GM Invests in US. Trump Takes All the Credit (Again); Tiffany & Co. Credits Trump for Quarterly Loss; No Trump-ing Mattel with New CEO

Pressure cooker…

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GM just announced that it is throwing a whopping $7 billion into several of its U.S. plants in order to bring back thousands of jobs, in addition to the 56,000 hourly workers it already employs here. Naturally, Trump is taking credit for these actions and it’s kind of weird that he would since GM said these plans were already in place for months. Who you choose to believe doesn’t matter because Trump already tweeted about it:”With all of the jobs I am bringing back into the U.S. (even before taking office), with all of the new auto plants coming back…I believe the people are seeing ‘big stuff.'” Nothing says POTUS quite like the term, “big stuff.” But just so you know, GM didn’t exactly deny that Trump didn’t have something to do with its newly announced plans either. Although, General Motors did mention something to the effect of “this was good timing.” Feel free to read into that however you want since it’s no secret that Trump was gunning for GM over its manufacturing of the Chevy Cruze south of the border, and then bringing it back into the country tax-free. Incidentally, GM CEO Mary Barra is part of a panel of CEOs who are advising Trump on economic policy. Also incidentally, Mary Barra is expected to attend the President-elect’s inauguration.

Good fences?

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Guess who else is not happy with Trump? Okay, I guess that list is kind of long so I’ll just tell you: Tiffany & Co. The jeweler, which happens to own a flagship store that is adjoined to Trump Tower, reported a 14% drop in sales at that very store on Fifth Avenue. To be fair, the iconic jeweler was expecting a drop thanks to Trump. Only this one was worse than expected, citing “post-election disruptions.” Roughly translated, that means that in addition to the many many anti-Trump protesters, potential shoppers also had to contend with heightened security, courtesy of the secret service and NYPD, not to mention journalists and hoards of tourists eager to see if they could catch a glimpse of the President-elect. So just how bad were Tiffany & Co.’s sales? Well, in the US, those numbers only came in at $483 million, with comparable store sales down 4%.  And the luxury retailer isn’t very hopeful about those numbers going up in 2017.  But because Trump isn’t everywhere, global sales of Tiffany & Co. came in at $966 million, which was just a tad bit higher than last year at this time.

Don’t toy with her…

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Barbie is getting a new boss as Mattel gears up for its second CEO since 2015. Enter Margaret “Margo” Georgiadis, whose last gig, for the past six years, was over at Google. She was President of Google Americas and oversaw commercial operations and ad sales for the U.S., Canada and Latin America. So, it’s safe to say she’s (over?) qualified for the job. She is among just 27 top ranking female executives at Fortune 500 companies. Georgiadis, who also worked at Groupon and Discover Financial Services, begins her role at Mattel on February 8, where she will also sit on the board of the company. She’ll be tasked with coming up with new, and hopefully ingenious ways to boost sales in a climate that has kids hypnotized by mobile devices. Unfortunately, these nefarious electronic gadgets have been putting a dent into the sales of not only Mattel, but Hasbro and Lego as well. However,  given that Georgiadis has a reputation for successfully building brands, boosting sales of Fisher-Price, Hot Wheels and the American Girl line should be easy as pie. Well, hopefully.

Bugging Out Over VW Settlement; Trump Thinks He Can Do It All; Time to Buy a Keurig?

Buggin’ out…

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VW is getting set to pony up some $4 billion in settlement money after agreeing to plead guilty to charges of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government and obstruct a federal investigation. To break it down, the company will cough up $2.8 billion in criminal fines and another $1.5 billion in civil penalties. With that settlement, the company achieves the dubious distinction of having the largest penalty ever levied by the U.S. government against an automaker. Pretty classy for Europe’s largest car manufacturer. But I guess that’s what happens when you get busted for trying to cheat on emissions tests. VW had initially insisted that the scheme was the work of a few isolated employees. But now, lo and behold, six German execs are now facing charges, and the arrests probably won’t stop there. While Oliver Schmidt was already arrested in Florida this week, the others are still biding their time in Germany, with no guarantee that they’ll meet with justice courtesy of the United States judicial system. And even though VW swears it’s changed its naughty ways and is cooperating fully with authorities, it’ll still be watched for the next three years – just to be sure. Shares of the company rose as much as 4% today, it’s highest price since the scandal first erupted. But that doesn’t mean that this unfortunate episode has come to an end as there are still plenty of other countries that could also very well pursue action against Volkswagen.

Not so sure about this…

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Looks like Trump’s not going anywhere. Not even away from his business empire. The President-elect, in a news conference today, discussed that he will not be selling off his global empire and put his liquid assets in a blind trust. However, his assets will still be placed into a different type of trust that will keep him from making decisions that would personally benefit him.  According to Trump’s flack, a blind trust wasn’t even a realistic option for Trump anyway since real estate can’t just be sold off so easily as stocks and other assets can.  Instead, he will remove himself from all business dealings, resign from all his positions and hand-off control to his two sons. It’s just not clear when he’ll actually stick to that plan since just this weekend he turned down a $2 billion development deal in Dubai. Speaking of which, his company will not enter into any new business deals abroad until after his term ends. How gallant of him. Domestic deals, however, are a whole other story. They’ll be permitted as long as they are met with approval from an ethics adviser hired to work specifically for the Trump organization. See how that works out? Ethics watchdogs aren’t down with Trump’s plan since they feel it will do little – if nothing – to prevent conflicts of interest. But ethics or not, the fact is, a President is not required by law to even avoid conflicts of interest. Donald Trump also stated that he could run both the White House and his business except that he won’t because it doesn’t look nice. Ya think?

Are you ready for this jelly?

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Savor that cup of coffee now because it’s about to get a bit more expensive. Well, that’s assuming it’s packaged coffee. The biggest coffee roaster in the U.S., J.M. Smucker Co – yes, the one that makes jelly – decided to raise the prices on its packaged coffees, including its Folgers, Dunkin’ Donuts and Cafe Bustelo brands. I did say a bit because that increase, on average, will only be about 6%, since the costs involved in producing green coffee have gone up as well.  But don’t bother blaming the jelly company execs. Blame Arabica coffee futures. Or rather, Mother Nature, since coffee futures have gone up 30% in the last year due to drought conditions in several coffee-producing regions. In all fairness, J.M. Smucker Co. actually decreased the price of its coffee last May courtesy of a Brazil oversupply. So I suppose things are just kind of even-ing out. Incidentally, K-cup pods are excluded from the price increase. So if you haven’t bought one of those nifty machines yet, now might be a good time to scoop one up.

VW Has Some Arresting; Mars Inc. Has Gone to the Dogs; Alibaba Woos Trump

Arrested development…

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The FBI made its second arrest in the Volkswagen Emissions Scandal. Which is sort of reassuring considering that it seemed like the responsible parties were going to skate free. But there is no skating in the future for Volkswagen executive Oliver Schmidt, whose being charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States. His job title, ironically, is “General Manager of the Engineering and Environmental Office for Volkswagen America.”  However, the environment was apparently the last thing on his mind when he allegedly involved himself in the plan to install secret software, known as “defeat devices,” into some 475,000 diesel cars in the United States. If you recall, this naughty software allowed VW automobiles to cheat exhaust emissions tests. The affected vehicles were emitting 40 times the legally allowable amount of pollution levels. VW has yet to comment on the arrests but did say that it was cooperating with the Department of Justice – which seems like a prudent move.  The automobile company is thisclose to settling some of those criminal and civil allegations that has cost it billions so far, not to mention a $15 billion settlement that involves repairing or buying back the compromised vehicles. As for the Detroit Auto show this week, VW executives will be noticeably absent, but presumably, not missed. The first person arrested in the scandal, Robert Liang, already pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government.

Out of this world…

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Mars Inc., maker of the beloved Snickers bar, just announced it’s buying animal hospital VCA Inc, adding 800 pet hospitals to its 900 animal clinics. But don’t go choking on your candy bar just yet if you think pet care and confections don’t mesh to your liking. You needn’t see the logic. Only the math. Last year, $13.7 billion worth of chocolate was sold which was barely more than the previous year. But pet food is projected to grow at an annual rate of 2.5% over the next five years. Mars Inc already had a big 18% chunk of the pet care industry as of 2015 and owns the brands Whiskas and Pedigree, besides the pet hospitals. People spent an estimated $63 billion on pet related goods and services this past  year – a number that has grown 60% over just a decade ago. So VCA fits right into Mars’s lucrative, yet diverse portfolio. Oh, and by the way, Nestle owns Purina. Mars picked up VCA for over $9 billion at approximately $93 per share – more than a 30% premium -and the new company will become Mars Petcare. How’s that Snickers tasting now?

“Big sticks” and stones…

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Everybody’s favorite Chinese e-commerce giant CEO, Jack Ma, had a very interesting meeting with President-elect Donald Trump today. The Chinese billionaire, would like very much to create a million jobs, right here in the United States, particularly in the Midwest. How very gallant of him, especially since there are all these icky growing tensions between China and the United States, courtesy of Donald Trump.  Ma is looking to grow trade so that small businesses and farmers in the U.S. can sell their goods and wares to Chinese consumers. A win-win for everyone, no? But of course there is that one big sticking point – Trump, or rather his plans to slap high tariffs on Chinese imports. An editorial in one of the China’s Communist Party’s newspapers read: “There are flowers around the gate of China’s Ministry of Commerce, but there are also big sticks hidden inside the door — they both await Americans.” I’m guessing China is stocking up on sticks here.

Tesla Deliveries Anything But Electrifying; Sec’y of State Nominee’s Future Looks Green; Trump’s SEC Chairman Pick

Not electrifying…

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Tesla’s fourth quarter sales rose 27%, yet deliveries fell short with CEO Elon Musk pointing to production delays. And Tesla didn’t fall short according to Wall Street’s predictions but rather its very own.  It may seem like a convenient excuse, but it’s a valid one that was also used to blame the company’s second quarter shortcomings. The electric car company delivered 22,000 cars in its last quarter, which was over 5,000 more than the same time last year. That might seem awfully impressive except that Tesla wanted that figure to top 25,000 vehicles. So now, that 3,000 car miss becomes an ugly smudge on the company’s fourth quarter earnings report. Tesla’s grand total of car deliveries for the year hit over 76,000. But once again, because Tesla went ahead and predicted that number would hit 80,000, it disappointed only itself.  Setting forecasts he just can’t meet is a nasty habit that Elon Musk can’t seem to break.  Production delays or not, maybe Tesla’s should stop trying to predict the future.  Shares were down 11% for 2016 which marks the first time that Tesla reported an annual decline since its 2010 IPO. But miraculously those shares still rose today because Wall Street clearly has a thing for Elon Musk. Well, his company, anyway.  Wall Street and consumers alike are waiting with bated breath to see if the much anticipated $35,000 Model 3 will actually surface this year. Some experts, however, think the more affordable model will only be making its grand debut in 2018. That still has’t stopped loyal Tesla buyers and enthusiasts from shelling out a total of $350,000 worth of deposits for the car.

Hatched…

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President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, reached a very lucrative retirement deal with ExxonMobil. If Tillerson does in fact get confirmed – and that’s still kind of iffy – then he’ll walk away from his post with $180 million comfortably nestled in a trust account. And that’s the approximate value of Tillerson’s 2 million deferred shares of the energy giant. Because he would not be allowed to own shares of the company if he took the post, the shares would get cashed out and put into an independently managed trust account. Besides dumping his ExxonMobil shares, Tillerson will not be allowed to work in the oil and gas industries for a period of ten years. Plus, he has to give up a cash bonus and other benefits that are worth another $7 million because he won’t be there in March, when he’ll have reached the company’s official retirement age that affords him the opportunity to collect on that $7 million package. But, that $180 million ought to tide him over. He’ll also need to agree to sever ties in order to avoid any conflicts of interest. Should he decide to return to the industry, then all that money would be given to charities of the main trustee’s choosing. But I did write that his confirmation is”iffy” because there are plenty of Congressional members who aren’t down with Tillerson’s cushy relationship with Russian president Vladimir Putin. That’s going to come up a lot during the confirmation hearings and it’ll probably be ugly, if not wholly entertaining.

And I choose you…

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Trump just announced his pick for Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman and it’s one that should surprise…no one. Enter Jay Clayton, a lawyer with the law firm Sullivan and Cromwell, who has plenty of experience with banks. Well, representing them, anyway. Besides banking clients, Clayton also defended a variety of “large financial institutions” against such entities as the Department of Justice, other government agencies and regulators and – get this – even the SEC itself.  Some of his more notable achievements include representing everybody’s favorite Chinese e-commerce giant, Alibaba, when it made its grand IPO debut. He’s also represented Barclays when it unceremoniously scooped up Lehman Brothers, and Bear Stearns when JP Morgan took it on. You didn’t think we’d leave out Goldman Sachs, did you?  Because he repped that one too.  Word on the street is that Carl Icahn interviewed Clayton, along with several other candidates for the post. Presumably the two gentlemen discussed how to best undo obstructive banking regulations, Dodd-Frank and all those other pesky rules that have been casting a major downer on the financial world.

Trump Tweets Threats of Big Taxes to GM Over Small Cars; Ford Rearranges Plants Much to Trump’s Delight; Trump’s Trade Pick China’s Worst Nightmare?

Small-fry…

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Trump is tweeting again, this time going after General Motors. The President-elect wants to slap some big ugly taxes on the auto company because it imports Chevrolet Cruzes from Mexico instead of making them in the United States. But here’s where things get dicey: According to GM, only the hatchback version of the car is made in Mexico, and are meant for global distribution. The sedans, however, are made in Ohio. Ohio. In fact, of the 172,000 Cruzes sold last year, only 4,500 of them came from Mexico.  Even the United Auto Workers Union doesn’t care if GM does assemble those cars in Mexico since the Ohio factory isn’t equipped to make the hatchbacks. (Incidentally, over 1,000 employees at this plant are getting laid off soon.)  Besides, it’s alot of fuss to make about a car whose sales were down 18% in November.  The fact is, low gas prices are leading to higher sale of of SUV’s and trucks.  And the Chevrolet Cruze doesn’t figure in very nicely here.  Which all probably explains why this latest Trump tweet didn’t even harm the stock.  While it did lose some juice early on, it rebounded into positive territory very very quickly.

Adios…

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In the meantime, just hours after Trump used his social media account to lash out at GM, Ford announced that it is officially scrapping plans to build a $1.6 billion assembly plant in Mexico. But that doesn’t mean its ditching our neighbor to the south. Instead, Ford will continue making Ford Focus compact cars in an existing plant there while taking $700 million from that budget to upgrade a plant in Michigan for building electric cars. And bonus: 700 jobs would be added to the mix for that Michigan plant. It’s all part of a bigger $4.5 billion plan that Ford had in place to manufacture 13 new models of both electric and hybrid cars. A win-win, no?  There are plenty who think it’s just a win for Trump, who made it clear that he’s not into NAFTA and that manufacturing cars in Mexico only hurts the U.S. economy.  They also think Fields scrapped his original plans in an effort to make nice with the incoming President, not to mention, avoid tariffs. However, Fields said he was planning to make this move anyway, whether Trump was elected or not. Which doesn’t explain why construction on the new plant already started in May. But anyway, you needn’t cry for Mexico…just yet. The existing plant in Mexico will be adding 200 jobs there as well, so that country doesn’t come out a total loser either. While shares of Ford rose on the news today, can you guess what happened to the peso? It took a .9% hit against the dollar.  How do you say “ouch” in Spanish?

In other Trump business news…

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The President-elect has set his sights on his pick for the U.S. Trade Representative post. Enter Robert Lighthizer, a Reagan administration alum, who has spent the last thirty years representing major companies in anti-dumping and anti-subsidy cases. Presumably, he was incredibly successful in that aspect of his career, or else Trump might not have looked in his direction.  According to Trump,  Lighthizer has made some very effective deals that protected significant sectors and industries in the U.S. economy. Yowza. Trump’s banking that Lighthizer will do something about “failed trade policies which have robbed so many Americans of prosperity.” That’s a definite plus for working in the Trump administration. As Trump’s top trade negotiator, one of Lighthizer’s major duties will be to try and reduce that pesky trade deficit and apparently, he has a knack for making deals that do just that. Lighthizer doesn’t care for the trade policies we have in place for China, so be sure to watch the drama that unfolds as he goes after one of the world’s largest economies. You can expect some big changes in that arena and damned be the Word Trade Organization rules if it comes to that. Which it just might considering Lighthizer’s not that into the WTO.

Kate Spade Shares Stylin’ on Latest Reports; Sears Has a Fiscal Guardian Angel; Amazon Dismisses Gravity With Latest Patent

I’m so fancy…

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Kate Spade wants to put itself up for grabs and that news sent its shares up 23%, giving Wall Street plenty of cause to celebrate. And the Street will take whatever it can get, especially since Kate Spade was down 9% just in the last six months. In fact, similar companies including Michael Kors and Coach have also experienced declines during the same time period. But the kicker is that both of those companies, along with four others, are being bandied about as potential buyers of Kate Spade. Talk of a potential sale is just what hedge fund Caerus Investors wants to hear. While the firm, which entered the picture back in 2009, hasn’t disclosed its exact stake in the company, it did send a letter to Kate Spade’s board back in November urging it to put itself on the auction block. And that’s exactly what’s planned for next month. With a market cap of $2.3 billion, Caerus thinks Kate Spade could get picked up for a nifty premium – between $21 to $23 per share -and naturally, Caerus stands to profit from that. But that wasn’t the only story to come out of Kate Spade today. Apparently, an options trader purchased 2,000 calls for Kate Spade shares just minutes before it was reported that it’s exploring a sale. A call, by the way, allows a buyer to score shares at a pre-agreed upon price. Not only was one very lucky buyer involved, but it also netted a very shrewd trader a cool $320,000 within minutes. Insider info? Hmmm. I’m sure the SEC would like to know. Because that would be so bad. Just ask Martha Stewart. As for Kate Spade, she hasn’t been part of the company since 2006.

On a another note…

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Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Even though its stock just went up 9% – the most in two months – Wall Street definitely does not feel the same amount of love for Sears as it does for Kate Spade. The stock closed at a 52 week low just yesterday and its planning to close 30 more Sears and Kmart stores in early 2017. But there is someone who seems to love the embattled retailer unconditionally: CEO Eddie Lampert, who said he’s going to get a $200 million letter of credit for the troubled company. In fact, he has so much faith in the company  – and apparently he’s the only one who does – that he thinks that letter of credit could grow to $500 million. This is not Lampert’s first “loan” to Sears. In the last two years he’s shelled out over $800 million to the company.  Talk about faith.  At least this loan comes with guarantees that if Sears goes bust, its suppliers will still get paid. I wonder if the rest of his hedge fund buds over at ESL Investments feel the same, even as the firm continues to back Sears? For some inexplicable reason, Lampert is devoted to Sears, despite the fact that its sales are constantly going down and it has already lost billions. Most investors think the time has come to throw in the retail towel.  But not Lampert, who in addition to being Sears’s CEO and biggest cheerleader for the last four years, also happens to be its biggest investor.  However, others only see red flags and are wondering why Lampert is the only one eager to throw money at a company which has been losing so much of it in so little time.  Sears’s last quarter lost $750 million, so much worse than last year at this time when it only lost $454 million. Revenue fell a whopping 13% to $5 billion. In fact, in the last eight years, Sears has lost around $9 billion. Also, with the seeming exception of Lampert, everyone is wondering why Sears would need money right after the holiday season, which is supposed to be the most lucrative quarter out of the whole year.

Yeah, they thought of that too…

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Because fulfillment centers weren’t enough, now the e-commerce giant is looking to do away with gravity – besides logistics companies – with its latest patent for an airborne fulfillment center (AFC). It’s exactly what it sounds like – a warehouse in the sky. Flying at a lofty 45,000 feet, drones would basically zoom into the warehouse, pick up items that were ordered and then deliver them.  The company’s ramped up its drone tech efforts and this latest project fits in nicely with that initiative.  Right now Amazon drone delivery requires that Amazon build warehouses in specific areas, on land, where drones can happily roam free and deliver items to customers. Some of the uses mentioned in the filing include fulfilling orders during football games. The AFC would be stocked ahead of time with certain game “essentials” that could be easily delivered as you cheer for your favorite team. Another idea would be to allow customers to order right from a giant ad board and have their items delivered “within minutes.” But before you start having nightmares of flying robotic insects whizzing all around you, Amazon is going to need to get major regulatory approval from aviation authorities before launching any airships.

Cyber-Attack on U.S. Law Firms Nets Big Illicit Gains for Chinese Hackers; Alexa Gave Amazon a Very Fiscal-Merry Christmas; Fred’s Whips Out the Poison

All hacked up…

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Some of New York’s finest, most prestigious law firms fell victim to a few Chinese hackers when they hacked into the firms’ computer systems and stole valuable information regarding mergers and acquisitions. That information was then used for insider trading which netted the cyber-attackers over $4 million in illegal profits. The attacks happened between April of 2014 – 2015 when the hackers installed malware on the computer networks of the law firms and then downloaded the information from email accounts. U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara said, “This case of cyber meets securities fraud should serve as a wake-up call for law firms around the world: you are and will be targets of cyber hacking, because you have information valuable to would-be criminals.” The 13 count indictment details how the suspects purchased shares from certain companies involved in mergers and acquisitions and then sold those shares for a massive profit once those mergers and acquisitions were announced.  In the meantime, the SEC has filed its own parallel civil suit against the alleged perps and has asked to have their assets frozen lest they try and cash out on their ill-gotten gains.

It’s all about Alexa…

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The results are in. Well, some of them, anyway. In this case, Amazon is claiming to be the big merry winner (cue the surprised facial expressions) of the retail game we call Christmas – and Hanukah too, of course. Amazon said it shipped more than one billion items through Prime and fulfillment services and, apparently, four of Amazon’s very own devices were the biggest sellers on the e-commerce giant’s site. Go figure. Those top sellers include the Echo Dot Smart Speaker, Amazon’s Fire TV Stick Media Streamer, the Fire Tablet and the regular (plain-old?) standard Echo Speaker.  Just don’t bother asking Amazon for specific sales figures. The company has a nasty habit of not divulging such useful information. Incidentally, the Fire Tablet and Fire TV Stick were also hot sellers last year. With the exception of the Amazon Echo Smart Speakers, the other three cost $5o or less and at those prices it’s easy to see why consumers scooped them up. In fact, sales for Echo devices were nine times higher than they were last year. All the devices, by the way, come with the Alexa voice assistant and Amazon saw a record number of orders for devices that come with Alexa. Only problem was those Echo speakers went too fast. Amazon sold out of them by the middle of December.

Going for the poison…

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Last week Fred’s was on top of the world, after agreeing to buy 865 RiteAid stores for $1 billion. The deal was a win-win. RiteAid needed to dump those stores in order to get regulatory approval to merge with Walgreens Boots Alliance. By purchasing those 865 stores, Fred’s basically doubled its size overnight, going from a market cap $450 million to $1.3 billion. It also experienced a massive stock increase and effectively became the third largest drugstore chain in the U.S. as well as the new darling of the retail pharmacy industry.  But then came activist investor Alden Global, which apparently picked up a 25% stake in Fred’s when no one was paying attention. When the Fred’s board noticed the unusual activity going on with its shares, it unanimously approved a nifty little tactic affectionately dubbed a “poison pill.” A poison pill is simply a shareholder rights plan that kicks into place in the event of a hostile takeover. The targeted company tries to make shares look less valuable and attractive, i.e. “poisonous” to a potential acquirer.  If control is taken, at least shareholders will then be compensated accordingly with a “poison pill” in place.  Fred’s poison pill is meant to take effect when an individual or a group scoops up 10% or more of the company shares. Alden thinks Fred’s shares are undervalued and see their acquisition as a great investment opportunity. Although, Fred’s did deny they threw together the poison pill plan because of a potential takeover bid.