Toxic Times at Lumber Liquidators; Warren Buffett’s Rose-Colored Portfolio; Argentina Gets Back in Some Good Graces

End in sight?

Image courtesy of iosphere/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of iosphere/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Not that this comes as any great shock but Lumber Liquidators took another hit on Wall Street today, this time posting a bigger drop than expected for its third straight quarter. Instead of sales falling an expected 12%, the embattled company ate a much harsher 17% loss. It’s almost hard to believe that it was just last year when the company pulled in a $17.3 million profit with shares gaining 64 cents. But that was just days before the scathing “60 Minutes” report that found that Lumber Liquidators’ wood flooring from China contained excessively high levels of cancer-causing formaldehyde. Today, the company reported that it lost $19.8 million and saw 73 cents shaved off of its shares. The company took in a net loss of $56.4 million, a major 180 from the $63.4 million it reported in 2014. Shares fell 10% today and hit a 7 year low as the company decided not to issue a financial forecast for 2016 – a prudent decision since the company’s not sure if they will be left with any customers. Then there are all those legal and regulatory issues still plaguing the company, the $29 million in legal expenses and a $13.2 million settlement stemming from an entirely unrelated investigation. But at least Lumber Liquidators finally named a new COO, former Lowes exec Dennis Knowles. If he can turn the company around he just might be eligible for a Nobel prize. That’s a big “if.” Lumber Liquidators currently has over 370 stores in the U.S. and Canada and on Sunday, in what seemed like an incredible act of desperation, took out full page ads in Sunday newspapers across the country attempting to reassure customers that its other products are of the highest quality and made using the highest safety standards. Just stay away from their flooring products made in China which are three times as likely to give you cancer.

Everything’s coming up roses…

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Warren Buffett addressed his ever faithful shareholders over the weekend and shared with them his thoughts and wisdom gleaned from a storied and insanely successful lifetime in finance. The 85 year old Oracle of Omaha stressed the importance of optimism – an outlook, he feels, our current group of candidates lack since they “can’t stop speaking about our country’s problems (which, of course, only they can solve).” He took some time to share his thoughts on the role of a good effective leader which he feels involves the ability “to define reality and give hope.” Apparently he thinks Hillary Clinton is capable of doing this since that is the candidate he is rumored to be backing. Mr. Buffett’s optimism extends to the U.S. economy – its long-term prospects, anyway – which he feels is only going to get better, especially for the babies being born today whom he calls, “the luckiest crop in history.” And why shouldn’t the world’s third richest man express his optimism? His company, Berskshire Hathaway, was up 21% and took in a record full-year profit of $24.08 billion. Incidentally, Warren Buffett was also rather optimistic about IBM, even though the company has lost a whopping $2.6 billion since the major investment he plunked into it. Go figure. What Mr. Buffett wasn’t optimistic about is the climate change which he calls a major problem for the planet. I guess you would have to agree with him on that. Especially since Leonardo DiCaprio had similar sentiments in his Oscar acceptance speech last night.

You debt-or believe it…

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

It seems like only yesterday when hedge fund billionaire  Paul Singer sued Argentina – yes, the country – for full repayment of the biggest sovereign default. Ever. Actually, it was closer to thirteen years ago but at least the two sides settled. Finally. Besides the enormous legal fees that both sides ate, Argentina was often unable to dock its naval ships or fly its Presidential planes in certain cities, lest they get seized by Singer and company. But now the settlement frees up Argentina  to hit up other countries and financial entities for more cash to borrow. Which is probably not the kind of thing you want to hear about a country whose commodities-based economy is on the skids. Oh well. As for the terms of the settlement, Argentina will be forking over $4.65 billion in cash – 75% of the principal – to Singer’s Elliott Management, besides the three other largest remaining creditors, including Aurelius Capital Management, Davidson Kempner and Bracebridge Capital. The agreement still needs approval from the Congress of Argentina which will hopefully check its drama at the door.

Apple vs. Feds Smackdown; Billionaire Country Breakdown; It’s Highs and Lowe’s for Home Improvement Sector

Rotten to the core…

ID-10095619

Image courtesy of Kittisak/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

It’s game on between Apple and the FBI as the two entities tussle about unlocking an iPhone. The Feds feel this request falls under the Writs Act from 1789 that compels companies to assist in law enforcement. Apple is preparing to argue before a Federal court that software code should be protected by the First Amendment while terrorists the world over sit back and enjoy a good laugh at the the expense of the U.S and its constitutional rights. This is all because the Feds want Apple to unlock a phone belonging to San Berbardino shooter/terrorist Syed Rizwan Farook as authorities are convinced there is a lot of valuable intel contained on that one little device. In fact, since early October, Apple has received orders to unlock thirteen other devices, and an L.A. district court judge ruled that Apple should help the Feds bypass that pesky setting which wipes an iPhone clean after ten incorrect password guesses. Apple CEO Tim Cook is adamantly against this backdoor attempt to unlock an iPhone lest it fall into the wrong hands. Cook wants the issue decided by Congress and not the courts. Problem is, phones regularly fall into the wrong hands, as in this case, so what to do about a device that potentially holds vast amounts of life-saving information that could lead to the arrests and capture of more wrong hands?

 

All about the benjamins…

ID-100263187

Image courtesy of Kittisak/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

After owning the title for so long, the city of New York no longer reigns supreme as home to the largest population of billionaires. The title of “Billionaire Capital of the World” now  belongs to Beijing, which is kind of weird since the Chinese economy has taken such a beating these last few months. These new findings come courtesy of the Hurun Report, a Shanghai-based firm that publishes monthly. And while Forbes’ compiles its own list of billionaires, the two publications tend to yield slightly different results, if only because they employ different calculation menthods. Incidentally, Hurun’s results did take into account January 15, the day when China’s economy hit the skids, tanking 40%.  But that still didn’t stop it from adding 32 new billionaires to the list, bringing its grand total identifiable billionaire population to 100. Beijing’s numero uno billionaire is Wang Jianlin, a real estate developer whose net worth is estimated to be $26 billion. Hurun chairman, Rupert Hoogewerf, says that these rankings don’t tell the whole story of China’s vast wealth, and estimates that only about 50% of China’s billionaires were identified. Plenty of the county’s other billionaires prefer to keep their wealth asecret so they don’t end up having to fork a chunk of it to authorities. New York still managed to welcome four more billionaires into its fold, giving the city a grand total of 95. Moscow took the third spot while Hong Kong and Shanghai scored spots four and five respectively.

Lowe’s and behold…

ID-10045074

Image courtesy of Kittisak/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Home Depot and Lowe’s regaled us with their earnings and it was good news, kind of. Both home improvement chains scored lofty gains in large part due to housing demand, low interest rates and job and wage growth – all super good things. Oh, and this time the warm weather actually helped sales too. But while Lowe’s quarterly sales gains were up 5.5%, Home Depot’s sales gains were way more impressive, gaining close to 9%, suggesting that Home Depot is benefitting way more from housing gains than Lowe’s. Which probably explains why shares of Lowe’s fell a bit today. Apparently Home Depot , according to experts anyway, has a stronger brand image and consumers see it as the go to store for their home improvement needs. Case in point, kitchen products are a big seller for Home Depot and that department killed it this quarter, while Lowe’s kitchen products department performed below average. Ouch. Home Depot also has 2,274 stores compared to Lowe’s 1,857 stores. In any case, Lowe’s is expecting to snag a 6% rise in sales, compared with analysts predictions of less than 5% and the company still added 59 cents per share with sales of $13.24 billion, smacking down predictions of $13.07 billion.

Things are Looking Up on Wall Street. For Now; Could it Get Any Worse for Lumber Liquidators?; Will you Remain Loyal to Starbucks?

Could it be?

ID-10052312

Image courtesy of Teerapun/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Oil and other commodities had a nice little surge today with a lot of thanks to just released jobs numbers and inflation figures.  The surge helped the market achieve a moment of zen by stabilizing it and even almost erasing all the declines it took on Friday. All ten major S&P sectors were up. Yes, there are ten major ones. Some of these major sectors include oil, metals, autos and even retail. Stocks are also up, as is the Dow, which took in around 22o points. Not to be a downer but the S&P is still down around 5% for the year with oil hanging out at 12 year lows. However, U.S. crude is up around 7% checking in at about $31.44 per barrel. The International Energy Agency says that the U.S. is taking the “biggest hit right now,” but by 2021 it will lead in oil production. So where does that leave the U.S. for the next five years? Hmmm. Something to think about.

Don’t breathe easy…

ID-100156938

Image courtesy of Teerapun/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Lumber Liquidators is on a roll. Except it’s not a very good one. First, the flooring company agreed to a $13 million penalty and five years probation for a criminal settlement after it acknowledged that it illegally imported wood from forests that are home to endangered species. So not cool. Then, just when Lumber Liquidators was about to breathe a big sigh of relief over a February 10 CDC report that found its formaldehyde-laced wood floors weren’t that toxic, the CDC announces that they were mistaken. Its revised report indicated that their floors are, in fact, that bad and that certain types of Lumber Liquidators’ flooring from China are actually three times more likely to cause cancer than what was previously thought. Oops. It seems an error was made in the calculations when incorrect figures were used for ceiling height in determining the risks of exposure from the offending floors. Serious arithmetic issues are at work. Before, it was thought that 2 – 9 cases could be developed in 100,000 people. But now the figure is closer to 6 – 30 cases in 100,000 people that could develop cancer. Of course, that cancer risk is separate from other the many other ailments people could develop, including respiratory issues and eye, nose and throat irritations. Just this morning the company lost about a quarter of its market value, besides being down 83% for the last twelve months. But at least Lumber Liquidators has suspended sales of flooring from China and is strengthening its quality controls, which is cute and all but probably too little too late.

Hey big spender…

ID-100101565

Image courtesy of Teerapun/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

It’s time to decide what your Starbucks loyalty is worth. The coffee chain is tweaking its rewards program and that will have you spending more cash to get the coveted perks. Under the current rewards program, customers earn stars for every purchase they make, and after 12 stars a customer can score a free food or drink item. Some shrewd customers have figured out that in one visit they have baristas ring up multiple items separately so that their rewards rack up quicker. With one star earned per purchase, this tactic has managed to infuriate other customers since the strategy increases wait times at the register. But that’s about to change as the new rewards program is based on dollars earned, regardless of how many purchases you manage to make, even in a single visit. Consumers will now earn two stars for every dollar spent and 125 stars gets you a free item. Figure it’ll cost you upwards of $60 before you hit that freebie. If you happen to be a Starbucks customer who miraculously manages to spend less than $5 in a single visit, you probably won’t like the coming changes. So now, like most rewards programs, from airlines to credit cards, the more you spend the more you earn. The goal, Starbucks says, is to get more people to sign up for the program. Of course, the new programs also conveniently increases store sales and profit.

Walmart Bums Out Wall Street; Puma Deals a Mighty Blow to Yeezy; Is IBM Back in the Game?

Fall-mart…

ID-100206910

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Walmart announced earnings and, in the process, managed to put a damper on Wall Street’s day. The company posted .6% growth and while nobody argues that growth is bad , the company still missed expectations of 1% growth. It’s now expected that Walmart will post a very boring flat line to illustrate its net sales even though previous forecasts called for 3% to 4% growth. Profits for Walmart fell almost 8% to $4.57 billion and posted revenues of $129.7 billion. While that may seem like a nice beefy number, analysts still expected $131 billion in revenue. The numbers weren’t helped by Walmart’s decision to close 269 stores worldwide, including 154 just in the United States. Then there were those wage increases and investments into its digital commerce that ate a bit into those profits. But Walmart is banking on the fact that those investments will yield big returns, even if it does mean a little wait. After all, if it’s gonna compete with Amazon, it’s gotta put in the time and money. Of course, mother-nature gets some of the blame too, seeing as how warm weather put a crimp in sales of cold weather merchandise. But don’t rule out the strong dollar, which also deserves plenty of the blame. At least shares are up over 6% in the last three months and the retailer is raising its dividend by 4 cents to generous $2 per share. Woohoo.

Swift karma…

ID-100308209

Image courtesy of winnond/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Puma had a very good quarter and much of the credit for that can go to Rihanna. Yes, that Rihanna. As the brand’s creative director, the pop star is helping shape the female future, as Puma refers to this endeavor. The company had higher than expected sales growth for its fourth quarter, just as Rihanna launched her first full goth-inspred line for the athletic apparel retailer. Back in the fall, RiRi’s remake of Puma’s classic suede kicks sold out within hours of going on sale. Puma’s profits were up 2.6% to 10.9 million euros, easily beating forecasts of 6.5 million euros. Sales rose 11.5% to 979 million euros when analysts expected just 839 million euros in sales. And maybe Kanye West should take to Twitter to hit up his sister-in-law, Kylie Jenner, for some cash, instead of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. She’s been named as the company’s brand ambassador, contrary to his hopes that she would be on his Team Yeezy Adidas line.

Have patients…

ID-100395628

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

IBM. Remember that name? The company just whipped out $2.6 billion for its latest acquisition, Truven Health Analytics. Under CEO Ginny Rometty, IBM has so far spent $4 billion in acquisitions in the last 12 months but this latest one is IBM’s biggest purchase in three years. Wall Street reacted kindly by giving shares of IBM their biggest jump since 2013, and sending them all the way up to $134. That’s especially reassuring for IBM since it posted 15 straight quarters of declining sales. Truven was acquired since IBM brass thought it would fit nicely into its Watson Health biz unit. FYI, Watson is IBM’s fabulous collection of artificial intelligence technologies that does all kinds of super fun stuff like taking data apart to analyze it, interpret it and see if any patterns can be predicted.  With this acquisition, IBM will have health info on 300 million patients and employ 5,000 people worldwide.

 

 

 

Oil Vey 2: The Wrath of Iran; Virtual Company with Real Billions; Dr. Pepper’s Outlook Fizzing Out

Double double oil and trouble…

ID-100387708

Image courtesy of jk1991/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Oil surged 6% today. Yay. It finally finally went above $30 a barrel today. Another yay.  But maybe you’re thinking that positively sucks as you notice that you have a quarter of a tank of gas left in your car. However, in the grand scheme of things, a very grand scheme which does not fit in this blog today, a gradual price increase in gas is a healthy economic indicator. Plenty of folks on Wall Street are attributing this healthy surge to some conversations that were held recently between OPEC and non-OPEC members. Namely, Russia and Saudi Arabia. Oh yeah, Qatar and Venzuela were also allowed to participate. The deal is that these oil producers will cap their crude production – just as long as other major producers follow suit. The last time an  OPEC/non-OPEC “deal” was made was 15 years ago. And like the one 15 years ago, this one is not expected to do much, except act as a starting point. How reassuring. Now, guess which country has NO plans to cap, curb or freeze oil production? Iran, of course.  Sure, the totalitarian-run country thinks it’s a bummer that oil prices are so low, but its leaders are so hell-bent on re-grabbing its market share after all those pesky international sanctions it had to endure for the last 30 years, that it has no intention of curbing production. By the way, conspicuously absent from any talks was Canada, a country that just happens to have the third largest oil reserves, and China, the world’s fourth largest oil producer. Hmmm. Wonder what we ought to take away from that?

All in a maze work…

ID-100174162

Image courtesy of Nutdanai Apikhomboonwaroot/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

At least virtual reality doesn’t bite. Swiss-based company MindMaze, a neural virtual reality platform – which is just as cool as it sounds – now has a pretty amazing valuation. After scoring $100 million in its latest round of funding, the company upped its valuation to over $1 billion. The company’s technology uses virtual and augmented reality and sells electronic headsets to hospitals in order to help rehabilitate stroke patients. The company also has plans to use its rehabilitation features for other injuries, and even amputations. Of course, since we are talking virtual reality, or VR as the cool kids call it, other versions will be available for video gaming as well. In an effort to boost profitability, the company is toying with the idea of selling the hardware separate from the software. It is the fifth start-up company of its kind, and joins the ranks of Oculous VR and Magic Leap. Apparently, investors dig the technology too, seeing as how they have dumped around $4 billion into various VR companies since 2010.

I’m not a Pepper…

ID-100168337

Image courtesy of Gualberto107/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Dr. Pepper Snapple Group posted their fourth quarter earnings and there’s good news…and not so good news. Of course, the good news is the company’s profit. The beverage company, which also makes Canada Dry and A&W Root Beer, among other products, scored a $185 million profit, adding a buck per share and shooting down analyst estimates of 98 cents per share. Last year at this time the company earned $150 million with 77 cents added per share. The Texas-based company also pulled down $1.55 billion in revenue, a nice little boost from 2015’s $1.51 billion. But when we turn to the company’s outlook, we then find the not so good news. Despite people’s thirst, Dr. Pepper’s outlook is weak, expecting just a 1% increase in net sales. Even in 2015, the company took in a 3% increase. The company is figuring it’ll earn somewhere between $4.20 to $4.30 per share for the full year, even though predictions were for $4.34. Dr. Pepper may not be blaming the oil glut on the weak outlook, but there is another culprit – the ever blame-worthy strong dollar, which even managed to sully the beverage industry’s numbers.

To Hike or Not to Hike: That is the Fiscal Question; Doggone it, Home of the Whopper Gets Frank; Is Lumber Liquidators Finally in the Clear?

 

1,2,3 – Hike!

ID-100127517

Image courtesy of jscreationzs/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The Fed will most likely not be lowering rates so don’t hold your breath. Not that you were planning on it. But the Fed is likely to do one of two things: raise rates according to its plan of “gradual adjustments” – meaning regularly raising those rates a smidgeon.  Or the Fed will choose to do nothing. Zero. Zilch. Nada. You might have thought that China is messing up our economy in unimaginable financial ways and therefore a rate reduction is justified. However, the Fed doesn’t feel that China is messing it up enough to warrant lowering rates. In fact, Janet Yellen and company also don’t feel that the rest of the world’s economic troubles are affecting the U.S. so much either. Instead, Yellen feels the U.S. economy will grow no matter what, oil gluts, falling global stocks, and all. None of it is our problem and we shouldn’t waste time worrying how it will all affect the U.S. economy. What is our problem is that the Dow fell 1,700 points since the Fed announced its first rate hike back in December. Even so, Ms. Yellen sees employment gains and wage growth, despite financial tightening conditions, and said that the U.S. financial sector has been resilient.” Be on the lookout for a potential rate hike (or not) next month when the Fed holds its next meeting March 15-16.

Hot diggety dog…

ID-100323298

Image courtesy of atibodyphoto/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

It might be the home of the Whopper but Burger King’s new menu offering is taking on a whole different shape. Starting on February 23, Burger King will be serving up hot dogs at all of its 7,100 + locations in the U.S. Burger King brass are calling it “the most obvious product launch ever” and feel that hot dogs are a natural fit with the chain. Besides, the dogs were already tested in five markets bringing in sales increases that also apparently proved a natural fit for the company. It will make Burger King the biggest hot dog seller in the country and bonus: There will be no boiling or rolling involved in crafting these fine specimens. Instead, the dogs will be flame broiled and come in two variations: the $1.99 “classic” version and the $2.39 “chili cheese” version.  Burger King is partnering with Oscar Mayer to make a proprietary 100% beef delicacy. But the best part – to me anyway – Snoop Dogg and Charro (not sure how they came up with that combo) will be starring in training videos, hoping to make it more exciting for employees. Hey, whatever works.

Hold your breath…

ID-100162374

Image courtesy of jscreationzs/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Lumber Liquidators Holdings Inc. is almost out of the fiscal woods. Sort of. After testing conducted by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, the results are in and Lumber Liquidators’ suspect flooring has a very low risk of causing cancer. Phew. What is more likely to result from the toxic floor coverings are breathing problems and other irritations – besides the emotional irritations brought on by purchasing flooring that contains formaldehyde. Lumber Liquidators has already paid up $13.2 million in fines and forfeitures for its formaldehyde-laced floors produced in China between 2012 and 2014. If you recall, it was just almost a year ago when “60 Minutes” ran a very (financially) damaging piece exposing the company. But now, with any good news on Wall Street, shares have been rising steadily today, hovering at about 12.63. Its 52 week low was 10.53.

Google Exec’s Royal Pay Day; Why Chipotle Wouldn’t Serve Lunch Today; Yelping Early on Earnings

Does that include the corporate jet?

ID-100354109

Image courtesy of boulemonademoon/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Sundar Pichai may not just yet be a household name – something that strikes me as totally weird – but remember that name. He is, after all, one of the highest paid CEO’s of a publicly traded company, and he just scored a record $199 million Google (GOOG) stock award  – the highest ever…for a Google exec. This not-so-minor tidbit was revealed following a February 3 regulatory filing where Pichai disclosed that he received…wait for it…a whopping 273,328 class C shares of Google. Google, by the way, closed today at 682.74. You do the math. Those shares are set to vest quarterly – as long as Pichai manages to last at Google through 2019. And why wouldn’t he. With his last stock award worth about $250 million, Pichai’s Google stake stands at a staggering $650 million. Although, to be fair, tech stocks did take a hit today, with shares of Google parent company Alphabet falling – if only just by 2%. But I suspect Pichai will still come out on top. So perhaps you might want to check Google’s job board. Diane Greene, who heads Google’s cloud business, snagged $42.8 million, while Google CFO Ruth Porat will be taking home $38.3 million in equity.

Muy bien…

ID-100178257

Image courtesy of Serge Bertasius Photography/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

You, like so very many others, probably didn’t get your Chipotle lunch fix today. And that’s not a bad thing. Stores were closed for the better part of the day as approximately 50,000 Chipotle employees gathered in 400 locations, ranging from movie theaters to conference centers, to discuss the Denver-based company’s food safety problems that have been plaguing sales at its 1,971 eateries. Chipotle CEO Monty Moran’s big plan for today’s gathering was to go over new procedures for food safety. That was probably a really great idea since an E. coli outbreak in October and a norovirus in December caused the company to temporarily shutter 43 locations, not to mention incur some brutal fiscal declines.To be fair, Chipotle’s 30% sales decrease are nothing compared to what happened to all those people who got sick. The fact that a Federal Grand jury issued a subpoena for a criminal investigation only adds insult to fiscal injury. But at least the CDC said that the outbreaks seem to be over. I’ll believe it when I hear that CDC employees themselves start ordering Chipotle’s legendary burritos. But if you don’t need those kind of assurances and are ready to chow down on a late lunch/early dinner of soft flour tacos, then bon appetite! Chipotle re-opened at 3:00 pm today.

Early reviews are in…

ID-100207285

Image courtesy of boulemonademoon/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Yelp’s earnings were released today –  a bit too early, mind you –  and brought with it the news that Yelp CFO Rob Krolik, who joined the company in 2011, will be stepping down. He will either stay on board until the company can find a suitable replacement or until December 15. Whichever comes first. Weird, I know. In any case, Yelp posted revenues of $153.7 million, handily beating estimates of $152.3 million, and also gained 11 cent per share even though analysts expected the company to report a loss of 3 cents per share. Shares of the company, incidentally, were down in the afternoon. Go figure. If you have yet to post an opinion/review to Yelp, rest assured that there were still 95 million other people who did it for you, letting you know the all the good, bad and ugly about our country’s countless dining establish, both fine and otherwise. Yelp’s been on a fierce mission to battle the competition out there by diversifying its restaurant bookings, offering event management and even doing payments. That’s in a addition to the company’s plans for expansion beyond the U.S. And Yelp has no time to waste as shares of its stock have been going down since March of 2014, when the company hits its high of $97.25.