World and Nation

Shorts (right)

Start Date Is Critical in Madoff Scheme

Bernard Madoff’s enormous Ponzi scheme ended on Dec. 11, 2008, when he was arrested at his Manhattan penthouse. But for some early victims, the date his crime started could matter much more than when it stopped.

A motion pending in federal bankruptcy court in Manhattan contends that Madoff’s long-term investors cannot accurately calculate their losses until they know whether any of their original profits were legitimate. And to determine that, the motion continues, they must know when the Ponzi scheme began.

The Madoff bankruptcy trustee is calculating investor losses as the difference between the cash paid into an account and the cash taken out.

But if some of an investor’s early profits were in fact legitimate, those earnings should count as part of the cash paid into the Ponzi scheme, the motion argues.

Officials Shift Flu Vaccine To the Elderly

Federal health officials are trying to shift supplies of the seasonal flu vaccine away from chain pharmacies and supermarkets to nursing homes, hoping to counter a shortage that threatens to cause a wave of deaths among the nation’s most vulnerable population.

The extent of the shortage is still unclear, but Janice Zalen, director of special programs for the American Health Care Association, which represents 11,000 nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, called it “a very big problem.” She said that of 1,000 nursing home managers who responded to a survey, 800 reported they could not get enough vaccine.

A nationwide shortage of the seasonal flu vaccine has been reported for several weeks, but nursing homes and their suppliers have grown more alarmed in recent days. Of the 36,000 Americans who die of seasonal flu in the average year, more than 90 percent are 65 or older. By contrast, swine flu has been most deadly among younger people.

Slow Month for Retailers, But Strong Finish Is Seen

A few weeks into the holiday shopping season, American consumers are still not reaching for their wallets.

After a fairly robust October, retail sales slowed in November as the nation’s stores entered their critical time of year. Major sectors like apparel, luxury goods and jewelry experienced slight sales declines.

That might seem like an ominous sign about how the chains will fare this Christmas. But retailing analysts said the declines were minor and that many consumers were saving their powder for the day after Thanksgiving, the blowout shopping day known as Black Friday.

Retailing veterans expect stores to be bustling on Friday as frugal consumers hunt for bargains with newfound purpose. Retailing professionals are also cheered that stores have less inventory today than they did this time last year.

“Last year, we were in emergency nuclear discounting mode,” said Michael McNamara, vice president for research and analysis at SpendingPulse, an information service by MasterCard Advisors. “This year, it’s more strategic in nature.”

For Nov. 1 to 14, sales of women’s clothing declined 3.3 percent and sales of men’s clothing fell 1 percent compared with last year, according to SpendingPulse, which estimates sales for all forms of payment, including cash, checks and credit cards. Luxury goods posted the biggest year-over-year decline, falling 9.2 percent.

Those declines were not as bad, though, as the double-digit losses that stores experienced last year and into early 2009.

Last year, sales over Thanksgiving weekend declined 1.01 percent from the same period a year earlier, according to SpendingPulse. That was a departure from previous years, when sales rose briskly — up 4.5 percent in 2007, up 6.1 percent in 2006 and up 5.7 percent in 2005.

Oprah’s Departure Leaves a Wide Range of Possibilities

There is no single replacement for Oprah Winfrey.

That’s not necessarily a statement about the dominance of her 24-year-old television institution, “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” Rather, it is the reality of television syndication.

When Winfrey leaves the broadcast airwaves in two years, a stable of talk shows will vie to fill her former time slot on more than 200 stations across the country. Individual stations are bound to place differing bets, drastically reshaping the daytime TV landscape.

As with NBC and Jay Leno earlier this year, the television chess board is being rearranged by a talk show host. Winfrey’s departure could even affect the ratings for the network evening newscasts. “All of a sudden, there are so many moving pieces,” said Bill Carroll, who recommends syndicated shows to stations for the Katz Television Group, on Friday.

Even before Winfrey announced last Friday that 2011 would be, as she put it, the “exact right time” to step off her broadcast stage, TV executives were jostling on behalf of Ellen DeGeneres, Dr. Mehmet Oz, Dr. Phil McGraw and other hosts who aim to benefit from the syndication shake-up.

Analysts say that DeGeneres and Dr. Oz, in particular, stand to gain, because their deals with stations will come up for renewal at the same time that Winfrey intends to depart. Aspiring hosts could emerge as well.

“I’m sure there are a number of people calling their agents today and saying, ‘I think I could be the next Oprah,’” Carroll said.

No matter what, it seems, Winfrey comes out a winner in syndication. Already, she has groomed another decade’s worth of new talk show hosts. She ordained McGraw in 2002, and his talk show, “Dr. Phil,” now ranks second behind her own hour. She followed up with “Rachael Ray” in 2006 and “The Dr. Oz Show” this fall. “Dr. Oz” is already a hit.