bank has — is a number based on countless calculations that, let’s face it, are not much better than guesswork.

So it is all the more important that we trust bank management and regulators to make sure the numbers we see truly reflect their financial condition.

Wells is one of the four biggest banks in America. After the financial crisis, it vaulted into this top echelon of gigantic institutions, along with JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Citigroup. In this group, Wells has the greatest exposure to residential real estate, more recently infamous as the single-worst asset class in America.

For many reasons, some not particularly rational, Wells seems to be scrutinized less by investors and the media. One is that Warren E. Buffett holds a large stake in the bank, the financial equivalent of a Good Housekeeping seal of approval. It is based in San Francisco, far from the madding crowd of American finance and media.

Wells, for its part, has historically displayed disdain for investors and Wall Street, in some regards an appealing attribute. While some of its competitors have tried to wheedle their way into analysts’ hearts, the San Francisco bank refused to engage on even the most basic level. Not until last year did its management deign to take questions on conference calls after earnings reports.

A Wells Fargo representative told me that the bank’s disclosure was “best in class” and listed the enormous amount that it provides.

The bank still falls short of other big banks in disclosure, according to investors and analysts I’ve spoken with. It doesn’t break out the reserves it has made by asset class, unlike Bank of America, making it particularly difficult to understand how much it is reserving for bad residential real estate loans. It doesn’t separate its business lines in the detail that the other banks do.

Then there are its nonperforming loans. For its residential mortgages, it doesn’t classify them as nonaccrual until they are 120 days past due, instead of the more typical 90 days. The effect is to make the numbers look better.

The crucial figure, over time, is the loss rate, the bank representative said. And since the Wells portfolio — not counting the bad Wachovia loans — has been performing consistently well for many years now, investors should believe that the bank is doing something right, and better than its competitors with its mortgage portfolio.

Yet housing prices continue to fall, the economy is weaker than expected, and we are flirting with another financial crisis, as Europe gets its revenge on us for having exported our calamity to their continent in 2008. Wells isn’t likely to remain immune to that. “Trust but verify,” Ronald Reagan used to say of the Soviet Union. Not a bad idea.

Jesse Eisinger is a reporter for ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest. Email: Follow him on Twitter (@Eisingerj).

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Bits Blog: AOL Says Arrington No Longer Works at TechCrunch

Michael Arrington said that his investments would not influence TechCrunch’s coverage.Noah Berger/Bloomberg NewsMichael Arrington said that his investments would not influence TechCrunch’s coverage.

Updated 12:40 p.m.: Added more details.

Michael Arrington’s role as both a journalist and an investor is getting more complicated.

On Thursday, Mr. Arrington, the founder and co-editor of TechCrunch, and AOL, which owns TechCrunch, announced that Mr. Arrington would start a venture capital fund to invest in start-ups like the ones that TechCrunch covers, but that he would remain involved with the blog.

But on Friday, AOL said that Mr. Arrington was now an employee of AOL Ventures, the company’s venture capital arm, and was not on its editorial payroll.

Mr. Arrington said on Thursday that his new title would be founding editor and writer. “I am TechCrunch and TechCrunch is me,” he said. “There’s no way around it.”

Tim Armstrong, AOL’s chief executive, said Thursday that while Mr. Arrington’s role would change and TechCrunch would hire a new managing editor, Mr. Arrington would still be involved with the TechCrunch blog. He said that AOL Ventures and Mr. Arrington’s new fund, the CrunchFund, would operate separately. He also said that Arianna Huffington, who oversees all of AOL’s media sites, was on board with Mr. Arrington’s new role, and that she and Mr. Arrington had worked together closely on standards for the site.

But by Thursday night, Ms. Huffington told David Carr at The New York Times that Mr. Arrington was no longer on AOL’s editorial payroll and would have no editorial role. And Friday morning, AOL’s press machine changed its tune.

“Michael’s role has changed,” said Maureen Sullivan, an AOL spokeswoman. “He now works within AOL Ventures. He’s becoming a professional investor. He is no longer involved in editorial.”

“It didn’t change overnight,” Ms. Sullivan added. “It’s just very important to be really clear about the exact specifics.”

Mario Ruiz, a spokesman for the Huffington Post Media Group, said that while Mr. Arrington’s editorial role at TechCrunch was over, he would still be able to write posts for the site as an unpaid blogger.

“He will continue to write, but his editorial role is over,” Mr. Ruiz said.

Mr. Arrington said that he was confused by the back-and-forth.

“I have no idea what AOL’s final position on this will be,” he said. “I look forward to hearing it. I’ll respond once Arianna has made her last statement.”

Ms. Huffington is traveling in Brazil and was unavailable for immediate comment.

Ms. Huffington, Tim O’Brien and Peter Goodman, editors at The Huffington Post, are leading the search for a new managing editor for TechCrunch, Ms. Sullivan said. In the meantime, Eric Schonfeld, a TechCrunch writer, will act as editor.

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Bits Blog: H.P. Plans to Make a Few More TouchPads

Hewlett-Packard TouchPadNoah Berger/Bloomberg News Hewlett-Packard’s TouchPad tablet did not sell well until it was discounted.

6:48 p.m. | Updated Adding pricing information.

Hewlett-Packard says its tablet liquidation sale was such a hit that it is making some more tablets to liquidate.

The tablet, the TouchPad, is getting a brief reprieve from its death sentence. H.P. said on Tuesday that it swas planning to produce one last run of its would-be iPad competitor.

Consumers shunned the TouchPad when it was introduced two months ago, and H.P. quickly said it would stop production as part of a broader overhaul. But the remaining tablets went quickly after their price was discounted 80 percent. So many people wanted them, in fact, that H.P. could not fill all the orders.

“Since we announced the price drop, the number of inquiries about the product and the speed at which it disappeared from inventory has been stunning,” H.P. said in a blog post. “I think it’s safe to say we were pleasantly surprised by the response.”

The company continued: “We have decided to produce one last run of TouchPads to meet unfulfilled demand. We don’t know exactly when these units will be available or how many we’ll get, and we can’t promise we’ll have enough for everyone. We do know that it will be at least a few weeks before you can purchase.”

H.P. described the batch of new TouchPads as a “limited supply” and said it would limit purchases to one per customer. They will be available by the end of October at $100 for the version with 16 gigabytes of storage, and $150 for 32 gigabytes, the same prices charged during the first liquidation sale.

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Bucks: Privacy Concerns for Bargain-Hunting Site

Checking in to Foursquare on a smart phone.Noah Berger for The New York TimesChecking in to Foursquare on a smartphone.

Ever been in an unfamiliar neighborhood, hungry but without much cash in your pocket? That’s where Cheapism would like to come in. The Web site, which helps you find bargains and inexpensive products, is now offering a “location-based” version.

Cheapism has teamed with the social networking site Foursquare to offer recommendations for a meal that won’t put a big dent in your wallet — with the added perk of telling you if, say, your friends liked it, and whether they happen to be there at the moment.

For those (me included) who haven’t embraced mobile social networking offered by the likes of Foursquare, Facebook Places and Gowalla, all this might sound a bit complicated. But Cheapism’s co-founder, Max Levitte, assures me it’s not.

Here’s how it works: Let’s say you are a Foursquare user who tracks Cheapism on your account. When you use the Foursquare app on your smartphone to “check in” to a location — that is, you let your friends know where you are, electronically — Cheapism alerts you if there are nearby restaurants that it recommends. (Foursquare and its ilk let users accumulate points for repeated check-ins, which can eventually lead to discounts or coupons.)

Cheapism doesn’t do its own reviews, but it scours existing sources like Zagat’s, TripAdvisor and UrbanSpoon to create a short tip. For instance, Cheapism’s offerings for Venice Beach, Calif., note that Canal Club offers $2.50 tacos on Tuesdays. “We may not be groundbreaking, but we’re practical,” Mr. Levitte said.

The service is available in more than a dozen major cities, including New York, San Francisco and Chicago, and is beginning to branch into smaller markets in some states, like Florida. Cheapism’s restaurant tips have been available on Foursquare for almost two months and have about 16,000 followers.

Location-based services seem to be catching on, despite some uneasiness about their potential for invasion of privacy. A recent survey by Comscore found that nearly 17 million mobile phone users used such “check in” services, with 12 million doing so on smartphones like iPhones or Android phones.

Do you think links to bargain dining and shopping override privacy concerns with location-based services?

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DealBook: Wells Fargo Profit Jumps, but Revenue Falls Slightly

Noah Berger/Bloomberg News

8:20 p.m. | Updated

Wells Fargo Company posted a 48 percent increase in first-quarter profit on Wednesday, but investors were not impressed by the results, given fears that sluggish mortgage loan growth would erode the bank’s earnings power.

Shares of the bank, which is based in San Francisco, fell 4.1 percent as traders looked past bottom-line earnings of $3.8 billion and focused on slow top-line growth.

Revenue fell 5.2 percent to $20.3 billion as rising interest rates caused the mortgage refinancing boom to slow down.

The bank, which is the nation’s biggest mortgage underwriter, said that home loan origination volume fell by more than 34 percent from the fourth quarter.

Nonetheless, Wells Fargo beat analysts’ estimates by a penny and recorded a record profit with the help of some sophisticated financial management.

The bank reduced the amount it set aside to cover future loan losses by about $3 billion from a year ago even as its pile of bad loans decreased.

The reserve reduction strategy has been a favorite of the major banks this quarter, as they have all taken advantage of the improved economy to lower loan-loss provisions. That leaves more money to be counted as profit, although it can camouflage underlying weakness.

Other giant banks with big Wall Street businesses were able to make up for some of the missing income with stronger results from investment banking and trading. But Wells Fargo, which is more oriented to retail banking, could not.

However, Timothy J. Sloan, Wells Fargo’s newly installed chief financial officer, brushed aside concerns that Wells Fargo would be severely hurt by a fall-off in its mortgage business.

“If rates go up, it is probably because the economy is going to grow,” he said in an interview. “And if the economy is growing, it’s more likely the rest of our businesses will grow.” With an improved economy, he said, he foresees a pickup in its wealth management and small business lending operations, as well as finding new profits by deploying more than $100 billion of cash it has on hand.

Investors were not convinced. Wells Fargo’s stock fell $1.24, to $28.83 a share, while shares of its rivals, Bank of America, Citigroup, and JPMorgan Chase, were flat.

Along with the slowdown in mortgage lending, Wells Fargo faces rising operating costs for servicing loans that are headed into foreclosure, especially after reaching a deal with federal regulators this month to increase staff levels and improve oversight.

Wells Fargo said it took a quarterly charge of about $214 million on its mortgage servicing business after factoring in the higher operating expenses.

The bank has strengthened internal processes and hired 1,000 staff members after adding several thousand last year.

Wells also said it was setting aside an additional $472 million to cover other foreclosure expenses, like fines and litigation costs. That is up from about $193 million in the fourth quarter.

Like the other big banks, Wells Fargo may be required to buy back bad loans it sold to Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and other private investors.

In the first quarter, the bank set aside $249 million to cover future repurchases, after setting aside $464 million in the fourth quarter.

Still, the spill of red ink has slowed. Although the housing market and broader economy remain fragile, Wells Fargo said it had released $1 billion from its loan loss reserves in the first three months of the year and expected to continue drawing down its reserves in the coming quarters.

“We wanted to see more sustained performance in the improvement of the portfolio,” Mr. Sloan said. “We have seen that trend continue.”

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DealBook: Scarred by the Dot-Com Bust, Reinvented for Social Media

Thomas WeiselNoah Berger/Bloomberg News Been there: Thomas Weisel scouted technology start-ups in the 1990s and is doing so again.

SAN FRANCISCO — Thomas Weisel doesn’t have much personal experience with social media. He has never opened a Facebook or Twitter account, and he has resisted buying an iPhone.

But Mr. Weisel knows a lot about overheated markets. His firm, Thomas Weisel Partners Group, was a dominant force in taking technology companies public during the dot-com boom and was hobbled when that bubble burst in 2000.

Today, Mr. Weisel, 70, is assessing the industry landscape from his corner office at the Stifel Financial Corporation, the brokerage firm that bought his struggling company in April 2010. Although the current frenzy raises concerns, he says he thinks it is unfair to compare Internet stocks during the late 1990s to social media companies now.

“In a sentence, the big difference is these companies, in many cases, are enormously profitable out of the gate,” he said.

Mr. Weisel, who as co-chairman of Stifel’s board is still out hustling banking business, is among the many heavyweights from the dot-com days who are reinventing themselves in the era of social media.

Mary Meeker, the research analyst who was called the Queen of the Internet, recently joined the venture capital giant Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers. Frank Quattrone, the Wall Street investment banker who helped take public in 1997, now has his own boutique advisory group working with technology start-ups and stalwarts, including National Semiconductor on its recent deal with Texas Instruments. Sandy Robertson, previously a founder of Robertson Stephens, a technology banking firm, joined Francisco Partners, a private equity shop that focuses on technology.

Lise Buyer, a former Credit Suisse First Boston analyst who currently advises companies on potential public offerings at her firm, Class V Group, jokes that she is “running into everyone” she knew from the go-go period of the late 1990s.

Dot-com video Video: The Dot-com Boom, Then and Now.

These veterans offer a unique perspective, having survived the previous technology craze and now playing a role in the current one.

“Social media is a new frontier,” Mr. Robertson said.

Silicon Valley Money Network Graphic: Click for a fuller picture of the Silicon Valley money network

Mr. Weisel, a Rochester, Minn., native who was once a competitive speed skater, rose to fame during the technology boom. In the early 1990s, he ran Montgomery Securities, one of the boutique banks known as the Four Horsemen that dominated technology underwriting during the decade. During his tenure, Mr. Weisel took Yahoo public and helped orchestrate StrataCom’s sale to Cisco for $4.7 billion, at the time the largest technology acquisition that year.

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After NationsBank bought Montgomery in 1997, he struck out on his own, starting Thomas Weisel Partners. He quickly landed a number of big assignments, including advising Yahoo on its acquisition of GeoCities.

But like many at the time, Mr. Weisel was swept up in the frenzy. In an interview in January 2000, he declared the tech boom was “the Super Bowl of all Super Bowls.” Just a couple months later, the bubble burst — a crushing blow to his firm.

In the aftermath, Mr. Weisel tried to diversify his firm away from technology, which accounted for more than 80 percent of revenue. He expanded into health care and consumer products. To raise capital, he took Thomas Weisel public in 2006.

But the firm never really recovered from the dot-com bust, and in 2010, it was sold to Stifel Financial.

His experience over the last decade has influenced his view. While he remains bullish on technology broadly, he says social media stocks are far from a slam dunk.

“They have great potential, but they have to continue to produce,” Mr. Weisel said.

After years of managing, Mr. Weisel is happy to play the role of sage counsel. He regularly meets with technology entrepreneurs and executives, to help Stifel Financial land deals.

The notable difference this time is the underlying business models of many companies, he says. Technology costs are minimal, which allows social networking sites to be profitable almost immediately. During the dot-com boom, companies burned through cash and took years to turn a profit — if they did at all.

“For the most part, these are real companies with real revenue and are generating real cash flow,” he said.

Even so, Mr. Weisel says it is critical for companies like Groupon, which is said to be valued at roughly $25 billion, to maintain their leadership position.

“First-mover advantage is key,” Mr. Weisel said. “If they don’t continue to produce, someone next door will come in and build a better mouse trap.”

He points to MySpace as a cautionary tale. In 2006, it was the top social networking site, with users topping 50 million that year, according to the research firm comScore. But it has steadily ceded ground since then to Facebook, which claims 150.7 million users today versus 37.7 million for MySpace. Its current owner, the News Corporation, recently put MySpace on the auction block.

Mr. Weisel is also watching valuations. Companies like Facebook, which is worth an estimated $50 billion, may not be able to justify such numbers unless their strategies evolve and they find new sources of profit.

“Right now, these business models are typically brand new and not fully vetted,” Mr. Weisel said. “They have to figure how to continue to monetize the traffic they are getting or valuations will fall off.”

The Barons of Two Booms

Other major Wall Street players from the dot-com bubble have reinvented themselves.

Sandy Robertson

Sandy Robertson

THEN: A founder of the boutique bank Robertson Stephens, he proclaimed in 1999 that tech companies were the most expensive stocks ever.

NOW: While he wonders if sites like Facebook are the modern equivalent of the defunct citizens’ band radio, Mr. Robertson, an executive at the private equity firm Francisco Partners and a director at the software company, sees great potential.

Mary Meeker

Mary Meeker

THEN: As an analyst for the investment bank Morgan Stanley, Ms. Meeker was referred to as the Queen of the Internet for her bullish investment calls on technology companies like and eBay.

NOW: Ms. Meeker left her perch at Morgan Stanley in late 2010 to join Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers, the venture capital firm based in San Francisco. An investor in the start-ups Groupon and Zynga, the firm recently introduced a $250 million social media fund.

Henry Blodget

Henry Blodget

THEN: Once a high-flying technology analyst at Merrill Lynch whose stock recommendations often moved the market, Mr. Blodget was accused by regulators of issuing positive ratings on stocks in public while deriding them in private e-mails. As part of a settlement, he was barred from the securities industry.

NOW: Mr. Blodget is currently the editor and chief executive of The Business Insider, a gossipy news site that covers Wall Street. He has more than 28,000 followers on Twitter.

– Susanne Craig

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