Morgan Stanley Finally Owns Up to All the Trouble It Caused; It’s a Darn Claim Unemployment Filings Are Up; Sears is Losing It

It was just a matter of time…

Image courtesy of  dream designs/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of dream designs/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Morgan Stanley is taking a bit of a beating today on Wall Street now that it has finally finally settled with the Department of Justice over its shady little role leading up to the 2008 financial crisis. Morgan Stanley reached a deal with the DOJ  that’ll have the bank paying $2.6 billion to get Uncle Sam off its back.  Attorney General Eric Holder and the DOJ will graciously end their probe into whether Morgan Stanley duped investors by telling them how very great their home loans were when in fact, they were anything but. This settlement is sure to put a major dent in MorganStanley’s 2014 profits. By major, I mean it’ll eat up nearly 50% of what MorganStanley got to take home in 2014. It officially lands Morgan Stanley on that illustrious list of banks who also had to shell out billion dollar settlements to the DOJ for their smarmy actions leading up to and during the 2008 financial crisis, including  – but not limited to –  Bank of America who reigns the top spot with a $16.7 billion payout. It’s followed by JPMorgan Chase which holds the number two spot for its $13 billion settlement. Citigroup rounds out the group with a $7 billion settlement.

Don’t stake this claim… 

Image courtesy of renjith krishnan/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of renjith krishnan/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The number of people filing jobless claims went up. Not down. But up. The number climbed to 313,000 people instead of a projected 290,000. While the news is a bit of drag, economists  – who presumably know a thing or two  – are telling us that we can’t work ourselves up into a collective panic over one month’s lousy numbers. At least for now, anyway. First, the number of people filing those claims is still relatively close to the 300,000 mark. If it were way past that number, then yeah, having a fiscal freak out might be considered almost acceptable. Two, the labor market’s rockin’, sort of, and hiring is strong, which brings us to reason number three. Because hiring is strong, wages are actually going up. Walmart, TJ Maxx, Gap…the list goes on as to how many retailers are raising its employees’ wages. All these factors allow us to almost ignore this fiscal hiccup. However, leave it to Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen to remind us that, “wage growth remains sluggish” and that there’s always room for improvement.  You don’t say.

Loser…

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Sears isn’t having a very good year. Actually it hasn’t had a good year in…well, many many years. It just reported its fourth straight year of losses with this quarter losing $159 million and $1.50 per share. Incidentally, that figure is not nearly as dismal as last year’s $358 million fourth quarter loss. So you see, there is a bright side. Sort of. Run by the The Hoffman Estates, which also runs Kmart, the company has tried just about everything to help the ailing retailer reverse its downward financial spiral. From store closures to slashing inventory, the retailer has tried countless ways to cut costs. The company closed over 230 stores in 2014 and today has over 1,700 stores, which sounds impressive. But you know what’s more impressive? The over 3,500 stores the company had five years ago. The latest plan is to spin off between 200-300 stores into a REIT, which stands for Real Estate investment trust, by the way. The idea is apparently going to allow the failing company to pick up some $2 billion and help turn the fiscal tide. But if you want to know how exactly that works you’re on your own.

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Everything Really Is Awesome for Lego; Southwest Gets Grounded; Target’s Earnings Hit and Miss;

Everything is awesome…

Image courtesy of ArtJSan/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of ArtJSan/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The Lego Movie movie might have been very rudely snubbed at this year’s Oscars but that didn’t stop Lego CEO Joergen Vig Knudstorp from belting out the hit tune “Everything Is Awesome” to reporters recently.  That’s because for him everything really is awesome. The privately held Danish company released its yearly earnings report and the consensus is that Lego is in demand. My basement, however, could have told you that. Demand in China, Russia, France, etc is only getting stronger and this year’s release of “The Lego Movie,” which earned a staggering $468 million, helped propel that awesome demand precipitously upward. Lego’s profits were 15% higher this year hitting about $1 billion. I can truly say I contributed considerably to that figure. Revenue for the company came in at $4.3 billion and move over Mattel because Lego has become the number one toy company in the world. There’s also a Lego Movie sequel in the works set to be directed by Rob Schrab with a 2018 release date. But if the Oscars snubs Lego again, it’ll have to answer to the forces of Ninjago, not to mention Batman,  whose Lego movies are set to be released in 2016 and 2017.

Yeah…that could be a problem…

Image courtesy of Master isolated images/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Master isolated images/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Everything is not awesome over at Southwest as the airline had to ground 20% of it’s fleet. In case you were wondering that is about 128 of its planes. Apparently Southwest missed inspections and immediately notified safety regulators, according to an airline spokesperson. How very diligent of them. Eighty flights bore the brunt of this gaffe but fear not intrepid traveler, as the FAA and Southwest have figured out a way to get those flights up into our friendly skies until all the aircraft can get properly inspected. How very reassuring.  In case you were still wondering, the part of the aircraft that requires immediate inspection on all these airplanes is the backup hydraulic system. It helps control the aircraft…in the event of a  main system failure. Awesome. The bulk of inspections ought to be completed by now and if you happen to be on one of the few remaining aircraft that have yet to be inspected? Well, then have a nice flight.

Oh Canada!

Image courtesy of Bill Longshaw/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Bill Longshaw/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Target reported its earnings this week and the good news is that it lost $2.6 billion. That amounted to a loss of $4.10 per share. It’s good news because it’s a one-time loss from closing up shop, literally, on its disastrous foray into our neighbor to the north. But if you take into account that Canada is now officially off the Target grid, then you can calculate that the mega-retailer actually pulled in $1.50 a share. Which is really great news because analysts only thought that the retailer would gain about $1.46 per share. So you see, there is a bright side here. Somewhere. Sort of. Listen it’s not Canada’s fault. Canadians are really lovely people. Some of my best friends are Canadian. But they just didn’t appreciate all those empty shelves at their 133 stores, not to mention some annoying pricing discrepancies – among other issues, mind you. But back on our turf, Target’s sales increased to $21.8 billion – almost $2 billion more than last year, Canadian failure and all.

Waffle House: For All Your Shipping Needs; Home Deport Improves Earnings; Fed Chairwoman Ponders Millenials

Can you expedite that waffle?  

Image courtesy of rakratchada torsap/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of rakratchada torsap/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

What do you get when you cross a restaurant chain known for its waffles with a delivery app? Roadie, of course. Haven’t heard of it yet? That’s probably because it’s only been up and running for a few weeks. However, it’s already got $10 million worth of funding with some of that cash coming from Google’s Eric Schmidt. The app is also being touted as the “Über of shipping.” The idea, created by founder Marc Gorlin is so simple yet so genius. It matches up people who need to ship something with other people who are already driving to that location, often for much less than what the usual shipping companies charge. And just where do the waffles come in? Enter Waffle House and its 1,750 locations which will serve as the meeting points for shippers and insured drivers. The cost to ship an item  – and yes it has to be legal! – with a “Roadie” could range from $12 – $200. First time “Roadie” downloaders are eligible for a free waffle. Get a free beverage to take along with you every time you make a delivery.  While it’s only available in 25 states , primarily in the southeast, there’s no need to fret. With 7,500 downloads and counting all signs point to some major expansion plans sooner rather than later.

Where can I find nails?

Image courtesy of zole4/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of zole4/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Home Depot had a particularly fabulous fourth quarter pulling in a 36% profit. Net income came in at $1.38 billion at about a buck per share Analysts only predicted Home Depot would gain 89 cents per share. A year earlier the company gained 73 cents per share. So what gives?  It seems the retailer earned some major cash from its website and its big push to improve customer service has paid off quite nicely for the world’s largest home improvement retailer. If you are lucky enough to be one of Home Depot’s esteemed shareholders , then congrats to you as you just earned 12 cents per dividend, which is now up to 59 cents per share. The company even has big plans to buy back $18 billion in shares. In the market for some gainful employment?  You might want to check out Home Depot’s job board. The company is looking to fill 80,000 jobs for the spring, the store’s busiest season. Unfortunately, the retailer’s forecasts for the year are tinged with a bit of disappointment as it is convinced that the exchange rate and that especially robust dollar of ours is going to put a 6% ding in the stock this year.

Everyone likes a good mystery…

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen is taking fiscal center stage today before the Senate Banking Committee.  The Fed Chairwoman gets to enjoy two days of back to back congressional testimony where she will be grilled on a loooong list of complaints, courtesy of the Republican controlled House and Senate. Among the questions with which she will be peppered is when exactly does the Fed plan on hiking those interest rates, an answer that has been eluding the American people and its elected officials for quite some time.  Not exactly the stuff that Oscar nominated movies are made of. But on Capitol Hill that testimony could give Game of Thrones a run for its money. Ms. Yellen also wondered aloud about that mysterious lot born in the eighties and nineties, a.k.a. Millenials. The Fed Chairwoman finds them to be a bit of a mystery and is unsure how the economy is going to affect them. If that’s what she’s wondering about them then I’m guessing she doesn’t get to Chipotle very often.

The White House Comes After Wall Street Advisors; January’s Frigid Housing Numbers; Target’s New Shipping Policy Gives Cause to Shop

Hard sell…

Image courtesy of ddpavumba/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of ddpavumba/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The White House is coming after Wall Street, in particular, financial advisors who might be a little too loose with money saved diligently by America’s middle class. President Obama wants the Labor Department to revamp its rules ensuring that retirement advisors put clients’ fiscal needs before their own bank accounts by putting the kibosh on hidden fees and conflicts of interest. Currently, investment advisors have this practice of suggesting expensive products to their clients that could at best be categorized as “suitable”  – but not “ideal.” In fact, these “suitable” investment products could cost a retiree five years worth of savings. Investment advisors would actually now be required to follow, dare I say it – a “fiduciary standard.” Many Republicans and financial firms, not to mention Republicans who work in financial firms, are just not that into this whole new idea of revamping the rules for two reasons that aren’t likely to elicit any sympathy: 1. They’re worried a new system will considerably shrink all the money they make in compensation fees and 2. They think the current system works just fine. However, the current system, according to White House, anyway, says it has cost unsuspecting working middle-class families an estimated $17 billion a year.  So who is this system working for, exactly? Hmmm.

Bring it home…

Image courtesy of hywards/FreeDigitalPhoos.net

Image courtesy of hywards/FreeDigitalPhoos.net

The number of existing homes that sold in January was 4.82 million. In case you were ready to celebrate…don’t. Those numbers suck. They suck because it’s a 4.9% drop from December and is at the lowest rate it has been in nine months. Nine months ago, (which by the way,  was May  – in case you didn’t feel like doing the math) saw 4.9 million homes sold. The National Association of Realtors provided us with these disappointing figures but all is not lost because, as it turns out, this 4.82 million figure is still 3.2% higher than it was a year ago. Naturally it wouldn’t be right if much of the blame didn’t go to Mother Nature who, it seems, loves nothing more than setting the bitter wintry stage for gloomy fiscal numbers. But with low interest rates and strong jobs numbers, here’s hoping spring will kick winter’s fiscal butt.

Aw’ ship…

Image courtesy of digitalart/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of digitalart/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Target has graciously decided to offer free shipping for online orders on just a $25 minimum purchase – with no exclusions, allegedly. Be still my beating consumer heart. If you recall – as I certainly do – Target was offering “free shipping” with a minimum $50 order. The retailer was inspired by the success it had when it offered free holiday season shipping through December 20, this past holiday season. It was an effort to compete with the slew of online retailers, but it payed off in more ways than one.  The company set new sales records for Thanksgiving and cyber-Monday and saw 60% of its website traffic come from mobile users. Once upon a time Amazon also offered free shipping with a $25 minimum purchase but alas, its investors got their way and Amazon was forced to up its minimum to $35. In the meantime, Walmart, while raising its minimum wage, has yet to change their free shipping policy, which offers the perk on only certain “eligible orders,” which seems a little too open to interpretation, as far as I’m concerned. Target also has big gigantic plans to open online fulfillment centers and if that doesn’t bode a Target/Amazon smack down then I don’t know what does. Target’s inventive digital app has also been doing particularly well in the popularity contest picking up a couple new million users and shooting past that pesky $1 billion promo sales mark.

 

Raise Praise for Walmart ; Pinterest Tries to Double Up; Priceline’s Beamed Up Earnings

You raise me up…

Image courtesy of nongpimmy/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of             nongpimmy/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

It’s a good day to be a Walmart employee. No, seriously. It is. The gargantuan retailer just announced it’ll be raising the salaries of some 500,000 of its hardworking employees raising to about $1.75 more than the Federal minimum wage. Full-time employees will go from an average of $12.85 an hour to about $13 per hour. Part-timers will see their paychecks go up to $10 per hour from the average $9.50 they make now. The pay-raise fun begins in April and CEO Doug McMillon says it’s all part of a master plan to improve customer service, employee morale, etc. Those are all nice and pleasant things, of course, but no doubt Walmart is really hoping it will also lead to higher sales and profit. Walmart figures higher pay will help attract and retain employees that know the value of good customer service. And if it improves its somewhat tarnished reputation for its lousy pay practices in the process then why not?  So how bad could their pay practices have been that the company is implementing this change? Well, a majority of its employees’ salaries were so low that, all together, they were eligible to receive millions – I repeat, millions – of dollars in public benefits.  This initiative will cost Walmart about $1 billion, but hey, you’re worth it.

 In the land of unicorns…

Image courtesy of vectorolie/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of vectorolie/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The next social media darling that may be headed off to the wonderful, not-so-mystical land of Silicon Valley “unicorns” is Pinterest. By “unicorns,” I am referring to billion dollar startups, a term thoughtfully coined by Cowboy Ventures founder Aileen Lee. But apparently these “unicorns” are turning out to be a bit more ubiquitous than previously thought as Pinterest is but among a larger group of “unicorns” and “decacorns” and “super-unicorns”…but I digress. Founded by CEO Ben Silbermann, Pinterest graciously allows users to “pin” images of all kinds of stuff that appeals to them on their boards, thereby bringing light and joy to the world. And now Pinterest is said to be adding a “buy” button. That ought to bring even more light and joy. Adding e-commerce into the social media start-up picture tends to prove lucrative on so many levels. Pinterest is rumored to be raising funds to the tune of $500 million. Any takers? This new round of funding would put the company in the $11 billion valuation stratosphere, nearly doubling its $5 billion valuation it had back in May.

But what does this mean for Captain Kirk?

Image courtesy of jscreationzs/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of jscreationzs/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Priceline, the company shilled by the inimitable William Shatner, beat Wall Street estimates for its fourth quarter earnings taking in almost $452 million with adjusted earnings at $10.85 per share. Well beam me up on those numbers, Scottie, because analysts only expected Priceline to score $10.05 per share. Those impressive digits were helped by growth from hotel and car rental reservations. Revenues were $1.84 billion and, once again, those analysts predicted the online travel booking service would only rake in $1.8 billion. Naturally, shares of Priceline took a joyous upswing in the news and clearly sending the message to Wall Street that the Orbitz-Expedia deal didn’t seem to have any adverse affects on the company. Well, not yet, anyway. If you’re in the market for some shares of Priceline, it’ll only set you back about $1,200.00…per share.

Snapchat-ting all the Way to the Bank; HSBC Is In Big Trouble, Yet Again; Virgin America’s Soarin Good Earnings

And just like that it disappears…

Image courtesy of renjith krishnan/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of renjith krishnan/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Hindsight is 20/20 but in Snapachat’s case it’s more like 19 – as in billions of dollars. The social media and messaging app, which very presciently declined Facebook’s offer to buy them for a paltry $3 billion back in 2013, is rumored to be adding an additional $500 million to its coffers. This will now peg the company at between $16-$19 billion and could make it the second most valuable privately held company behind Über technologies and Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi. Started in 2011 and helmed by CEO Evan Spiegel, the app allows users to post pictures and messages that disappear within a few seconds after being opened. Snapchat boasts 100 million users and it should come as no surprise that 57% of its users are under the age of 25. Of course, its disappearing act is not the app’s only trick as it now has deals with, among others, Yahoo, CNN, ESPN…the list goes on, tailoring content just for you. Even movie studios are getting in on the Snapchat action and before long you’ll see Snapchat’s very own superhero series. If that doesn’t scream street cred, then I don’t know what does.

Don’t bank on it…

Image courtesy of scottchan/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of scottchan/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

There’s nothing like a little money laundering investigation to put a downer on your week. Well in HSBC’s case it’s “aggravated money laundering” which sounds so much more sinister than just plain old “money laundering.” This latest criminal investigation comes a week after the revelation that it helped some of its super wealthy clients and their 1,100 bank accounts, evade taxes. HSBC is on a roll, I tell you. Investigators suspected that if HSBC was helping its clients avoid paying taxes, then what else might it be helping their clients do? Hence, we have the money-laundering investigation.  A Swiss public prosecutor launched a criminal probe into the matter and has since raided the picturesque offices of HSBC. Good thing that former HSBC IT employee, Herve Falciani, very thoughtfully collected all those files pointing investigators into launching an investigation. Too bad he tried to sell the information first, though. That kind of looked bad for him. But probably not as bas as how it’s looking for HSBC right now. Of course, HSBC is said to be cooperating. Whatever that means. Do banks ever not cooperate?  HSBC did, however, sort of acknowledge it messed up on the tax evasion end blaming the fact that stringent standards weren’t in place as they should have been. You don’t say.

Flyin’ high…

Image courtesy of hywards/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of hywards/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

If you’ve ever flown Virgin America, then it might come as no surprise (or maybe it will) that the airline just whipped Wall Street expectations with a little help from cheaper oil prices and fully booked planes. The airline only made its Wall Street IPO debut back in November but so far it has not disappointed as the airline took in $1.16 per share – a far cry from the 80 cents Wall Street expected it would earn. Revenue for the fourth quarter was $372.2 – a 3.4% increase over last year at this time, impressively taking down analyst estimates of $370.8 million. Started by billionaire Sir Richard Branson, the airline just announced big plans to give Southwest Airlines a very unwelcome run for its money by offering non-stop flights to Austin. Let’s just hope this little battle pays off for the passengers too.

Starwood Inhospitably Says Buh-Bye to CEO; US Homebuilders Have No Loss of Confidence Over Latest Digits; Higher-Debt Education

Paasschen pit…

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono; FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono; FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Starwood Hotels & Resorts, which also owns Sheraton and the “W” hotels, had its CEO, Frits Van Paaschen, do his final checkout (note the two a’s and two s’s). Apparently his resignation was a mutual decision (aren’t they all?) between van Paasschen and Starwood. But in a statement, Chairman Bruce Duncan said: “The board believes now is the right time to take steps to accelerate Starwood’s growth, improve performance and sharpen our focus,”  What are you really saying, Mr. Duncan? That growth slowed under Paasschen’s leadership? Actually, it did. News of the resignation sent shares up 4.3% hitting $81.07. But to be fair, and you have to be fair to a guy with a name as fun as Frits Van Paasschen, under his leadership the company pulled in $234 million and $1.33 per share for the fourth quarter when analysts predicted Starwood would only pull in 76 cents. Now that’s Paasschen! Just sayin’. Don’t feel too sad for the guy, though. He is getting a severance package upwards of $12 million. The company will be now helmed by interim CEO Adam Aron until a permanent replacement is found. But one thing is for sure…there will never be another Frits Van Paasschen  – with two a’s and two s’s. So there.

Show me the confidence…

Image courtesy of cooldesign/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of cooldesign/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

So today we get some info from the National Association of Homebuilders/Wells Fargo builder sentiment index telling us exactly how builders are feeling. Well, they’re feeling about a 55. Which is good news because a number above 55 is good. It means confidence. Optimism. Money. Happiness…you know all the things that matter, except for health, which isn’t measured in this index. Whatever.  Not to be a downer, but this is the second month in a row that that number fell – last month it was 57 – and the lowest number it has been in four months. By the way, those economists who spend their days away forecasting what that number might be guessed it would be closer to 58. Ah, well. You can’t win (predict?) ’em all. So why, exactly, are builders still so optimistic? Because those numbers, which are not awful anyway, are probably the result of this painfully annoying, snowy frigid winter which isn’t exactly sending people running out of the warm comfort of their cozy homes to look for new ones.  Once the weather begins to cooperate, builders expect to see more traffic. Add to that low mortgage rates and major job gains and you get home-builder confidence, my fiscal-loving friends.

But probably not buying a house anytime soon…

Image courtesy of ddpavumba/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of ddpavumba/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York just regaled us with some thoroughly disheartening new information that puts a damper on the American dream. It seems that the amount of loans due over at least 90 days has grown by over 11%. But wait…there’s more…a lot more. Like $1.16 trillion more. That’s how much money has been borrowed by students in the name of education this year and is more than 7% higher than last year. All those educated young Americans who are eager to scoop up jobs in the workforce may not be among the buyers for all those new homes that all those US homebuilders are building, no matter how reasonably priced they are. That’s because that newly highly educated contingent will be thrilled just to be able to pay down some of that mammoth debt.