Pharma-Karma; Avon’s Getting Knocked Out to PE Firm; 1-2-3 Hike!

Bitter pill…

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Big pharma’s least popular CEO is getting a taste of some very bitter medicine right now. Martin Shkreli, 32, arguably best known for raising the price of an HIV and cancer drug by 5,000%, was arrested today on allegations of securities fraud and is now facing charges from Brooklyn Federal Prosecutors. Shkreli’s arrest had nothing to do with his raising the price on those drugs. It just happened to work out nicely that way. Shkreli allegedly took money out of a biotech company he started in 2012 called Retrophin and used it to pay off debts that had nothing to do with that company. The company says he defrauded investors and is suing Shkreli him for $65 million, which he says won’t put a dent in his wallet. Charming, huh. Naturally, Shkreli was booted as CEO from Retrophin, yet still reigns supreme as the CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals and KaloBios Pharmaceuticals, where shares of the company naturally sank on the news of his arrest. Shkreli increased the price of Daraprom, a drug that treats toxoplasmosis, a parasitic disease that wreaks havoc on people with weakened immune systems. The cost went from $13.50 a pill to $750 a pill. Shkreli’s greedy pricing activities incurred the wrath of many, including presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, who will likely not be giving him any pardons should prison time figure in his future.

It’s not the Avon Lady anymore…

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Avon, the iconic company started in 1886, where women went door to door selling perfume, is getting bought up and going private. Private equity firm, Cerberus, is shelling out $605 million for a nice big chunk of Avon which, by the way, had a market cap of $1.8 billion as of yesterday. The goal of this action is to help the cosmetics company now focus more on markets abroad that have the potential to bring in way more revenue. Since 2007, shares of Avon have fallen steadily from the company’s all time high of $2.62 billion. At one point, there was an army of 600,000 Avon ladies knocking on people’s doors hawking their wares. That army has dwindled to around 400,000 salespeople and that lovely, perfectly made-up sales force has only been able to generate 14% of the company’s revenue. That’s a harsh number for a company that sells direct. Sephora, Ulta, Target and a crowd of other retailers have been able to offer great products at even greater prices making the Avon Lady’s offerings less appealing. Too bad Avon didn’t pounce on the $11 billion offer it had three years ago from rival cosmetics company Coty Inc.

In your best interest…

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It’s official. The rate hike happened and I’m guessing you hardly felt it. The hype leading up to it might have made the actual hike even seem anti-climactic to you. It did for me. In any case, let’s discuss how and if it matters to you now. For instance, do you plan on buying a home in the near future? The bad news here is that borrowing costs will likely be higher, as the rate on a 30 year fixed mortgage is now 3.94% . But the good news is that borrowing costs for buying a home fifteen years ago were almost twice as high, as rates were over 8%. It’s all a matter of perspective. The same goes for other loans and even credit card loans where rates will be a smidgen higher. But chances are, you’ll hardly notice it. Besides, rate hikes are indicative of healthy robust economies and who doesn’t like a healthy robust economy?  The one bright spot is for all you savers out there. If you like to plunk your hard-earned cash into a savings account where it could earn interest, you can now expect to earn a bit more on that money. Nothing that will brake the bank, but nothing to scoff at either.

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FAA Wants to Get to Know Your Drone$; Green Monday Momentum; Yahoo Shareholder’s Big Plans for CEO

Just put it on my tab…

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It was just a matter of time before the FAA started making some cold hard cash off of those drones that have only just begun to captivate your attention. If you happen to own one of those expensive high-flying devices, then you have until February 19 to register your remote-controlled toy. Look for a brand-spanking new website, to be unveiled by the FAA on December 21, telling you all the info you need to register your drone with the agency. Be prepared to shell out a whopping…$5. But if you do it within the first thirty days – by January 20 – you’ll get your whole $5 back. At least that’s what the FAA says.  The fee, however, only applies to drones weighing between .55 lbs and 55 lbs. So don’t worry about shelling out tons of money if you have some junior pilots in your household who have a tendency to decorate your yard by flying their much smaller drones into tall trees. If you do decide to buy yourself a new drone  in time for the holidays, know that your drone wont be taking flight until it’s registered.  It’s the agency’s way of trying to get drone fliers to recognize and educate themselves about the very serious responsibilities and safety issues that come with operating a drone. After all, who wants to see another drone crashing onto the White House grounds? Certainly not the Secret Service.

Going green…

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If you stayed in on Black Friday and avoided your computer on Cyber-Monday then you’re in luck.  In case you hadn’t heard, today is not just any Monday. Oh no. Today is Green Monday and it’s apparently the third biggest shopping day of the year. Wal-Mart didn’t want you to feel left out if you failed to make the rounds on previous momentous shopping days so it is making sure you still get in on those deals. After all, Christmas is only two weeks away. Looking to score a great deal on the PlayStation 4 Star Wars: Battlefront bundle? Wal-Mart’s got one for just $299. But Wal-Mart’s not the only game in town cashing in on the Green Monday deals. From Target to Gap, to J.C. Penney and Toys R Us, they’ve all got a coupon or discount for you. Of course Amazon has also got your back. It’s just that the e-commerce giant is simply calling it Day 9 of Amazon’s “12 Days of Deals.”

Will heads roll?

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Looks like Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer is losing some shareholder fans. New York-based investment firm SpringOwl presented its own turnaround plan to the Yahoo board and its first order of action would be to oust Ms. Mayer. But she’s not the only one who would find herself out of a job. The plan also calls for reducing Yahoo’s workforce from 12,000 down to 3,000. The problem for SpringOwl is that Ms. Mayer would get a very generous $25 million severance compensation payout, a check that Yahoo’s board would prefer not to write. Besides, Mayer is on maternity leave and I’m pretty certain there are some major HR issues when you try and fire somebody who just had a baby – or two in this case. SpringOwl also does not agree with most of the other board members who feel that the best course of action is to sell off its main internet biz.  But SpringOwl Managing Director Eric Jackson wants to lose some of those pesky board members anyway, while going back to the old Yahoo logo in the process. As for those 9,000 employees, maybe losing their jobs wouldn’t be the worst thing since Mr. Jackson would also like to get rid of the $450 million in employee perks.

Classy…

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The middle class has fallen to less than 50% of the population, according to a new report published by the Pew Research Center. Gasp. The middle class used to account for 61% of the population and it’s a fact that has got everyone from economists to politicians in a tizzy, as each and everyone of them tries to dissect exactly what that means and how it will help or hinder their agendas. The upper class rose 47%, growing from 20 million people to 50 million people with their share of the national income pie up 49% from 28%. In case you were wondering, 190 million of us are not upper-class. Got three people in your household? Well, if your household income is $41,869, then call yourself middle-class. But, the good news is that the median income for the middle class has risen 34%…since the 1970’s. Then there’s lowest – and fastest growing – bracket: 70 million among us make just 9% of the national income. Apparently, 99% of gains are going to just the top 10% of the population and a family income of less than $50,486 after taxes has a nasty way of causing that particular family to go even deeper into debt. Some argue that this income disparity explains why economic recovery is taking so much longer than it should. Others, however, argue that it’s all matter of how you look at the information and that the picture really isn’t all that grim. Hmmm.

How do you like your stake?

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Guess what happens when Warren Buffett tells the world he owns shares of a company? If you guessed that shares go up then you’d be correct. For instance, today the Oracle of Omaha disclosed in a regulatory filing that his company, Berkshire Hathaway, owns a passive 8% stake in Seritage Growth Properties. So what makes for a “passive” stake? Basically, Warren Buffet buys a huge chunk, in this case about 2 million shares worth an estimated $70 million – $100 million and he, well Berkshire Hathaway anyway, sits on it for the long term. With Warren Buffett’s recent disclosure about his stake, the stock went up today as much as 17% at one point, hitting $41.18, all because of the exciting news. Seritage, by the way, is the spawn of a Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) that was spun-off from Sears Holding Group as a way to help the embattled retailer capitalize on its approximately 235 real estate holdings. And Sears did just that when it managed to raise $2.7 billion from the REIT.  Incidentally, while activist investors tend to love REITs, Washington DC is not fan of the practice and is doing its very best from letting spun-off companies turn into REITs. REITs don’t pay as much to Uncle Sam in corporate income tax like other companies do and its profits go almost entirely to shareholders. Then shareholders pay the taxes on those dividends at the same tax rates as their ordinary income. Preventing companies from exercising this little practice would raise about $4.3 billion for the government. But for now, Warren Buffett can just sit pretty sit on his big/little stake while Washington dukes out the issue in Congress.

Pay days….

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Look out Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, Android Pay…Walmart has entered into the almost crowded mobile payment arena by launching, you guessed it – Walmart Pay. Through its own smartphone app, you simply use a credit, debit or even a gift card and voila! That purchase is yours in just a couple of swipes. Testing has already begun at Walmart’s home base in Arkansas and will likely launch in all 4,500 plus stores by next year. Walmart has been on the prowl to find ways to make for an easier shopping experience…at Walmart. It’s estimated that 22 million people use the current Walmart app every single month and that more than 50% of those online transactions take place on mobile devices. Walmart’s system, by the way, is cleverly designed to integrate nicely with other payment applications, including all the ones mentioned in the first sentence. If you need any more of a reason to use Walmart Pay, then consider that it’s actually a more hack-proof alternative – the app stores your card but transmits an alternate card number that is generated by the card issuer. The merchant never gets the real number which leaves hackers with nothing to hack from the merchant. By the way, Walmart doesn’t accept ApplePay. How very convenient.

Worthless?

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The verdict is in and it’s a big giant “NO.” As in, NO!, Yahoo will not spin off its pricey stake in Chinese e-commerce site Alibaba. The stake, which is reported to be worth an estimated $30 billion, will stay put and instead, all of Yahoo’s assets and liabilities will be cast-off into the sunset to go and form their very own company. That, my friends, is what they call a “reverse-spin off.” Turns out, the IRS couldn’t be trusted NOT to tax an Alibaba spin-off, which would potentially leave shareholders to foot a $10 billion tax bill. Yahoo, whose shares are currently trading at under $34 yet is apparently worth nothing, will keep its internet biz and its 35% stake in Yahoo Japan. The company, despite being one of the top five most-visited websites every single day, just couldn’t seem to compete with Google and Facebook when it came down to selling search and display ads. Although shares of Yahoo are down 30% this year, this reverse spin-off is likely to draw a lot of interest for companies looking to make an acquisition. But don’t hold your breath as this reverse spin-off process could take a year to complete.

Bad day, mate…

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In other parts of the world, Australian police raided the home and office of Craig Steven Wright – a name that in all likelihood means absolutely nothing to you. Unless of course you’re a bitcoin enthusiast. Following leaked emails and other assorted information, investigations by both Wired magazine and Gizmodo have concluded that Wright is likely Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonym for the creator of bitcoin, the crypto-currency that has captivated the world. Sort of. In March of 2014, a Japanese American man who goes by the name Dorian Satoshi Nakamoto was falsely identified as bitcoin’s reclusive creator while he also steadfastly denied it. As for the police raid, well, here’s where things get weird-er. Australian Federal Police are saying that the bitcoin reports that have been surfacing about the creator’s true identity have nothing to do with its current operation and raid and referred media calls to the Australian Tax Office, which also could not comment. Naturally.  The home in question, which was being rented by Wright, is considered to be relatively modest, especially for someone who is potentially sitting on about one million bitcoins.  Incidentlly, the Australian government doesn’t much care for the crypto-currency. As stricter rules were imposed for Australian banks to impede money laundering and terror financing, bitcoin operators bore the brunt and major banks in Australia closed the accounts of bitcoin companies back in September.  If Wright really and truly is Satoshi Nakamoto, then his bitcoin stash amounts to about $400 million, which should be more than enough to pay his legal fees.

Get your resume ready…

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If you’re currently not working at Airbnb, then maybe you need to ask yourself why. According to Glassdoor’s 2015 list of best places to work, the home-sharing company takes the number one spot with one employee quoted as saying, “Fast growth, amazing people.” Can you say that about your company? Hmmm. Airbnb wasn’t even on the list last year but this year more than made up for it as it not only pushed Google out of the top spot but kicked it down to number eight. Or maybe Google did that all on its own. In any case, business management consulting group came Bain & Company came in at number two, while Guidewire snagged third place. Social media giant Facebook took the five spot, while LinkedIn ranked number six. Curious to see where else you’d rather be working? Well, there are 50 companies listed and surely you could find gainful employment by at least a few of them.

Staple’D: FTC Wants to Quash Merger; Keurig Coffee Wants Privacy; Chipotle Earnings Not Coming Up Fresh

Deja vu…

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Nothing like a pesky lawsuit to put a crimp in your $6.3 billion proposed takeover plans. Which is exactly what happened to Staples Inc. when the FTC voted unanimously, in a 4-0 vote, to try and put the kibosh on the office supply retailer’s’ attempted takeover of Office Depot by filing a suit to block the deal. The deal, which was expected to generate $39 billion in revenue, has the FTC concerned that the merger would create just one mammoth national office supply retailer that would yield too much power to raise prices, whether it be private consumers or commercial entities, many of which have big vendor contracts. This is not the first time that Staples has tried to pick up Office Depot. Back in 1997, the company attempted to do the same thing but was blocked from doing so even back then. Because the office supply marketplace has changed so much, given the availability of office supplies via e-commerce, Staples was certain this time there would be no issue. Besides, in 2012 the FTC approved a merger between Office Depot and Office Max merged on the basis that there was enough competition from Amazon, Wal-Mart and other outfits that allowed for a healthy amount of competition. Instead, of a merger today, however,  shares of Staples Inc. fell 14%, the most in 18 months, while shares of Office Depot fell 18% on news of the FTC lawsuit.

Perky…

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Big news in the single-serve coffee pod marketplace – yeah that’s a real thing: Keuring Green Mountain Inc. is going private to the tune of $13.9 billion and getting $92 per share. For real. In fact, that price is a 78% premium over Friday’s closing price. For real again. So what would make a company like that want to go private? Well it was an offer the coffee maker couldn’t refuse. That’s part of it anyway. The company posted some disappointing numbers and is down 60% just this year. Besides the ever-increasing competition in the single-serve pod market, Keuring also struck out with its KOLD product. Enter German company JAB who wants to be the numero uno North American coffee purveyor. And why not? It’s a $6.1 billion industry there alone and makes $15 billion globally. Did I mention that North America drinks up a big 40% of that global market share? JAB already picked up Peet’s Coffee and Tea and Caribou Coffee as it attempts to compete with Nestle. So far, JAB has the upper hand. By a lot. Indeed, news of the deal sent Keurig stock up 74%, which is especially good for Coca Cola since it owns 25.87 million shares, a 17.4% stake that adds up to about $2.4 billion. That’s even more good news for Coke since that’s how much it can expect to get from JAB for its shares. Of course, with any major deal, it is subject to shareholder approval. But assuming the deal’s approved, it will likely close by April.

No más

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Even millenials can’t help Chipotle with this one. The fresh-food restaurant chain saw its shares hit its lowest point in eighteen months, all the way down to $515 per share. Never mind that the stock is currently trading at around $543 a share. But I digress. Much of that slide can be blamed on the e. coli outbreak that had the chain closing a number of its locations since most of the 52 people who picked up the virus said they had eaten at Chipotle. The company is expecting a drop in same store sales between 8% – 11% for its fourth quarter. Chipotle also now expects earnings per share from $2.45 – $2.88. That’s especially brutal when you consider that analysts were expecting about $4.06 to be added, not to mention the fact that at this time last year the company pulled in $3.85 per share. The stock has been on a downward slide since news of the e. coli outbreak was first reported back in October. The stock has fallen 22% since then and is down 18% for the year.

McDonald’s European Tax McMess; OPEC Member Smackdown; Unemployment Ups and Downs

Did the Hamburglar do it?

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Hold on to your McMuffins because the Golden Arches are under investigation by European regulators. Apparently McDonald’s neglected to pay taxes on its franchise profits earned in Europe and Russia since 2009. The EU says that 250 million euros made just in 2013 wasn’t  even taxed and McDonald’s had an unfair advantage over its competitors. Gasp. McDonald’s European franchise office is based in the teeny tiny country of Luxembourg. The trouble seems to have started when authorities in Luxembourg decided that McD’s was exempt from paying taxes on its profits because the U.S. was also taxing them on those profits.  McDonald’s, however, says the allegations are false and that it paid over $2 billion in corporate in taxes, besides other taxes, between 2010 and 2014. Starbucks, Fiat and Apple also faced similar investigations and Starbucks and Fiat ultimately found themselves forking over $34 million each in back taxes and penalties.

Can’t we all just get along?

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OPEC members just can’t seem to get along these days which is a bit unsettling considering they control a trillion dollar oil supply. Because of the oil glut and the fact that oil prices are so low –   a barrel closed at $42.49, the lowest price since 2009 – Venezuela is finding itself cash-strapped as oil is a big chunk of the country’s bread and butter. Together with a few other cash-strapped countries, including Ecuador and Algeria (don’t laugh), they want Saudi Arabia to cut back on its oil production output to help bring prices back up and make them less cash-strapped. Saudi Arabia doesn’t want to, but might consider doing so if Russia and Mexico do the same. Saudia Arabia, by the way, is the world’s largest oil exporter and is not cash-strapped so they don’t really feel the need to cut back. Saudi Arabia also said it would listen to what the other countries have to say. Which is nice and all. But it still intends to do what it wants. Like it always does. Russia also has no plans to cut back since it does not see a point in doing so. And besides, who tells Russia what to do? Iran wants OPEC to reduce output just so that it can make room for its re-entry into the wonderful lucrative world of petroleum production. But to be clear, Iran has no intention of capping its own output to help out with the current oil glut. Maybe, just maybe, Iran will agree to cap its oil production once it reaches its pre-sanction levels. After all, its gotta make up for lost times, you know?  OPEC pumped over 32 million barrels a day in November. Once Iran and Indonesia (yes, that country’s back, too) return, expect that number to be much much higher. While annual revenue for OPEC was $550 billion last year, in the five years prior, the organization was pulling down $1 trillion annually.

You say that’s a good thing?

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Applications for unemployment benefits rose to 269,000 applicants, gaining 9,000 newbies from last week and apparently that’s good news. Well, maybe not to the 269,000 applicants, but we won’t go there just yet. And even though that means that there are now approximately 2.16 million Americans right now collecting unemployment benefits – is that term an oxymoron? – unemployment is still considered to be at historically low levels. Believe it or not, this report actually points to a healthy job market. And why shouldn’t it? The number of unemployment benefit recipients is 9.3% less than it was a year ago. An average of 206,000 jobs have been added per month in the last year with a whopping 270,000 jobs added just in October. Even average hourly earnings are up 2.5% in the last twelve months. You can be sure the Fed will be considering this latest report as it mulls its decision to raise interest rates, which by the way, is more than likely to happen in about two weeks.

 

Radio Shack’s Got Nick Cannon’s Talent; Fed’s Merry Rate Hike; Yah-who?

 

Going for broke…

 

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Radio Shack may have filed for bankruptcy protection back in February, but that hasn’t stopped the struggling electronics retailer from putting celebrity Nick Cannon on the payroll. Indeed, the America’s Got Talent host was just named Radio Shack’s CCO, as in Chief Creative Officer. Laugh all you want, but it’s not like its Nick Cannon’s first foray into business. He is a bona fide electronics entrepreneur…according to some, anyway. The retailer thinks Nick Cannon can lure in that magical, elusive millennial demographic into its over 1,700 stores by having him develop exclusive products, curate playlists for the shops and even sing a song or two in the process. Among his other duties, Nick Cannon will also be responsible for helping to advance Radio Shack’s education and STEM initiatives. Because, after all, isn’t Nick Cannon the first image that springs to mind when you think of the STEM fields?  As for his paycheck, well, Radio Shack’s not talking, but I suspect Nick Cannon won’t need to ask for a raise anytime soon.

3…2…1…Hike…

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Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen managed to put a little drama (okay, I’m getting carried away) into her talk at the Economic Club of Washington when she made it clear that this month interest rates, which have been sitting pretty close to zero, would finally receive its much overdo hike. It will be the first time in a decade that the Fed has raised the rates and many there feel that the economy is long overdue for this riveting moment. After all, the labor market is kicking butt, in a good way, and the economy is holding its own. Of course, Janet Yellen said it much more eloquently explaining that a rate hike is a testament to an economy’s recovery. But I am no Janet Yellen and could never take down Ralph Nader as graciously as she did last week. But I digress. Both the economy and the labor market have unwittingly met the Central bank’s goals which are resulting in that much-anticipated rate hike expected by December 16. Unemployment is staying put at 5%, when back in 2009, unemployment was 10%. Inflation is still not as high as the Fed would like it to be because of low oil prices and the strong dollar. But the Fed expects it will reach 2% – a natural and necessary component to a healthy economy. At least that’s what the experts say. There are those naysayers at the Fed who are not down with any hiking right now because they think its too soon and it might trip up a steadily recovering economy. But Janet Yellen says not raising those rate could have even worse consequences. So there. Besides, the time between putting monetary policy into place and seeing the results of it take so long that it’s almost like not raising those rates at all. Sort of. Okay, maybe not.  Any subsequent rate hikes will be based on data and reports so don’t assume that this is the beginning of constant stream of hikes.

Boohoo Yahoo…

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Things are kind of iffy at Yahoo these days even though shares did rise more than 7%. But the reason they rose is because the board is meeting to make some big decisions that will hopefully reverse Yahoo’s downward spiral. One of the bigger questions on that conference room table is whether to sell its core internet business, which includes YahooMail and YahooNews. Shareholders value that particular biz at less than zero. To be fair, however, YahooNews is one of the most visited websites in the U.S., according to someone, anyway. But, if it’s sold, it could fetch around $3 billion. So it’s not that worthless. Then there’s the issue of Marissa Mayer who after three years has still been unable to reverse the company’s aforementioned downward spiral. Yahoo’s total market cap is around $34 billion. But that’s mostly because it has a huge $30 billion stake in Alibaba Holdings Group Ltd. and another big stake in Yahoo Japan. Corp. Which brings us to the next order of discussion: whether to spin off the billion dollar Alibaba stake into its very own company.  The problem, however, is whether or not Uncle Sam will find a way to make such a transaction taxable and sic shareholders with a $12 billion tax bill? Yahoo Activist Investor Starboard Value LP already considered this unpleasant scenario and last month put the kibosh on the idea of such a sale.