The Wall Street Journal: Friday, August 23, 2013

Nasdaq in Fresh Market Failure (page A1): A technical glitch knocked out trading in all Nasdaq Stock Market securities for three hours Thursday afternoon, an unprecedented meltdown for a U.S. exchange that paralyzed a broad swath of markets and highlighted the fragility of the financial world’s electronic backbone. Nasdaq officials scrambled to figure out what happened and resume trading. They shared few of their findings with trading firms or the public during regular trading hours, sowing confusion across Wall Street and leaving many investors frustrated. The decision to reopen trading with about 35 minutes to go before the close came after exchange officials were sure that banks and brokers had enough time to prepare for securities to trade again, people familiar with the discussions said. Some hiccups persisted after Nasdaq reopened trading, though Nasdaq told traders that the markets closed normally Thursday.

Obama Proposes Rating Colleges to Curb Tuition Costs (page A2): Calling growing student debt levels a “crisis,” President Barack Obama laid out a plan Thursday aimed at reining in rising tuition costs by creating a system to rate colleges and eventually tie federal student aid to the institutions’ performance. The president called for rating colleges before the 2015 school year on measures such as affordability and graduation rates—”metrics like how much debt does the average student leave with, how easy is it to pay off, how many students graduate on time, how well do those graduates do in the workforce,” Mr. Obama told a crowd at the University at Buffalo, the first stop on a two-day bus tour. “The answers will help parents and students figure out how much value a college truly offers,” he said. Once a rating system is in place, Mr. Obama will ask Congress to allocate federal financial aid based on the scores by 2018. Students at top-performing colleges could receive larger federal grants and more affordable student loans. “It is time to stop subsidizing schools that are not producing good results,” he said.

Purchases or Promises: What Works for Fed? (page A2):  Federal Reserve officials gathering in Jackson Hole, Wyo., this week with academics, private bank economists and others will ponder a question that will influence Fed decisions in the coming months: Which of its novel monetary tools are doing the most for the economy? Is it the huge purchases of long-term Treasury bonds and mortgages, now known as “quantitative easing?” Or is it the promise to keep short-term interest rates low for a long time? The Fed is considering scaling back the first, while sticking firmly to the second. The first—the $85 billion a month in bonds it has been buying—uses the power of the Fed’s printing press. The other relies on the power of the Fed’s words. Both are aimed at holding down long-term rates, the ones that home buyers and corporations pay, and, thus, encouraging borrowing, spending and investing. Views vary widely about which works better, a disagreement that is complicating the Fed’s decision-making.

Inside a Secret Airline Club (page B1): For years, upmarket carriers including British Airways, Deutsche Lufthansa AG and Qatar Airways have used exclusive programs, lounges and perks to reward their best customers. In the U.S., United and AMR Corp.’s American Airlines have recently tried to catch up, offering unpublicized programs that afford sometimes extravagant service to those fliers incessantly at airports, like George Clooney’s character in the movie “Up in the Air,” who pursues a dream of reaching 10 million frequent-flier miles. The airlines employ teams to track these fliers’ journeys and solve disruptions before they happen, sometimes bumping coach passengers to fit rerouted elite travelers. The carriers invite these customers to expensive restaurants and professional sporting events when they aren’t traveling. At the airport, they send their mail, press their suits and sew on buttons. United said that when an elite flier once stained his shirt, an employee sent her husband to the mall to buy a replacement.

Teen Retailers Left Hanging (page B3): Abercrombie & Fitch Co.’s stock tumbled Thursday after the teen retailer said profit fell 33% on a sharp drop in sales and indicated it would continue to struggle through the current quarter. Abercrombie’s troubles stem from weaker traffic and a drop in U.S. sales, which also have been weighing on rival teen retailers American Eagle Outfitters Inc. and Aéropostale Inc. But unlike those companies, Abercrombie gave no warning to Wall Street of the expected difficulties, making Thursday’s results a surprise. Mike Jeffries, Abercrombie’s chief executive, said teens are still struggling with an economic recovery that has failed to fully include them.

Gap Avoids Retail Slump, Posts Profit Rise (page B3): Gap Inc.’s fiscal-second-quarter profit rose 25% on higher sales at the apparel retailer’s namesake and Old Navy stores, prompting the company to raise its full-year earnings outlook. The retailer has reported higher same-store sales for six consecutive quarters, bolstered by an improving product line that has tapped some hot fashion trends, including a line of colored jeans last year that were well received. Gap is facing rising competition from fast-fashion players such as Forever21 and Inditex Group Inc.’s Zara, but has managed to outperform other mall-based retailers, including Macy’s Inc. and American Eagle Outfitters Inc.

Chinese Consumers Take a Step Back, Pinching Firms (page B3): Companies as diverse as retailers and gadget makers are reporting weakened results from China, as the economic slowdown there blunts Beijing’s drive to make the nation’s consumers a bigger driver of growth. Last month, Canon Inc. cut the Japanese company’s year-end profit forecast to ¥380 billion ($3.89 billion), off 16% from forecasts three months earlier, citing in part the slowdown in China. Nike Inc. reported falling China sales in its latest results, while British supermarket chain Tesco PLC is in talks with a local company, China Resources Enterprise Ltd., about folding its 131 underperforming Chinese stores into a joint venture. Apple Inc. said last month that its revenue from the greater China region fell 14% from a year earlier to $4.6 billion for the quarter ended June 29. The figure represents a 43% decline from the previous quarter. “A lot of the China story that companies would tell their shareholders was always about 15% nominal growth in gross domestic product, 20% increases in sales,” said Derek Scissors, an expert on China’s economy at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C., think tank. “That overarching growth story has weakened.” Many are blaming China’s economic slowdown for at least part of their performance. Growth slowed to 7.5% year-to-year in the second quarter, compared with 7.7% in the first.

Wal-Mart to Grow in Sub-Saharan Africa (page B4): Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s South African arm plans to open 90 new stores across sub-Saharan Africa over the next three years as it targets growth markets such as Nigeria and Angola. Massmart Holdings Ltd. said it will open a trial stand-alone food store in West Africa by the end of the year, in hopes of expanding to East Africa. It said it is also adding more brands from Wal-Mart stores in other parts of the world to its Africa operations, including a clothing line from the U.K. in November. Wal-Mart last year closed a deal valued at roughly $2.4 billion to buy 51% of the South African retailer, a move many industry watchers viewed as a springboard for Wal-Mart to grow across the continent. Over the coming three to five years, Massmart will open more stores in the rest of Africa, Grant Pattison, its chief executive, said Thursday. Wal-Mart and Massmart aren’t the only companies setting their sights on Africa. Companies from the U.S., China and India have poured billions of dollars into the continent, investing both in its emerging consumers market and in infrastructure deals, amid forecasts for strong growth in the region. By 2018, five of the world’s fastest-growing economies will be in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Thursday’s Markets: Stocks Record a Gain (page C4): U.S. stocks rose, with blue chips snapping the longest losing streak in over a year, as investors shook off trading halts in all securities listed on the Nasdaq Stock Market due to technical issues that affected the major market indexes for most of the afternoon. Nasdaq parent Nasdaq OMX Group announced the halts at 12:15 p.m. EDT. Notices sent to traders said the technical issues were related to data feeds providing market data for Nasdaq-listed securities. One stock, Atlantic American, began trading at 3 p.m. EDT, while full trading resumed at 3:25 p.m. Nasdaq OMX shares fell 3.5%. During the halt, the Nasdaq Composite Index remained frozen at 3631.17, up 31.38, or 0.9%. The Dow Jones Industrial Average traded within a range of about 14927 to 14968, while the S&P 500-stock index held roughly within 1652 to 1656. The halts also affected the calculation of the Dow, which include Nasdaq stocks Microsoft, Cisco Systems, and Intel, and the S&P 500. The Nasdaq rose 38.92 points, or 1.1%, to 3638.71. The index added to gains after the halts were lifted. The Dow rose 66.19 points, or 0.4%, to 14963.74. It was the first gain for the blue chip index in seven sessions. The S&P 500 advanced 14.16 points, or 0.9%, to 1656.96.

Fed Seeks More Control Over Rates (page C4): A plan that has been under consideration by the Federal Reserve to borrow money from investors at fixed interest rates shows how the central bank is preparing for an eventual exit from its ultra-easy monetary policies. In the July minutes of the Fed meeting released Wednesday, officials discussed a proposal to introduce a so-called reverse repurchase program, which would let the Fed set an interest rate on securities it would sell at auctions as part of its open-market operations. Banks and other investors would then decide how much to buy. This is a departure from current procedures, in which the Fed announces the amount of government bonds it intends to buy or sell in these operations and lets the market set the rate. While this appears to be a small tweak to the Fed’s practices, the implications could be wide-ranging if the plan is adopted. Contrary to popular belief, the Fed doesn’t set outright the interest rate that banks charge each other for overnight funding. Instead, it seeks to influence the effective federal-funds rate—a widely watched benchmark—by these open-market operations, which are conducted at the New York Fed. The Fed has been planning tools to eventually exit from its easy money policies for several years. This essentially adds a new tool to its kit. The Fed wants to be sure it can control short-term interest rates and lift them from near zero when the time comes. Talk of the plan comes as financial markets are anticipating the Fed will begin reducing the extraordinary support it has provided in the form of bond purchases, known as quantitative easing.

A Breakout Band Waits to Take Off (page D4): “This is amazing! Gives me chills!” Actor and musician Kevin Bacon tweeted that message last October to hundreds of thousands of followers, along with a link to a music video by an unknown Boston band. Sung in a smoky alto by Rachael Price, Lake Street Dive’s jazzy acoustic cover of the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” has had more than 900,000 views since Mr. Bacon’s tweet. Produced on a shoe string—it was filmed by a friend on the street in front of his Boston home when the local bowling alley where they had planned to shoot wasn’t available—the video created an instant following for a band that has been championed by influential radio stations like New York City’s listener-supported WFUV, but ignored by mainstream radio. “When I first heard them,” says WFUV program director Rita Houston, “I immediately became an evangelist. I wanted to tell everybody. I wanted my mom to know about them.”

A Hipster Goes for Baroque (page D4): Chris Thile has never been shy about genre-hopping. In his early 20s, singing and playing with the band Nickel Creek, the mandolin virtuoso covered songs by slacker-rock heroes Pavement, picking along with a fiddler and a guitarist. And a year ago, he was onstage with his band at Bonnaroo, the Tennessee summer music festival, working the crowd with acoustic string-band covers of rock songs by The Cars, Radiohead and others. Now, he’s trying to get the same fans just as excited about classical music. For his latest record, “Bach: Sonatas and Partitas Vol. 1,” Mr. Thile, 32, has taken an approach of unadorned simplicity: It is just him, alone in a room with his mandolin, playing three suites—16 tracks in all—of works written for solo violin by Johann Sebastian Bach, the master composer of late-Baroque church music. Mr. Thile argues that the same crowds that headbang to Radiohead anthems should be just as able to get psyched for Bach or Mahler. “The great musics of the world are great for very similar structural reasons: good melody, good harmony, and a balance of feminine and masculine energy. What makes one type of music classical and one bluegrass and one folk—these things aren’t what’s important,” he said at a recent interview in midtown Manhattan. “My thesis statement would be—Bach didn’t write Baroque music. He wrote great music.” At times, Mr. Thile’s new record has the same technical “wow factor” as his work with his band, Punch Brothers. On the “Presto” from Bach’s Sonata No. 1 in G minor, for example, Mr. Thile’s fingers trace Bach’s elegant melody lines and near-nonstop arpeggios at an off-to-the-races tempo, up and down the neck of his instrument—not unlike a bluegrass fiddle tune. At other points, such as the “Allemanda” from the Partita No. 1 in B minor, Mr. Thile plays in a purely Baroque vernacular, shedding any trace of bluegrass and making his mandolin sound stately and delicate, not unlike the lutes played by Bach’s Renaissance forebears.

Running Out of Chances to Lose to Roger (page D7): For years, Roger Federer has been the most popular attraction at the U.S. Open. He has played 58 matches in Arthur Ashe Stadium, more than any other male player, and once won this tournament five years in a row. As he ages, though, his fellow pros are getting a bit nervous. “I am scared he will leave tennis and I don’t have the chance to play against him,” said Lorenzo Giustino, a 21-year-old Italian, at a small tournament in San Marino earlier this month. Giustino, ranked No. 302, didn’t qualify for the U.S. Open. “He’s a big guy,” said Illya Marchenko, a 25-year-old from the Ukraine, after his first qualifying match at the U.S. Open on Tuesday. “He was No. 1 for the longest period of time, and for me he’s the No. 1 still, even if he’s not now.” In a sport that has no shortage of legends, Federer is perhaps the most coveted opponent in history. It isn’t difficult to understand why. He has won 17 Grand Slam singles titles, more than any man who has ever played the game. His strokes have an elegance and ease that make even fellow pros marvel. He also plays at a brisk pace and doesn’t throw temper tantrums or intimidate opponents with scowls or trash talk. At worst, he might embarrass them. “That one,” Thomas Schoorel said as he recalled Federer hitting the ball between his legs for a winner when they played in Dubai in 2011, “when it landed in, I had to laugh. But I also felt pretty s—.”

Your House Is Ready for Its Closeup (page M1): Mini-movies and Hollywood-style trailers complete with scripts, musical scores and even action sequences are cropping up as a new way to pitch pricey homes and condominium buildings. According to the National Association of Realtors, 14% of sellers used video to help sell their homes in 2012, up from 9% five years ago. Mr. Hahn, director and CEO of Film House, said he shot his first real-estate mini-movie in September of last year. He has since shot nearly 10, doing about one a week since June. Real-estate agents and developers who commission the films say that perfectly lighted rooms and aspirational story lines help grab buyers, and are the next extension of a home-buying experience that has increasingly gone online. Budgets for such films are often a percentage of the home’s listing price, and can range from a couple thousand dollars to $1 million or more for large-scale productions marketing condo buildings. The cost is paid either by the listing agents or sellers, and sometimes split between them.

Cold Cash: The Effect of AC on Home Prices (page M5): Even in the winter, the air conditioner is working hard—boosting a home’s value. An analysis of property listings in 22 major metro areas found that homes with central air conditioning are offered for 13% more, on average, than homes without central air, according to real-estate brokerage Redfin. Cities in the Midwest see the widest price gap: Homes with central air are listed for 105% more than homes without central air. Of course, homes with central air may have other amenities that help bump up the list price. But AC seems to be a driving force in the decision making, according to the National Association of Realtors, a trade group. In a survey of recent home buyers released in November, central air was the No. 1 feature sought when house shopping, according to the survey of 2,005 respondents who bought a home between 2010 and 2012. Respondents who purchased a home without central AC would be willing to pay $2,520 more for a home with this feature.