BUSINESS

Binders Full Of Promises: Seven And A Half Things To Know

10/17/2012 08:12 am ET

Thing One: Talking Loud, Saying Nothing: If the economy could be healed by vague, multi-point plans, then we would be in good shape right now.

Unfortunately, vague, multi-point plans were all we got out of last night's presidential debate, a far more entertaining affair than the first. President Obama was the clear winner, even if only "on points," as seems to be the consensus. He may not have knocked out Mitt Romney, but he did end up with a couple of soundbite/gaffe gifts that may haunt the challenger for a while: Romney's brag that he got women's groups to send him "binders full of women" to help him fill his cabinet in Massachusetts, and the moment when his Benghazi-attack "gotcha" blew up in his face, single-handedly destroying the straw man the GOP has spent a month carefully constructing.

Romney did effectively land blow after blow about the weakness of the economy, constantly repeating that there were 23 million people looking for work (some of those people are actually working now, but who's counting, and Obama didn't correct him). But the emptiness of his economic agenda was a little more fully exposed this time than in the first debate. Asked by a town-hall audience member about some of the specifics of his tax-cut plan, Romney continued to doggedly offer none, aside from suggesting he might cap the deductions people would be able to take. When pressed on the matter by Obama and moderator Candy Crowley about how he would make his numbers add up, Romney simply asserted, "Of COURSE they add up," because he is a business man who ran the Olympics and built the Eiffel Tower out of metal and brawn. Romney also repeated his claim that he would create 12 million jobs in the next four years, although there is no evidence that his plan will do so. His five-point plan is the same five-point plan, essentially, that Republicans have been proposing for the past several years.

Of course, Obama is not much more specific about his job-creation plans either. He once again studiously avoided mentioning the American Jobs Act, which has rotted in Congress for more than a year, although some of the plans he enumerated are included in the AJA, which might have created an extra one million jobs by now. His and Romney's dueling plans are ultimately both fairly vague, built of fuzzy long-term aspirations rather than gritty details. As Bloomberg's Josh Barro wrote, "I found the substance of tonight’s debate incredibly depressing, because neither candidate made a remotely convincing case that he can fix America’s economy."

But here's the good news, and it's the not-so-deep, dark secret of the election: The economy is going to create jobs no matter whom we elect, whether it be Obama, Romney, or a ham sandwich with a scepter. The 12 million jobs Romney talks about creating is the same number of jobs many economists think are going to be created anyway, writes Catherine Rampell of the New York Times. The economy has managed to create 4.7 million private-sector jobs in the past 31 months despite some of the worst circumstances since the Great Depression.

Thing Two: Pandit Canned: If not for the debate, yesterday's biggest news by far would have been the abrupt resignation of Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit, just 24 hours after the bank reported well-received earnings and Pandit hosted a conference call in which he offered not a hint he was about to go. He insisted to everyone who would listen that he dumped Citigroup, not the other way around. But he was clearly on thin ice after overseeing an 89 percent decline in his bank's share price, the worst performance of his peers, and getting his pay package rejected by shareholders, and his capital plan rejected by the Fed. And all of the reporting, from The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and elsewhere, indicates he'd had a long-running battle with the board that he finally lost.

In a conference call with analysts yesterday afternoon to explain the departure, Citi Chairman Mike O'Neill and new CEO Mike Corbat said the company had exactly the right strategy and wouldn't change a thing, but that Pandit had come to them on the day the company reported earnings and said he was quitting immediately, and they said, "okey dokey artichokey." It was an answer that didn't much satisfy the analysts on the call. Between the lines, you could hear them clearly saying that they didn't think Pandit's execution was up to snuff, and it's fair to expect that Corbat will be an improvement, writes Peter Eavis of The New York Times. But investors should be wary of how the transition was handled -- a running theme with Citi.

Thing Three: Battery Maker Goes Bankrupt: Ordinarily the bankruptcy of a small business would get no national attention, but this is an election season, so yesterday's bankruptcy filing by car-battery maker A123 Systems is the greatest political scandal since the Dreyfus Affair. It is certainly another blow to Obama's efforts to boost green energy and could be a political football for Romney -- although he didn't pick it up it last night.

Thing Four: Paying China Back: Speaking of political footballs, did you know that America owes a lot of money to China? It is true! Mitt Romney reminds us of it all of the time, and it is indeed a concern. But if China didn't own more than $1 trillion of our debt, then interest rates might be higher than they are, or the Fed might have had to create more money out of thin air to buy more Treasury bonds to keep interest rates low. It wouldn't be good. What's more, we have actually slowly been paying China back, with our debt to China down 10 percent from a year ago, the Washington Post writes.

Thing Five: Fresh Scandal At Foxconn: That iPhone on which you're reading this newsletter might have been partly built by a Chinese child. Chinese manufacturer Foxconn, which is building quite a track record of employee treatment, admitted that it has employed underage "interns," in violation of Chinese law, Reuters writes.

Thing Six: Compounding Pharmacy Raided: Federal agents and local police raided the New England Compounding Center, the source of tainted drugs that have infected hundreds of people with fungal meningitis, killing 16. Up to 14,000 people might be at risk of infection, and the Food and Drug Administration has expanded its probe to more than just the steroid that was the initial cause of the infection.

Thing Seven: All Your Data Are Belong To Us: MasterCard is constantly giving customer data to marketers, the Financial Times writes, to help those marketers pitch their wares. This raises obvious privacy concerns, though MasterCard says no personal data are ever shared. Meanwhile, Google is in hot water for its privacy policies in Europe. But the Federal Trade Commission has declined to join Europe in admonishing Google, the Washington Post reports.

Thing Seven And One Half: Nobody Puts Baby In A Binder: The most memorable laugh line of last night's debate was when Romney admitted that, when he became Governor of Massachusetts, he was unaware that ladies can do stuff now, so women's groups brought him "binders full of women" who could work in his cabinet. The Internet sprung into action, with a "Binders Full Of Women" Tumblr account, a Twitter account that already has nearly 33,000 followers and a Facebook page with 222,000 "likes." What's the shelf life on such things? Twenty-four hours? Anyway, enjoy them now while they're still amusing.

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Calendar Du Jour:

Economic Data:

8:30 a.m. ET: Housing Starts for September

Corporate Earnings:

American Express

Bank of America

BlackRock

eBay

PepsiCo

Heard On The Tweets:

@ritholtz: This new guy playing Obama is much better than the last guy who played that role

@EddyElfenbein: Congratulation to the winner of tonight's debate, "regression towards the mean"

@ObsoleteDogma: Dear Citi: I'll lose 87% of the value of your stock for ONLY $260mm. Call me.

@TheFix: Twitter has no sarcasm middle class. It's populated by the always sarcastic on one end and the totally humorless on the other.

@kibblesmith: In fairness to Paul Ryan, when I get my photo taken holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa I'm not *actually* holding it up.

And you can follow me on Twitter, too: @markgongloff

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