Winners & Losers: Who's up, who's down

Detroit housing, Baby Einstein, Twitter, Hydro-Québec and more.

? Detroit
Real estate

This is how bad it’s gotten for Detroit: At a foreclosure auction earlier this month, 80% of the 9,000 homes on the block went unsold. Held over four days at a downtown ballroom, the auction had a minimum bid of just $500, yet only 1,800 properties found new owners. Locals grumbled that land speculators from as far as California grabbed the best land, leaving people actually willing to live in the city with few options. In 2007, the same auction had only 2,000 properties up for bid, demonstrating how quickly the city’s situation has deteriorated. By any measure, Detroit is suffering. Estimates suggest 17.3% of the city’s residences had gone through foreclosure by the end of 2008, and the U.S. Postal Service says 17% of the city’s houses now stand vacant. Parcelled together, the properties on auction last month could have filled New York’s Central Park. Even worse, Detroit has more than 100 square kilometers of vacant land in total, bigger than all of Manhattan. The city faces a $300-million deficit thanks to its crumbling tax base, placing basic services in jeopardy. To wit, the city can no longer even afford to bury unclaimed corpses, leading to a very crowded morgue.

? Netflix
Movie rental

The online movie rental service has signed a deal to stream flicks through the PlayStation 3 gaming console. Netflix already streams to the Xbox 360 and will likely reach Nintendo Wii owners by the end of 2009, completing a sort of gaming trifecta. No wonder it reported a 28% hike in subscribers and a 24% increase in revenue over last year.

? Microsoft

Microsoft launched its Windows 7 operating system on Oct. 22, basically a second go at its flubbed Vista OS. The Redmond gang got it right this time, and given that XP was launched in 2001, it’s now a question of when, not if, corporate and home PC users upgrade.

? Edgar Bronfman
Media & Entertainment

Edgar Bronfman Jr., the former executive of Vivendi, has been charged in France, along with a handful of other execs, for misrepresenting the financial health of the company. A probe has been underway since 2002 after shareholders complained about misleading balance sheets and forecasts. Bronfman, heir to storied Canadian liquor manufacturer Seagram, sold the company’s media and entertainment division to French firm Vivendi in 2000. He has denied all wrongdoing through his lawyer.

? Disney

The Walt Disney Co. is offering refunds for any Baby Einstein DVD purchased since 2004. The video series for infants has been under fire for years from consumer advocacy group Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, which argues the products are not educational and their marketing is misleading.

? Smart Choices

Launched in August, the Smart Choices campaign was meant to direct consumers to packaged foods that were low in salt and calories. It ran into problems when people started noticing the campaign logo, a perky green checkmark, on Froot Loops, ice cream and regular mayonnaise. The dubious products led to an FDA warning and prompted participating companies, including Kraft and Unilever, to drop the checkmark.

? TM lawyers

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers is moving to allow web addresses to be registered using non-Latin characters. In addition to spawning a new round of domain-name grabbing, the move will keep lawyers busy figuring out whether trademark holders to Latin-based names and brands get first right of refusal to domains spelled alphabets like Cyrillic.

? Twitter
Social media

Microblogging phenomenon Twitter has firmly ingrained itself in popular culture, but questions still remain about how the company will make money. Twitter might be one step closer to solving that problem after agreeing with Google and Microsoft to make its endless supply of content available to the companies’ search engines. Financial details, however, were not disclosed.

? Salmon farmers

It’s estimated that 40,000 adult salmon swam to freedom recently through holes in their net pans at a Marine Harvest Canada facility on the north coast of Vancouver Island. This represents a significant financial loss for the company, since the 10-pound swimmers are worth about $1 million and only 1,073 were recovered.

? White-collar crime

Proposed legislation designed to crack down on white-collar crime in Canada aims to inflict a minimum two years’ jail time on anyone convicted of swindling more than $1 million from investors, and end early parole. While the new regulations would cost taxpayers at least $60 million a year in added imprisonment costs, the Tories think ending slap-on-the-wrist penalties is worth the price.

? M.V. Pipeline

Citing unnamed sources, the National Post reported that federal cabinet rejected a proposal by Environment Minister Jim Prentice to provide government financing to the $16.2-billion Mackenzie Valley Pipeline. (Prentice denied any decision had been made.) The project, which would transport natural gas across the Northwest Territories into Alberta, has been plagued by escalating costs, regulatory delays, environmental challenges and numerous other roadblocks since it was first proposed in the 1970s. Recent low natural gas prices are among the latest complications.

? Hydro-Québec

Hydro-Québec will acquire a major block of assets from NB Power, including a nuclear plant, hydropower facilities and transmission equipment, in a deal valued at $10 billion. Meanwhile, Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams claims the deal gives Hydro-Québec too much control over electricity in Eastern Canada.

? Maurice Greenberg

The man who built American International Group into an insurance behemoth that Uncle Sam considered too big to let fail is one cheeky survivor. While blasting Washington’s management of the company since it received the biggest taxpayer bailout in U.S. history, Greenberg has quietly been putting together a competitor, CV Starr & Co. And government-imposed pay restrictions at AIG are helping him poach talent from his former employer.