Wal-Mart Brings it Home with Great Earnings; A New Pew Study is Out and the Results May Surprise You; SEC Takes a Swing at Golfer Phil Mickelson

Sweet…

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Wal-Mart showered us with the news of its higher than expected quarterly profits and that’s a good sign since Wal-Mart’s success is a barometer of the economy and how well it’s behaving. Wal-Mart, in case you weren’t aware, is considered to be less upscale than its rival, Target. Because Target did not do so well this quarter and Wal-Mart did, experts are quick to point out that those in a more modest income bracket are still spending, at Wal-Mart anyways, and that is always a welcome occurrence in a healthy economy. Wal-Mart can thank an increase in drug prices, which is not as bad as it sounds. Hey, people need their medicines. But that’s just one small reason for the impressive digits. Warm weather helped keep Wal-Mart’s utility costs lower, which also contributed to those welcome numbers. Don’t laugh. Any little bit helps, even if it does involve the thermostat. A profit is a profit and Wal-Mart’s was $.304 billion. That figure is actually less than last year’s $3.34 billion, but its because of investments to improve the retailer and not because of any negative reasons. The retailer shelled out $2.7 billion to increase entry level pay and that also helped out with some of that profit. The company added 98 cents per share when analysts expected only 88 cents per share. And who doesn’t like it when analysts get it wrong, right?   As a result of the fiscally delightful news, shares of Wal-Mart made a nice little jump today, which is especially good since shares had gone down over 20% in the last twelve months.

The gig is up…

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The Pew Research Center just released the results of its latest study, this time tackling the ever-popular “sharing economy.” For whatever reason, the center wanted to know what 4,787 U.S. adults think about Uber and Lyft, Kickstarter and Airbnb, to name a few. Turns out that 72% of U.S. adults have used at one of 11 different shared/on-demand platforms.  73% responded that they’d never heard of the term “sharing economy.” But that’s nothing compared to the 89% who didn’t know what a “gig economy” is. Then things started to get dicey. 15% of the people surveyed said they’d used shared and on-demand services like Uber and Lyft, yet 30% said they’d never heard of those apps. Household income and age played a big role in who used the apps. 41% of U.S. adults with annual incomes of more than $100,000 had used at least four of the services, which was more than three times that of adults whose annual incomes were less than $30,000. 39% of college graduates used at least four of the services. Not nearly so much for those who don’t have higher degrees. For those in the 50+ range, 44% said they’ve used at least four of the services. But of the 65 and above set , only 5% used the services. While ride-sharing apps were – no great shock – used primarily by young adults in big cities, middle aged adults were the primary users of services offered by apps like Airbnb. And even though Kickstarter and other crowd-funding apps have only been around since 2009, 22% of U.S. adults apparently gave donations through them. Yet 61% of those who responded said they’d never heard of the term “crowd-funding.”

Inside out…

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Pro-golfer Phil Mickelson is under investigation and it has nothing to do with sports. The SEC has set its sights on the five time major winner for insider trading. Apparently, Mickelson scored almost a million bucks and the SEC wants him to pay it all back…with interest. To be fair, Mickelson is classified as a “relief defendant” which means he hasn’t been officially accused of…anything. He does, however, still have to pay back his insider trading profit of $931,738.12, not to mention another $105,291.09 in interest. But hey, it’s better than doing time, a possibility for the two men who supplied him with the non-publicizied information. And those two men happen to be well known sports gambler Billy Walters and former chairman of Dean Foods, Thomas Davis. It’s no mistake that the “ill-gotten gains” were from Dean Foods. Which explains why Walters and Davis are now both facing criminal charges, while Mickelson’s attorneys get to call their client, who currently ranks 17th in the world, an “innocent bystander.”

In: Charter Spectrum, Out: Time Warner Cable; So Over-time; Has the Fed Finally Made Up its Mind?

Thanks for the memories…

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As the Charter Communications $55.1 billion acquisition of Time Warner Cable comes to a close, we can now bid a final adieu to the latter. And that’s no great loss since Time Warner Cable had the dubious distinction of earning the worst customer service score according to a survey done by the American Customer Satisfaction Index. Yet, strangely enough, TWC still managed to pick up some 32,000 video subscribers and another million high-speed internet users in 2015. In any case, this acquisition joins Charter’s other recent acquisition of Bright House Networks LLC to the tune of $10.4 billion. Charter will scrap the Time Warner Cable name, which nobody is likely to miss, and the newly formed company will be named “Charter” while its products and services will be sold under the name “Spectrum.” Catchy, no?  With that, Charter Spectrum becomes the second largest cable operator in the country, picking up 27.5 million new customers and playing second to Comcast Corp. As for Time Warner Cable’s outgoing CEO, Rob Marcus, he can wipe away his tears with his $92 million severance package, while trying to polish up his LinkedIn profile.

Laboring on…

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The Labor Department’s got some new rules headed your way, but you might not want to try breaking these, particularly if you find yourself working plenty of overtime. Because if you earn less than $47,476 a year, then congrats…sort of. You will now qualify for overtime and a half if you work more than forty hours a week. That’s a far cry from the $23,660 that served as the previous threshold. The reason for nearly doubling that threshold, by the way, is that the Labor Department hadn’t changed the rules since 2004. So I guess it’s kind of making up for lost time.and now has plans to change the numbers up every three years. In any case,  4.2 million workers will be positively affected by these new changes, with a big chunk of that being the millennial demographic. The new rules, however, could have unintended negative consequences. For instance, employers might decide to limit the amount of hours employees can work in order to avoid having to pay them overtime. Employers also might wish to start giving out raises. That might, at first, seem like a very good thing. However, it would be so that they can pay employees more than the $47,476 in order to, once again, avoid paying overtime. But then there are the “highly compensated employees” who may become eligible for overtime as well. By highly compensated, I mean getting paid at least $134, 004. In order for these highly compensated employees to get their overtime paid,  they must pass a “minimal duties test.” Problem is the Labor Department isn’t entirely clear about that part and is leaving it to the discretion of the employers. And before you start slaving away on all those extra hours, know that these rules wont take effect until December 1.

To hike or not to hike…

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It’s official. Or not. The minutes of April’s Fed meeting were released and the would-be experts think there will indeed be a rate hike in June of .25%-.50%. Members of the Fed were pinning their hopes and dreams on finding some hard-core data that the economy is growing. It seems they got it. For one, inflation is headed in the right direction towards that 2% target rate the Fed has its sights on. And unlike George Soros, the Fed is not as freaked out by the prospects of an economic slowdown. Throw in a good labor market, respectable consumer spending and even more respectable manufacturing output numbers and you just might be witness to a June rate hike. News of the likely hike sent the dollar to a seven week high and had markets all over the place. But there is that little issue about April’s disappointing jobs data which came out so inconveniently after the Fed had its meeting. Despite the fact that the labor market is looking fairly decent, those April digits can spook even the most optimistic of economists. So it’s still entirely possible that a rate hike might also get nixed.

George Soros, Golden Boy; Home Run for Home Depot; Pandora’s Streaming Away From Profits

Just because George Soros is doing it…

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George Soros just put a whole lotta money in gold. Lucky for him. However, the non-George Soroses of the world are supposed to take note, because, after all, he is, “The Man Who Broke the Bank of England.” And also because, since his net worth according to Forbes is $25 billion, he knows a things or two. Or a billion. In any case, according to a very recent regulatory filing that folks like him have to file (it’s called a 13F, and you are welcome that I am sparing you the boring details), Mr. Soros has sold off about 37% of his stock holdings. He then whipped out $387 million to buy lots of gold, including picking up a hefty 19 million shares in Barrick Gold, the world’s largest gold producer. It seems Mr. Soros is a more than a bit freaked out by the state of the global economy, and especially the slowdown in China. He feels the fiscal climate is reminiscent to him of 2007 – 2008 period just before the fiscal crash we are all still trying to forget. Not everyone agrees with Soros and his decision for his Soros Fund Management, but hey, he is the one who, back in 1992, bet against the British pound and made $1 billion off that bet – in a single day. I bet he’s real popular there. Anyway, it’s no secret that gold has always been a strong performer on Wall Street, as well as other places, mind you. The precious metal is up 21% for the year. But, just so ya’ know,  Soros still has plenty of other cash in plenty of other places. Like eBay and Apple. And Yahoo. And Gap…well, you see where I’m going with this. In fact, he’s got $80 million invested NOT in gold. In case you’re wondering what stocks he did ditch, some of those include Alibaba Group and Pfizer. Also, TripAdvisor and Expedia are out of his portfolio. Though, he did keep airline United Continental Holdings. Go figure.

Home improvement…

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As the warm weather brutalized plenty of retail outfits lately, (sorry, Macy’s, Nordstrom), Mother Nature knocked it out of the park for Home Depot. In turn, Home Depot warmed our hearts by boosting its sales and profit forecasts after regaling us with the news of its better-than-expected earnings, courtesy of Mother Nature. And as we all know, Wall Street loves nothing better than better-than-expected earnings. Except when investors feel that shares have hit their potential, for the moment anyway, which explains why shares of the home improvement chain were a wee bit down today. But no worries. A good housing market and fabulous weather added some $250 million in sales for Home Depot in the quarter, with February being the sweetest month, fiscally speaking. For the year, Home Depot is up about 20%, posting a profit of $1.8 billion a $1.44 per share. That was a 14% boost over last year, not to mention that it trumped analysts predictions of $1.36 per share. The company also saw $22.76 billion in sales, again stomping on predictions of $22.39 billion. The earnings also showed that consumers are actually spending their hard-earned cash, as opposed to hoarding it under mattresses (okay, banks too), unlike what was previously thought because of the generally poor performance in the retail sector. Spending money is good for the economy and now economists aren’t so worried anymore because they realize where all that hard-earned cash went. For the full year the retailer thinks it’ll pull down $6.27 per share for the year. And Spring has hardly sprung!

Closing the box…

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Pandora Media has had better years. Even better decades. Founded in 2000, the company had its IPO in 2011 and has about 80 million active users. While it was amongst the first crop of music streamers, the company’s stock is now down about 40% for the last twelve months, having never caught the same momentum as some of its competitors, including Apple and Spotify. Enter activist investor/Carl Icahn protégé Keith Meister, who feels that the time has come for Pandora to put itself on the market. Keith Meister’s Corvex Management has some very strong feelings about how much better – and profitable – Pandora can be and seeing as how he’s got 22.7 million shares, giving him an almost 10% stake in the company, he’s entitled to more than just his opinion on the matter. As the largest shareholder in the company, Meister wrote in a recent letter how he has “become increasingly concerned that the company may be pursuing a costly and uncertain business plan, without a thorough evaluation of all shareholder value-maximizing alternatives.” Basically, he’s wondering if the folks in charge, namely CEO and co-founder Tim Westergren, knows what they’re doing. Wall Street certainly seemed to be agreeing with Meister, as it sent the stock up today as much as 7% at one point.

The Middle’s Not Where It’s At; Unemployment Blame Game; The Fed’s Milky White Problem

Stuck in the middle…

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The middle class is shrinking and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Studies done by the Pew Research Center show that between 2000 and 2014, the middle class actually shrank in 9 out of ten U.S. cities. Of the 229 U.S. cities cited in the study, the amount of households classified as middle class dropped in 203 of those cities. Sure, some of those households left their socioeconomic perches because they graduated to the upper class. But that’s mostly not the case. In fact, the middle class now makes up less than half the population in the cities studied while the income inequality gap keeps growing. That could trigger some ugly economic consequences. The wider the gap gets, the more it is likely to inhibit economic growth. At least that’s what some experts think. What’s worse is that children raised in areas that are predominantly low-income, are less likely to reach the middle class. In case you were wondering, the middle class is defined as a household that earns an annual income between 2/3 to two times the median income. In 2014, a three-person household was considered middle class if its annual income was between $42,000 to $125,000. The largest middle class populations were found to be in the good old midwest. I’m sure there is irony in there somewhere. The largest low-income populations were found to be in the southwest, particularly near the Mexico border, while the highest populations of upper class were found to be in the northeast and the west coast. No matter where you stand on the issue, it’s one that is going to figure prominently in the November elections.

On the Verizon…

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Nothing like unemployment numbers to ruin an otherwise pleasant Thursday. The number of first time applicants rose by 20,000 to a grand total of 294,000 seeking jobless benefits. Unfortunately it marked the third straight week of increases of first-time applicants. But at least that number was still below the 300,00 mark  – for 62 weeks straight, mind you  – so the situation isn’t that alarming. Well, except maybe for those who find themselves out of work. Also, economists are actually pointing the finger at Verizon – or rather the 40,000 Verizon workers who went on strike back in April. They are likely the ones who have applied for jobless benefits while on strike.  Economists predicted that the number of applicants would fall to about 270,000, which makes perfect mathematical sense if you figure that the Verizon strike is apparently responsible for that unwelcome surge and without it the numbers would have dropped.

White as a sheet…

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The Fed’s been taking a lot of heat lately. And some of that heat has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that it hasn’t raised rates, yet again. Instead, top lawmakers penned a letter to Janet Yellen and company calling out the lack of diversity at the Central Bank which is “disproportionately white and male.” Ha! Who would have thought the Central Bank and the Academy Awards have something in common? Signed by 116 members of the House and 11 senators, the letter expressed disappointment over the Fed’s failure to “represent the public” and would like it to consider a number of factors, including race, when filling posts in the future. The letter did, however, praise Yellen for her strong leadership. So props to her on that. So just how disproportionately white and male is the Fed? Well, of the five current Fed governors, all of them are white. However, to be fair, two of them are women, including Janet Yellen, who happens to be the first women to head the Central Bank in its 100 year history. If that’s not disproportionately white and male, then I don’t know what is. Since monetary policy strongly correlates with hard-working Americans of every ilk, it does seem odd that the Fed is primarily made up of mostly one ilk. Give or take. At least minorities make up 24% of regional Fed bank boards. While that’s not an ideal representation, it’s still a 16% increase from 2010.

 

Google Spits in the Face of Online Payday Lenders; This Trump’s For You; Mega Merger Nixed

Well if Google’s doing it…

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Google has been able to do what politicians couldn’t. Which might mean that its up to Google to Make America Great Again. In any case, online payday lenders are officially getting the boot from Google.  Come July 13, companies that deal in online payday loans wont get their ads displayed above search results under Google’s AdWords program. If you think that’s awfully harsh, then consider that payday loans are often due in 60 days and carry annual interest rates of at least 36%. Other types of loans and lenders will still be able to keep their ads in place, though. For now. Facebook has been banning payday loan ads since last summer, while Yahoo has still yet to catch on. A payday lender trade group called Google’s new policy “discriminatory and a form of censorship.” However, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has its own thoughts about the online payday lending industry. The CFPB’s cold hard research highlights the numerous hidden risks, costly banking fees and account closures resulting from these loans. The industry also tends to disproportionately target minorities. The CFPB found that a staggering one third of borrowers had their accounts closed by their banks while half of the borrowers paid an average of $185 in back penalties. And that’s before you even get to the annual percentage rate of 391% that are placed on these types of loans

 

This America’s for you…

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Next time you reach for an icy cold brew, you might just be wondering why it looks a little different. Riding the fiscal wave of patriotism, Budweiser will be rebranding its cans “America.” Instead of the slogan “King of Beers,” beer drinkers will find the slogan “E Pluribus Unum” on the cans. And in case it matters, Donald Trump is taking the credit that companies are inspired by his “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan. Really. During an interview on Fox News, Trump said, “They’re so impressed with what our country will become. They decided to do this before the fact.” Never mind that Budweiser’s parent company, Anheuser Busch InBev is Belgian. That’s just a minor detail. Anheuser-Busch InBev NV, along with Hershey’s, Coca Cola, Wal-Mart and even Carl’s Jr. are using patriotic marketing campaigns that are expected to last well past election season. To be fair, Hershey is utilizing this tactic because the company is an official sponsor of the Olympic U.S. team. For the first time in 122 years, the coloring on Hershey bars will be different , as red, white and blue will feature prominently on the confection’s wrappers. As for Wal-Mart, the gigantic retailer made a pledge back in 2013 to buy $250 billion worth of products that are “made in the U.S.A.” And let’s forget that minor hiccup when the chain was investigated by the FTC for mislabeling products that were, in fact, not made domestically.

Lay off my stapler!

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Shares of Staples and Office Depot took a nasty beating after a Federal judge ruled that the two companies cannot merge in fiscal blissful matrimony. The $6.3 billion merger was nixed since the judge felt that a huge merger between the two largest office supplies suppliers would be a horrible thing for consumers. The Federal Trade Commission thought the merger was as anti-competitive as it gets and couldn’t be more pleased with the judge’s ruling. Both the judge and the FTC felt competitive pricing, quality and service would be tossed aside as consumers would look on helplessly as they handed over their hard-earned cash. Office Depot said it won’t appeal the ruling. And why should it? It’s now going to get a $250 million break up fee from Staples. But that $250 million pales in comparison to the revenue it would have seen and the money it would have saved had the merger gone through. This was the second time, since 1997, that the two companies tried to merge. Shares of Staples fell 20% on the news at one point during the day, while Office Depot tanked about 40%. Staples and Office Depot continue to take massive hits from the other competition, Amazon. Amazon’s business to business division is but a year old, yet it already racked up more than a billion dollars in sales. And that’s while Staples and Office Depot were hit with massive losses.

Bernie’s Big Ticket Plans; Trump: Print Me the Money!; A Glazing Good Deal for Krispy Kreme

 

Hey big spender…

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Studies were done on Bernie Sanders’ spending plan and the results just might churn your stomach, no matter how you feel about the potential presidential candidate. The non-partisan Tax Policy Center and the also non-partisan Urban Institute’s Health Policy Center explain how Bernie’s plan could harm the economy by dangerously increasing the federal deficit and the national debt – an ugly combo. His plan involves raising taxes across all income levels with nobody getting a pass – which almost sounds fair. His plan literally requires trillions of dollars in tax increases but hey, it includes FREE universal healthcare, expanded social security and FREE college tuition. Don’t even pay attention to the strain on economic growth under this plan. Because there won’t be any growth. Just cold hard strain. According to the study, Sanders’ domestic agenda plan would add $18 trillion to the national debt over ten years. That’s not including an additional $3 trillion in interest payments. And that number is just from Sanders’ lofty goal of providing free healthcare for all. The study also mentions a $32 trillion increase in federal medical spending over ten years plus another $3 trillion added for additional long-term care costs. But hey, it’s worth it right? Just maybe not for you. Or anyone you’ve ever known. At least Bernie Sanders would do away with all those annoying premiums, co-pays and co-insurance costs. Those in the lowest income bracket would end up paying, on average, $200 more in taxes. But that additional $200 taxes comes with $10,000 in benefits. So that’s a win. Sort of. For those who whose incomes fall more in the middle, they’ll find their tax bill going up, on average, by about $4,500. Seems awfully steep but hey, that bigger tax bill will get those middle income earners $13,000 more in benefits from the U.S. governments. Not that they necessarily need $13,000 more in government benefits, but whatever. With low and moderate income levels gaining the most benefits, it will leave the lucky top 5% of earners paying, on average $130,000 more in taxes. But if you’re in the top 5%, well then consider yourself fortunate. Or not. Feeling the Bern yet? Your additional $130,000 gets you not much of anything more. Well there is that additional $19,000 in benefits but if that’s not enough then too bad. Bernie Sanders administration doesn’t care about you. Sanders’ campaign officials did release their own cost estimates which, of course, weren’t nearly as traumatizing as those released by the non-partisan outlets. So whose math are you going to trust?

Poetry in motion…

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More gems escaped from the mouth of presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump. This time he said that the U.S. won’t ever have to default on its loans because it can just print the money. This latest pearl was imparted after he was asked to clearly stipulate his strategy on how to handle the national debt. He insists he never said that he thinks the US should default and renegotiate with its creditors. He also said that he would do his super duper best to try and NOT touch social security – so gallant of him. The Donald also called himself the “King of Debt” because he loves debt. I mean, how could you not? He went on to say ,”I understand debt better than probably anybody. I know how to deal with debt very well. I love debt.” I could not have made up that quote if I tried. Trump wants us to know that he would like to take advantage of a drop in value of U.S. treasury debt and buy it back with better terms. That’s if and only the rates go up and those bonds can be purchased for a discount. It’s a legit tactic but the problem is it’s coming from the self-proclaimed “King of Debt.”

Glazed and not confused…

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Krispy Kreme’s Wall Street days are about to be history as the company, famous for its delectable glazed doughnuts, is going private again after being acquired by German company JAB to the tune of $1.35 billion. JAB is getting the yummy company for $21 per share, a nearly 25% premium over Friday’s closing stock price of $16.86. The company, which went public in 2000, boasts over 1,100 stores worldwide. Interestingly enough, Krispy Kreme has more stores outside the US, over 800 actually. Back in August of 2003, shares of the company hit a high of $49.37, but alas, those days are long gone. A majority of Krispy Kreme stores are operated by franchises and plenty of the international franchises have been hit with weaker sales, in part, because of the strong dollar. Krispy Kreme, however, will fit in nicely at JAB, which already acquired Peet’s Coffee & Tea and Caribou Coffee. Wall Street seemed sweet on the acquisition as it sent shares up today over 24% to almost $21 a share.

Tesla Execs Make a “Break” For It; Aeropostale is Down and Out, Almost; Two Executives Are So Over Under Armour

Awkward…

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Two major executives at Tesla are making a break for it just as the car company is about to (finally) unveil its Model 3. Today’s departure announcements particularly unnerved Wall Street, sending Tesla’s stock down 4% on the news. One of the departing execs is Greg Reichow, the global VP of productions, who was also one of the highest paid executives in the company, taking home a package reportedly valued at $6.4 million. Reichow, who arrived at Tesla in 2011, will graciously stay on until his replacement is properly ensconced in his or her ergonomically designed executive desk chair. But what’s weird is that Reichow’s departure is being called a leave of absence, a classification that doesn’t typically necessitate successors. Also making a not-so-fond farewell is VP of manufacturing, John Ensign. Apparently the executive exits have to do with delays and other assorted hiccups that have been plaguing Tesla. But that’s not the official word coming out of the company. What is official is that a whopping five vice presidents have left Tesla just this year and mind you, it’s only May. In the meantime, Tesla’s Elon Musk is calling these exits a “well earned break.” Hmmm. Not the way I would have phrased it.

Market slap…

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Malls all over the United States and Canada are about to lose a neighbor. Aeropostale, purveyor of apparel that appealed primarily to teenagers, is closing over 100 of its stores for being not profitable. In fact, those stores were so not profitable that the company lost $17 million from them just in 2015. But at least the company expects to make $21 million in revenue from liquidation, which should last from six to eight weeks. No worries if you miss your Aeropostale location as there will still be over 600 left from which to shop. Just don’t bother shopping in Alaska, or Hawaii, or Times Square in New York, or…well, you might want to check before you head out to see if your preferred Aeropostale location is still standing. It may be hard to believe now, but once upon a time, Aeropostale’s market cap was worth $2.6 billion, with shares above $30. Those days, however, are long gone as its market cap might be scratching at $2 million and the stock has been delisted from the New York Stock Exchange after trading under 3 cents this week.

A chink in the armor…

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Under Armour has its own share of departures, bidding a (fond?) farewell to Chief Merchandising Officer, Henry Stafford, and Chief Digital Officer Robin Thurston. The company, who has endorsement deals with NBA’s Stephen Curry and golfer Jordan Spieth, generated $4 billion in sales last year, yet news of these departures spooked investors enough to send the stock down 6%. After all, a Chief Merchandising Officer’s role is integral to a brand that sells footwear and apparel considering their vision sets the look and feel. No minor details. Apparel, by the way, is Under Armour’s largest category. Just saying. Thurston had been with the company since 2013, when the company he co-founded, MapMyFitness, was acquired by Under Armour to the tune of $150 million. The company says that it’s just a coincidence that the two executives are making a break for it at the same time, at least that’s what a company memo said. But it’s a good thing that those two executives also have non-compete clauses in their contracts because it would be kind of awkward if they found themselves working for the competition. Well, awkward for Under Armour, I suppose.