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Banks Officially No More Than Giant Babies: Seven And A Half Things To Know

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BANK EARNINGS
Wells Fargo kicks off fourth quarter bank earnings season on Friday. | AP
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Science has determined that people need to know 7.5 things per day, on average, about the world of business. You can't argue with science. Lucky for you, the Huffington Post has an email newsletter, delivered first thing every weekday morning, boiling down the day's biggest business news into the 7.5 things you absolutely need to know. And we're giving it away free, because we love you, and also science. Here you go:

Thing One: Are You Comfortable, Banks? Can We Get You Anything? When it comes to big banks, we're like overly doting parents: Four years after the financial crisis, we just can't stop babying them.

Apparently, despite the personal guarantee of Warren Buffett that the banks are okey-dokey, they still need our assistance. Their profit margins are getting squeezed in several ways, writes Robin Sidel in the Wall Street Journal (as we'll observe when they report fourth-quarter earnings, starting with Wells Fargo today). For one thing, they have way too many deposits, on which they must pay interest. For another, they're having a hard time finding anybody they want to loan money, so they're not getting as much interest back. As a result, their net interest margins are too thin.

Meanwhile, they also just can't seem to stop getting into trouble and paying hefty fines all of the time, which is also not great for business. Big lenders will take hits totaling about $20 billion in fines this quarter from their various settlements with the government, Sidel notes -- settlements that weren't too awfully onerous and that almost never involved any criminal charges being filed, mind you. Even as we speak, they're getting into more trouble: A couple of top UBS executives testifying before a UK parliamentary commission yesterday expressed shock and ignorance about rampant Libor fraud at their bank, for which it has paid $1.5 billion in fines. And Reuters reports that JPMorgan Chase will soon get a strongly worded letter from the U.S. government that it needs to do a better job of keeping an eye on the money going through its coffers, lest it run afoul of money-laundering laws, as HSBC, Standard Chartered and many other banks have before.

Meanwhile, banks complained so much about the fragile state of housing that they won some key concessions in the new mortgage-lending rules announced yesterday by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, notes Peter Eavis in the New York Times. The rules may prevent some of the pre-crisis abuses in mortgage lending that helped lead to the housing collapse, but they will take effect over many years, and the CFPB offered possibly unnecessary protections to the banks against being sued by homeowners.

In another sop to the banks, the recent government settlement with mortgage lenders over their shoddy foreclosure practices was based on a belief that actually reviewing cases of foreclosure abuse was just way too hard, and that it's better for everybody (except homeowners) just to let lenders handle things as they see fit, as Jessica Silver-Greenberg in the NYT reminds us (and Eleazar David Melendez and Ben Hallman wrote earlier this week).

All of this follows the most profound bank concession of all: the retreat earlier this week on tougher bank capital and liquidity standards by the Basel III regulators. Some commentators suggested this surrender was a good thing, otherwise these tender banks would be so fragile as to not be able to lend money any more.

That's just completely wrong. The banks already aren't lending money, as Sidel's WSJ story today points out, either because they're being too finicky or because the economy is weak or because there's just not that much demand for loans, or all of the above. Distant-future capital and liquidity standards are not really a big part of the equation. Sure, business is bad, and we help industries when business is bad. But we shouldn't sacrifice the future safety of the financial system in the process. It's time to stop spoiling these banks.

Thing Two: More Stimulus For Japan: The government of new Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe approved a $116 billion stimulus plan for that country this morning, the latest in a long series of measures aiming to jolt that moribund economy back to life. The move puts pressure on Japan's central bank to pitch in with its own monetary stimulus measures later this month, writes Reuters.

Thing Three: Dreamliner Nightmare Won't End: Another day, another set of mishaps on Boeing 787 Dreamliner airplanes. This time both incidents happened in Japan, one involving a fuel leak and another involving a cracked windshield. Both planes were operated by All Nippon Airways. Earlier this week, two separate Japan Airlines flights had trouble at Boston's Logan International Airport. The FAA is launching an investigation with a press conference in Washington later today.

Thing Four: Google's European Vexation: U.S. antitrust regulators may have given Google a pass, but European regulators aren't going to be such pushovers. The European Union's competition chief told the Financial Times that the search giant will have to "change the way it presents search results in Europe or face antitrust charges."

Thing Five: Fed To America: You're Welcome: Well, this should help with the deficit, a little: The Federal Reserve turned a record profit of $88.9 billion last year, the WSJ writes. That will go straight to the Treasury Department. Funny thing is, that profit came from the Treasury Department, in the form of interest payments on the mountain of Treasury bonds the Fed holds as a result of its stimulus programs.

Thing Six: Shell Game: A Shell oil rig that ran aground off the coast of Alaska last week might have been in motion only because Shell was trying to avoid paying taxes, according to a letter from Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) to Shell's CEO. Shell denies the claim and says the rig was being moved for safety reasons. But a Shell spokesman last month told a local paper the timing of the rig's move was influenced by tax considerations, Reuters writes.

Thing Seven: Not-So-OK Computer: Some years back the RAND Corporation touted far and wide the benefits of switching health records from paper to electronic systems as a way of improving health-care efficiency and cutting costs, and the government spent tons of money to help speed up the process. Now, after a new study, RAND admits that it can see little benefit from the switchover, the New York Times writes. Awesome show, RAND. Great job!

Thing Seven And One Half: A Day In The Life: As a public service, to provide you a yardstick against which to measure your own life, Uproxx has unearthed an old AP story with a chronological list of all of the things Hunter S. Thompson ingested in a typical day. (Hint: Cocaine is well-represented.) It's a miracle he survived to that afternoon, much less the age of 67.

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Calendar Du Jour:

Economic Data:

8:30 a.m. ET: International Trade for November

Corporate Earnings:

Wells Fargo

Heard On The Tweets:

-- Calendar and tweets rounded up by Alexis Kleinman.And you can follow us on Twitter, too: Alexis Kleinman and @MarkGongloff

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