No Slowing Down Alibaba; Feeling Taxed: Google’s Italian Problem; Ads Abuzz for Super Bowl

What economic slowdown?

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China’s economy might be on the skids but apparently Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. didn’t get the memo. The company released its earnings and reported that its sales rose 32% to $5.3 billion, easily beating analysts estimates of $5.13 billion. Alibaba even scored a profit of $1.93 billion, picking up 99 cents per share and beating predictions of 89 cents per share. The reason for these positively fabulous numbers have a lot do with insane revenues posted from November’s Singles’ Day. Singles’ Day saw 115 million buyers scooping up $14 billion in purchases. Alibaba CEO Jack Ma is also on a fiscal quest to bring China’s rural countryside onto the mobile shopping bandwagon and it’s been paying off royally.  Of course, shares of the stock rose in pre-market trading, just as they should. Alibaba needed the boost as its shares have declined 14% so far this year after falling back in 2015.  But then shares fell this morning by 2% (as did Yahoo since it owns a sizable chunk of it). Go figure. Ma’s grand plans for the company extend far beyond China and he would really love it if at least half of Alibaba’s revenue started flowing in from outside of China. Good thing he’s already got plans in motion to make that happen.

Google that…

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Authorities in Italy have set their investigative sights on Google charging that the tech giant evaded an estimated 327 million euros in taxes between 2009 and 2013. Of course, a Google spokesperson graciously noted that Google always pays its taxes wherever it operates and even explained how it paid 2.2 million euros in taxes on 54.4 million revenues back in 2014. Problem is Italian authorities aren’t buying it and estimate that Google’s revenues were ten times higher than what it reported. Italian authorities say Google basically redirected revenue to its regional offices in Ireland where the corporate tax rate is much more hospitable to big companies. Last week Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc. forked over $186 million to U.K. authorities for a different tax settlement. While that might seem a considerable sum, there was a huge outcry, particularly by those in Britain’s Labour Party, because they felt that the amount was way too small considering how much profit the company made. Incidentally, back in December, Apple had to settle with Italian tax authorities and ended up paying back 318 million euros.

Getting buzzed…

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With the Super Bowl just around the corner, some of the ads are already making for bigger stories than the game itself. Take for instance Death Wish Coffee. Never heard of it? You’re not the only one. The small business won a contest held by tech company, Intuit, and you’ll be able to catch the 30 second ad during the third quarter of Super Bowl 50. Death Wish Coffee began in 2012 by Mike Brown, who like so very many of us, was on the prowl for a very potent, caffeinated brew. As of now, Death Wish sells about 1,000 packages a day. But after the Super Bowl that number will likely skyrocket considering the 100 million-plus people expected to tune in to the big game. Death Wish Coffee will set you back about $20 a pound. But hey, that’s a small price to pay for the ultimate coffee fix, I suppose. And maybe by next year, Death Wish Coffee will actually able to afford the $5 million price tag for that coveted slot instead having to enter a contest to try and win it.

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Jumping the Twitter Ship; Coffee, Tea or Nukes? Air Iran Might Be Headed Our Way; McD’s CEO Really Does Deserve a Break Today

And then there were six…

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Twitter just got a whole lot lighter – except not in a good way. Four top executives are jumping ship from the social networking site, in addition to a top member over at Twitter-owned Vine. The news was tweeted (naturally) last night when Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey posted that all five people had “chosen” to leave and “will be taking some well-deserved time off.” That’s awfully sweet but it still begs the question as to why those folks chose to leave in the first place – especially because those four executive departures constituted 40% of Twitter’s top brass. Don’t bother looking up any job postings for the newly vacated positions. Dorsey seems to have at least one of them filled, apparently by a high-profile executive in the media industry. No word yet on the other positions but rumor has it they’ve also been filled. Not that any of this is news to those at Twitter. When Jack Dorsey returned to the top spot he did, after all, say that the board will eventually have to be replaced. Incidentally, upon Dorsey’s return, shares of Twitter have fallen about 50%.  Shares are now hovering below the IPO price as the company continues to struggle to find ways to attract more users.

Blackout dates…

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Because nothing says romantic vacation getaway like hopping on a plane to Tehran, Iran is on a mission – not even a nuclear one! – to boost tourism and get back in the good graces of just about every country in the western hemisphere. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is in Europe this week and just might strike (no pun intended) a deal with Airbus to purchase some 500 aircraft so that you can book your next vacay to the radically ruled country. Rumor has it that Boeing might also supply Iran with some aircraft too, and it would mean that it’d be the first time in 36 years – ever since that pesky Islamic revolution – that travelers could hop on a direct flight to a country that’s hostile to United States citizens. Looks like British Airways is itching to be among the first of the commercial airlines to start taxiing on an Iranian tarmac. Apparently, some analysts are expecting a bona fide economic boom – I SAID ECONOMIC! – to occur in Iran now that sanctions have been lifted in exchange for shelving its nuke fantasies.  And because banking sanctions have also been lifted, Iran will even be able to pay for the aircraft. And so much more…

Comeback kid…

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Attention naysayers: McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook’s turnaround plan seems to actually be working. How ’bout that. McDonald’s served up some tasty earnings with a special boost from its all-day breakfast offerings.  A big show of gratitude also goes to China where, as it turns out, diners continued to opt for the Golden Arches’ fast-food fare despite the nasty food safety scandal that erupted during the summer of 2014. Same store sales took a 5.7% jump and wouldn’t you know it, shares jumped on the news, especially because, after two years of little to no growth, the company finally experienced that wonderful sensation, posting its best quarter in four years. McDonald’s pulled down a profit of $1.21 billion, an almost 10% increase, while adding $1.28 per share. That’s a nice little smack down to analysts’ estimates of just $1.23 per share. And while a strong dollar did send revenue a bit south to $6.34 billion, it was still above and beyond expectations of $6.22 billion. The only bummer in the earnings was in France, where terrorist attacks have kept too many would-be McDonald’s patrons from enjoying the cuisine.

Oil-Vey! Glut Messing with Global Economies; Apple Sets its Sights on India; Who Will Represent the “World’s Most Hated Man”?

Dow-n and out…

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The Dow took a nasty 400 point fall today fueled (a little pun intended) in large part because of the oil glut that’s got barrels of the not-as-hot commodity trading at about $27.50 a pop – a very low low price. The S&P also fell as stocks were trading much lower. In fact, more than 1,000 New York Stock Exchange stocks hit 52 week lows, while on the other side of the pond, European and Asian markets followed suit, performing just as badly on seeing oil hit thirteen year lows. Experts (I am not one of them) are thinking we’re on the threshold of bear market territory – a nasty fiscal phase where market index prices are falling so much that people just want to sell off what they’ve got. Considering that the MSCI All Country World Index (which is basically a global market index mash-up) fell 2.4%, that just might be the case. China’s flailing economy and the United States’ strong dollar aren’t helping matters. Even Royal Dutch Shell is expecting profits to tank 42% to around $1.6 billion – a brutal cry from the $3.3 billion it reported last year at this time. But box-office fave Leonardo DiCaprio isn’t crying for Shell, or any other oil producers for that matter. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where the A-lister was receiving some award, he graciously lashed out at big oil and corporate greed calling them, “Those entities with a financial interest in preserving this destructive system…covered up the evidence of our changing climate.” Hey! Maybe he’ll use that in his Oscar acceptance speech…

An Apple a day…

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It took awhile but Apple is now working to bring its tech magic to India where the Cupertino, California-based company finally finally filed an application with the Indian government to set up shop there. No word yet on how many stores it plans on opening or even how big of an investment it’s going to be. Of course, Apple products are already available in the country that boasts the second largest telecom market in the world. But in order to buy those products, consumers purchase the merchandise through a network of Indian-owned distributors. There are some who feel that Apple had been willfully ignoring India since it took this long to make the leap there. But Apple argues otherwise saying that restrictions on foreign investment in the retail sector weren’t exactly winning them over. India typically requires a single brand  – in this case, Apple – to locally procure 30% of its goods sold in the country. But rumor has it Apple brass had a little conversation with the Indian authorities to ease up on things.  Also India, unfortunately, doesn’t have the boffo spending power of say, China, where people pounced on iPhones from day one. In India, cheaper alternatives dominate the smartphone market while Apple only has about a 2% market share on the devices.  Apple, however, had been trying to make its products more affordable by offering buyback programs, installment programs and giving discounts on older phones. And then something wonderful happened – Apple sales in India crossed the $1 billion mark back in March and the tech company presumably began to see things differently.  The fact that India has the fastest growing smartphone market and is poised to take over the number two spot from the United States (China is first, duh) in 2017 might also have something to do with the change of heart.

Dumb and dumber…

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Martin Shkreli aka “Pharma bro”is switching lawyers though, why exactly remains a mystery. Marcus A. Asner, an attorney at the soon-to-be-ex firm of Arnold & Porter did not give an explanation as to why the change was being requested but he was probably not broken up that he will no longer represent what many call the world’s most hated man. Shkreli, 32, by the way, takes exception to that moniker, as he mentioned in a recent interview. But considering he raised the price of a life-saving drug by 5000% – well, what else are you gonna call him?  Perhaps we should give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he needed the extra cash so that he could buy the only known copy of a Wu-Tang Clan Album for $2 million. Just kidding. He has multiple accounts at multiple brokerage firms. Shkreli says that the lawyer switcheroo has nothing to do with the interview he did with The New York Times and called the explanation  a “dumb theory.” But you know what’s really dumb? Raising the price of a single pill from  $13.50 to $750.00. Shkreli, who is charged with blowing investors’ cash on some bad trades and then taking money out of his pharmaceutical company to pay for those trades said “the government’s case is fictitious.” He has pleaded not guilty to securities fraud and conspiracy.

Where Have All the PC’s Gone?; Chipotle Ready for Big Return; Lego’s New Policy is Awesome

Click away…

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PC’s did not have a very merry Christmas. Or fiscal quarter for that matter. In fact, this marks the fifth consecutive quarter of disappointing PC sales. For the fourth quarter, those sales tanked by a very un-jolly 8.3%. We’re talking Lenovo, HP and Dell. But it was Acer that did the absolute worst with a 15% decline for all of 2015. Shipments of PC’s, for the first time since 2008, fell under 300 million to a very disappointing 276.2 million, more than a 10% decline since 2014. There’s just too much competition from tablet and smartphones that consumers don’t feel the need the rush to upgrade their machines. However, analysts seem to think that sales will pick up later in the year as Windows 10 gets commercialized. The one bright spot, according to the International Data Corporation, were “detachable” PC’s that seem to be all the rage right now. That segment of the industry posted some impressive growth. But then it gets weird. You see Apple, seen as a premium brand in the United States and Europe, actually saw growth – 3% for the quarter and 6% for the year – selling 20.7 million machines. It’s weird, if only because Lenovo, HP and Dell still sold more computers separately than Apple did. So it’s all a matter of perspective, I suppose.

All wrapped up?

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All is not lost for Chipotle after analysts decided that the chain has the potential to get its mojo back. Apparently, none of those analysts suffered from any food-borne illnesses from eating at Chipotle. That may or may not have had to do with why shares of the company rose the most today in more than 5 months. In fact, despite the fact that Chipotle is still slightly reeling from its relatively recent food safety crisis, the chain has plans to open up more than a couple of hundred new restaurants in the coming year. Execs say that the company is implementing new food safety protocols and believe it will make Chipotle an industry leader when it comes to food safety. Go Chipotle! The restaurant chain took a heady 15% sales hit in the fourth quarter following a multi-state E.Coli outbreak at several of its locations. As a result, the company expects to see negative sales posted until at least 2017.  However, shares today went up as high as $432.30 Bear in mind that the company experienced a major 40% slump from the high it hit back in August to the tune of $757. 77 and lost about $10 billion of its market value. There are currently several lawsuits against the chain over its past food-safety practices. But hey, good news: Chipotle execs say that the CDC is just about done with its own investigation into the food chain. Yay. Just don’t confuse that with the separate federal investigation of Chipotle following a norovirus outbreak in California.

Everything is awesome…

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Chinese artist Ai Weiwei will now get to play with all the Lego his political artwork requires. The fuss all started when Weiwei requested a large bulk order for some artwork. It was intended for an exhibition in Australia featuring 20 portraits of pro-freedom figures – to be done in Lego. But Lego wouldn’t allow him to order the amount of bricks needed for the “art” because, at the time, Lego’s policy stipulated that it did not endorse the use of its plastic bricks for projects that carry a “political agenda.” Never mind that my own father is convinced that The Lego Movie had a major political agenda subtly woven into the script. But we’ll leave it at that. In any case, when Ai Weiwei aired his grievance with the toymaker, supporters in several countries began sending in their own Lego stockpiles to the artist. Weiwei ended up using plastic bricks from a Chinese company that were similar to Legos and considerably cheaper too. Lego decided to change its policy and will officially forego asking details about such projects. However, artists must clearly display that Lego does not support or endorse the theme, message  or politics of the Lego artwork in question. Voila!

Newspapers Gone Charitable; Not All is Golden in Europe for McDonald’s; Starbucks Not Letting an Itty Bitty Downturn Get in its Way

Read all about it…

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Not-for-profit has been taking on a whole new meaning lately for some unlikely reasons: newspapers. The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News and Philly.com have gone tax-exempt. It’s probably not the first place you think of when you want to make a charitable contribution, but it’ll gladly take one now. Along with an additional $20 million donation, billionaire H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, who controlled these publications, took the Philadelphia Media Network, tweaked things around a bit and morphed the newspapers into a public benefit corporation (PBC) that will be called The Institute for Journalism in New Media.  A little wordy, maybe, but the entity itself is dedicated to “independent public service journalism and investigative reporting that positively impacts the community, while also creating innovative multimedia content.” Got that?  The paper will still be run as a “for-profit” biz while getting you a tax deduction in the process.  In case you didn’t know, Kickstarter is also a PBC. Just saying. It’s an interesting idea just not an original one for a newspaper as there are a few other newspapers in Florida and Connecticut that have taken this approach. It’s a way to try and make newspapers relevant and successful in a digital era, not to mention, a last-ditch attempt to try and keep a publication from going bust

Hamburglar?

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So what are the Golden Arches accused of doing this time? Three Italian consumer organizations are charging that the fast-food chain is causing franchises in Italy to inflate the cost of menu items. You see, in order to snag a European franchise lease, a lessee must sign a twenty year contract – a contract that is twice as long as what other franchises require. But then, McDonald’s is also accused of licensing the premises for above market rates – by about ten times –  making it nothing short of a big pain in the but to switch competitors. So, in order to defray the costs of these above-market lease rates, European McDonald’s franchises jack up the prices on menu items with consumers bearing the brunt of the cost. At least that’s according to a survey cited by the coalition filing the complaint. Apparently, a whopping 68% – 97% of McDonald’s menu items in various Italian cities are more expensive in franchises than in company stores. Franchises make up 75% of McDonald’s European revenue and worldwide McDonald’s has made $9.27 billion in revenue from these franchises. But before the EU even considers launching a formal investigation into these alleged shifty practices, authorities will first send out a formal questionnaire. Depending on how well those questions are addressed will determine if there is sufficient cause to even open an investigation. Besides, those same EU authorities are already busy investigating McDonald’s in Luxembourg over allegations that it managed to evade paying $1 billion in taxes on its European operations.

Slowdown? What slowdown?

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There might be an economic downturn in China, but that’s not stopping Starbuck’s from expanding its empire there. Sure there are already 2,000 Starbucks stores caffeinating the world’s second largest economy. However, Starbucks feels that the country could use at least 1,400 more stores and plans to have them all serving up lattes by 2019. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz feels that China has the potential to become the company’s biggest market. And that’s not so crazy considering that China is already Starbucks’ second largest market and is the fastest growing one too. At a recent Starbucks event in China called the “Starbucks China Partner-Family Forum” (Alibaba’s Jack Ma was at the event so you know it was a big deal), Schultz wanted to reassure the Chinese that he totally gets their culture and has tremendous admiration for it. Hence, he made sure to acknowledge and give major props to the parents of its baristas. In fact, Starbucks wants so badly play nice with China and shower the country with oodles of corporate respect that he is offering to cover 50% of monthly housing expenses for Starbucks employees in China. For baristas there who so valiantly served up drinks for ten years, Starbucks is offering them a “career coffee break” – a year long paid sabbatical. Hěn hǎo!

 

American Apparel Gets Offer with Strings; Another US Company Heads to the Emerald Isle; The Yogurt Wars. Enough Said.

Down but not out…

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American Apparel might be bankrupt but that are still a few investors who would like to help revive the company. And it’s the latest offer that’s got people talking. Hagan Capital Group, along with Silver Creek Capital Partners, want to scoop up American Apparel for a sweet $300 million. And one more thing…they want Dov Charney reinstated. It’s the same Dov Charney who is also the founder and former CEO of American Apparel, and who was booted following some sexual misconduct allegations, not to mention other allegations involving the misuse of corporate funds. Just saying. Incidentally, Dov Charney hired Cardinal Advisors to help him line up investors who would see to it that he would be reinstated at the company he founded. How clever indeed. Several backers strongly feel that the company’s performance went down after Charney was shown the door.  Chad Hagan of Hagan Capital Group feels Charney was wronged adding, “We are willing to be friendly and genteel, but the fact is we want this company and we want Dov back in…We are deadly serious.” Not sure what he means about the deadly serious part but that is still nothing short of a ringing endorsement for Mr. Charney.

Invert this…

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After six long months, pharmaceutical company Baxalta International Inc. finally said yes. Of course that yes comes with a $32 billion check but hey, it’s still a yes. The lucky suitor is Ireland-based pharmaceutical company, Shire Plc., which is offering Baxalta shareholders approximately $45.57 in cash and stock – an offer that represents an approximately 38% premium. The two companies expect to crank out $20 billion in revenues in the next year.  It’ll be helped by that fact that Baxalta’s corporate tax rate will drop from a very onerous 23%-24% in the United States, to a more corporate friendly tax rate of 16%-17% in Ireland. Gotta love an inversion. Shire’s main product is Vyvanse, used to treat symptoms related to ADHD.  But it’s Baxalta’s drug treatments that has corporate pharmaceutical tongues wagging. The company’s treatments focus on rare blood conditions, cancer and immune system disorders. While a relatively small population requires those treatments, those treatments are insanely lucrative, bringing in mega bucks for drug companies that offer them. In fact, 65% of Baxalta’s revenues come from treatments for rare blood disorders.

Not so good bacteria…

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Believe it or not it’s a yogurt smack down as Greek yogurt churner Chobani took aim at its competition last week. But now that competition is fighting back. Just three years ago, the Greek yogurt industry was growing at a rate of 60%. How ironic that the opposite is true for Greece. But I digress. In any case, the industry is now only growing at about 5%, with Chobani being the largest Greek yogurt seller in the world. The competition to differentiate is fierce – that is, if such a term can be applied to yogurt. Chobani launched an ad campaign on January 6 targeting Dannon’s use of sucralose – an artificial sweetener that has been FDA approved for food for the last 15 years. Sucralose apparently has chlorine in it and should therefore cause a potential yogurt enthusiast to purchase a container just to go ahead and chuck it – just like in Chobani’s ad. Which is weird because wouldn’t you first read the ingredients before shelling out money for the product? Just saying. Chobani also goes after Yoplait Greek 100 over its use of potassium sorbate, an ingredient that Chobani’s commercial actor points out is also used to kill bugs. Yum. Dannon wasted no time in sending out a cease and desist to Chobani charging that its claims are “false, misleading, disparaging and deceptive.” Chobani filed a complaint against that cease and desist letter arguing that its campaign for it “is not false, misleading…” Well, you get the picture.

China’s Trading Halt Heard ‘Round the World; Planet Netflix; JC Penney’s for Dollars

Domino effect…

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Another day, another trading halt in China where shares once again plunged 7% – this time in just 29 minutes. The yuan dropped to its lowest level since March 2011 and it marked the second time this week that one of the world’s biggest economies took a hit like this. Naturally, this triggered global markets to reluctantly follow suit and even here in the U.S., the Dow, S&P and Nasdaq also saw drops. Not that I am trying to freak anybody out, but the last time the Dow had a bad start to the New Year was back in 2008. Investors, however, are most definitely not panicked about that little parallel and expect the situation to improve…over time.  Besides, market indexes aren’t anywhere near lowish territories so experts don’t expect China’s fiscal woes to be a major issue.. well here anyway.

Gone global…

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Apparently it’s Netflix’s world and we just live in it. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings told a crowd at CES, “You are witnessing the birth of a global TV network,” as he announced that the streaming video service would now be expanding to 130 more countries. The service will be available in 21 different languages and be available in a total of 190 countries in this great big world. That way, a whole new massive international audience can get to experience the joy we call ,”Orange is the New Black.” Interestingly, Netflix will not be making customized services for particular countries. Rather, it will be just one single solitary internet-based television network – one that is expected to reel in millions upon millions of new subscribers.  That, my friends, is how you conquer the world, but more importantly, Wall Street, where yesterday, shares of Netflix went up 10% on the news (though today it closed down at 114.56). Unfortunately, folks in China still have to wait – maybe forever – for the service to reach its shores lest its citizens gain inspiration from entertainment that the Chinese government might deem objectionable, incendiary or just plain rude. Other countries that wont be catching up on past seasons of “House of Cards” any time soon include North Korea, Syria and Crimea.

Bah-humbug…

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Macy’s did not have a very merry Christmas as evidenced by its disappointing sales during the most important spending season of the year. Two factors seem to have contributed to these results: unseasonably warm weather kept shoppers from loading up on cold-weather gear; and a strong dollar that kept overseas tourists’ wallets at bay. And when a retailer posts less than impressive earnings during the most critical time of the year, it usually means a forecast trimming is in the works – which is exactly what Macy’s did. To add insult to fiscal injury, the retailer will be laying off close to 5,000 employees and closing 40 stores. Oddly enough, embattled retailer JC Penney saw a sales surge this holiday season of close to 4%. A big shout out for this fiscally pleasant surprise goes to amped up online efforts which helped lift shares by 2.4%. Now, if JC Penney can recoup that 8% decline that it took over that past year…well, wouldn’t that be grand.