Lyft and Waymo = Carpool; Bud Spending $2 billion to Up Its Game; AIG Bets Big on Latest CEO

Self-less…

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In case you were having trouble envisioning a world with driverless cars, you might want to check out Alphabet Inc.’s company Waymo. Waymo, a self-driving car company,  has just teamed up with Lyft, and that should be enough to make Uber more than a little nervous. You might be wondering why a company owned by Google even needs a much smaller company like Lyft for a partnership. But believe it or not, there’s a little quid pro quo going on because since Lyft has the dubious distinction of being the second largest ride service company, it will allow Waymo’s technology to reach even more people than without it. Isn’t that just beautiful? Uber, on the other hand, is looking to develop driverless technology on its own. If you recall, Waymo sued Uber back in February, alleging that Uber stole Waymo’s self-driving technology to build its own fleet.  But with the way things are going for Uber lately, it might be more prudent for the embattled ride-sharing company to focus on its current crop of legal and publicity challenges instead of driverless cars. For the time being anyway.  By the way, Lyft’s deal with Waymo is not exclusive. Which is super important considering that GM is a big Lyft investor and already has its own partnership in place to develop self-driving cars. It’s like legit double-dipping and everybody wins. In fact, come 2018, Lyft and GM will be set to deploy and test thousands of self-driving cars. Yikes!

Competitive beer…

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It might be hard to believe but the King of Beers is not looked upon as the royalty it once was. And so, its parent company Anheuser-Busch InBev NV is plunking down $2 billion to try and fix that issue. The plan is to make a substantial, lucrative foray into new categories, while at the same time boosting its flagship brands which have been staring down the wrong end of increased competition.  The money will be spent over the next four years, using approximately $500 million per year. In case you were thinking that $2 billion seems like an awfully bloated  – no pun intended – number to spend on improving a beer brand, consider that beer is a more than $107 billion industry and no self-respecting beer company wants to lose ground in a market like that.  And make no mistake, beer has been losing ground lately with not as much of it being consumed like in years past. Hard to believe. I know, but various types of other alcoholic beverages have been flooding the market in recent years and consumers are digging them. Which leaves companies like Anheuser-Busch scrambling to reclaim its foamy territory.

No pressure or anything…

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Maybe the seventh time’s a charm for AIG, which just announced it’s coughing up $12 million – and then some – to pay its newest CEO, Brain Duperreault. By “then some” I refer to an additional 1.5 million stock options and a $16 million pay package all based on the hope that Duperreault will finally be the one to turn AIG around. Did you catch that? He’s getting all that and he hasn’t sat at his new desk yet. The last CEO, Peter Hancock, left in March because he wasn’t feeling the love, or rather investor support, including from the one and only Carl Icahn. But Brian Deperreault just might have what AIG’s been looking for all these years, well at least since 2005. He’s no stranger to AIG, having worked there as a deputy way back when. He’s coming over from Hamilton Insurance, and before that he was at Marsh & McClennan Cos. earning solid reputations at both firms. As for his first order of business: achieve stability in a company that has seen too many high-level departures, four straight quarters of losses and high claims costs. Good luck with that one, Mr. Duperreault. You’re gonna need it.

GE is Not too Big Anymore. To Fail, That is.; Diamonds Need a New Best Friend; Kellogg’s Wants to Make Cereal Great Again;

On your own…

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You can rest easy now as GE no longer poses a systemic threat to the financial stability of the United States. Phew. Three months ago, GE officially requested to unload its “Too Big to Fail” designation and voila! Shedding close to $200 billion in assets helped it achieve that lofty goal. Unfortunately, none of those dollars made their way to me. But I digress. With the Financial Stability Oversight Council voting unanimously to remove the label, officially called “Systemically Important Financial Institution” (or SIFI if you’re nasty), GE no longer requires lots of added, and presumably unwanted, scrutiny from the Federal Reserve. So now, nobody cares if it fails. Well, maybe just its employees and shareholders. And if it does (but why would it?), the government won’t have to throw at it a $182 billion taxpayer-funded bail-out like it did for AIG. Boom.

A girl’s best friend?

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It’s called the Lesedi la Rona and is the second biggest diamond mined. Ever. Clocking in at 1,109 carats, about the size of a tennis ball, so they say, this behemoth of a stone is only second to the Cullinan diamond that was discovered more than one hundred years ago. The 3,106 carat Cullinan, however, was cut cut into several polished stones and now shares a very posh home with the British Crown jewels. The same fate could not be said for this latest find. Last night Sotheby’s tried to auction the darn thing off, but the 3 billion years old diamond couldn’t even clear its $70 million reserve price. The rock was expected, according to some estimates, to fetch about $84 million with the bidding starting at $50 million. The bidding went up – “in strained pauses” – in increments of $1 million. But after fifteen minutes, the highest bid only came in at $61 million. Lucara, the Canadian company that owns the precious rock, saw its stock fall 18%  after the news that it failed to sell. Sadly, for the diamond industry anyway, prices for rough diamonds have fallen 18%, the most its fallen since the fiscal crisis of 2008.

Snap, crackle, pop…

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With cereal sales hitting the skids, falling by 1% this year, Kellogg’s has come up with a way it hopes will make cereal great again – cereal cafes. For about double the price of your average box of Apple Jack’s you can walk into Kellogg’s Cereal Cafe in Times Square (where else?) and order yourself a hearty bowl of Froot Loops accompanied by mini marshmallows and passion fruit jam. Yeah. You read that right. Or how about some Rice Krispies doused in green tea powder, fresh strawberries and ice cream. You didn’t see that one coming did you? Sounds swanky and that’s definitely the idea. Cereal sales have gone down 2.4% in the past four years, getting overshadowed by grab-n-go foods and being shunned by that pesky group we call Millennials. Cereal sales fell to about $10 billion in 2015, which might seem impressive except that way back in 2000, cereal sales came in close to $14 billion. According to research firm Mintel, 40% of Millennials could not be bothered with the clean-up required to eat a bowl of cereal and milk. However, 82% of that group still see cereal as a great snack sans the milk. Go figure. Next time you get the urge for a bowl of Special K mixed with Frosted Flakes, pistachios, lemon zest and thyme at 8:00 at night, then you’re in luck. The cafe, which opens July 4, will serve breakfast from 7:00 am until 11:00 pm.

Icahn: A Man of Letters; IBM Looks to Weather Some Storms; Twitter Has Yet to Impress

Icahn. Therefore I am…

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Carl Icahn took time out of his busy schedule of haranguing Congress and ousting CEO’s to write yet another letter, this time on his website, to insurance company AIG. Icahn now owns a sizable chink of the company, though exactly how much remains a mystery. He only tells us that it is very “large.” I, for one, believe him, just cause it’d be kind of weird to make something like that up. Besides, he usually goes big. In his advice letter to AIG, the activist investor writes, “There is no more need for procrastination.” He wants AIG split up into three separate divisions because he’s not digging the company’s “Systemically Important Financial Institution” status, or SIFI if you’re feeling funky.  If you find that term a bit too clunky, then, by all means, refer to it by its other more user-friendly term, “Too Big To Fail,” as in the 2008 fiscal crisis and the HBO movie of the same name (that starred Bill Pullman  as JP Morgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon and Ed Asner as Warren Buffet). Icahn believes that when a company gets SIFI status it’s bad. It’s like a tax. A tax of a bunch of regulators breathing down your fiscal back with heavy breaths of federal oversight. Companies that don’t get saddled with that status are more valuable to shareholders, in Mr. Icahn’s not-so-humble opinion. Icahn wants to divide AIG into a property and casualty coverage division, a life insurance division, and a mortgage backing division. Then he wants to throw in some cuts and have AIG buy back some stock. After that, he feels AIG will start trading closer to its book value at about $100 a share. Right now the stock is trading at just under $64 and trades for less than 80% of its book value (which, by the way measures assets minus liabilities). As for AIG CEO Peter Hancock, well, Icahn will probably find a way to kick him out of AIG if he doesn’t take his advice.

Super duper…

Image courtesy of  Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Today’s big shopper is IBM, who is getting set to acquire The Weather Co.’s digital assets. In case you were wondering (because I know you were), those digital assets are its websites and apps. The channel, however, stays put, as it doesn’t really fit into IBM’s master plan. That master plan involves IBM beefing up its Watson Internet of Things Unit, its artificial intelligence unit that puts the super in supercomputer. The data supplied by the deal will give Watson the ability to create accurate forecasts – is that an oxymoron? – and will be able to provide commercial clients, from airlines to insurance companies, and beyond, very precise information. While the exact terms of the purchase have yet to be disclosed, the deal is rumored to be valued at around $2 billion. Naturally, shares of IBM took a little ride on the uptown train because of the super news.

These are the not quite the Moments…

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Image courtesy of bplanet/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Twitter is down 13% for the year and another 11% just today, and yet the micro-blogging site still beat the street. The social media company pulled down $569 million in revenue adding ten cents per share. Analysts predicted that Twitter would score closer to $560 million and add only a nickel per share. In terms of last year at this time, Twitter was up 58%. But here’s where things start to go south. The company revised its fourth quarter profit outlook between $695 million and $710 million. That seems like a whole lot of cash except that analysts were expecting numbers closer to $740 million. Then we turn to growth. There wasn’t that much of it.  Twitter only managed to add about 4 million new active monthly users. A very unimpressive 11% increase over the same time last year. Analysts, however, are still optimistic that launches, including the much-hyped Moments, and its increasing ad revenues will help turn the company’s fiscal tide.

H&M Goes Haute on Profits; Google-gratulations; Taco Bell Gets Biscuit-y

So trendy…

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Image courtesy of sscreations/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

H&M posted some particularly impressive digits with profits up 36% to about $423 million. Of course, since it’s a Swedish company, those numbers came out to 3.61 billion kronors. I’m guessing analysts don’t do a lot of shopping at the world’s second largest retailer because they only expected 3.32 billion kronors. H&M attributes a lot of that success to some major online and store expansion activity. Whatever it was, it worked.  But here’s where things got dicey. Shares of the company fell over 3% because of one not so teeny tiny problem: Revenue for the first three weeks of March slowed to 9% from February’s 15%. This put a damper on the profit surge news. However, one analyst graciously pointed out that it was the first time in 17 months that growth even slowed to under 10%. So no one’s too concerned. It wouldn’t be right not to blame some of that on a winter that has overstayed its welcome. However, that strong dollar of ours is also going to be messing with H&M too, as it’s going to get a lot pricier to purchase goods and services to put out all those fabulously trendy and cheap clothes. Then there’s the not so minor issue that so much of its merchandise is purchased in dollars even though its sold in Euros. That might put a fiscal crimp on things, as well. Strong dollar or weak euro, H&M still has plans to open 400 stores worldwide.

Googled it…

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Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDgitalPhotos.net

Ruth Porat. Remember that name. That is, if you didn’t already, as she is regarded as one of the “most powerful women on Wall Street.” Except she’s ditching Wall Street for a new gig in Silicon Valley as Google’s new CFO. Just how big a deal is it? Well, Wall Street liked the appointment so much that Google’s stock went up almost 3% today because of it. Yeah, she’s that impressive. Ms. Porat has been at Morgan Stanley for 28 years but is no stranger to tech having worked on some major deals for both Amazon and eBay. During 2008’s nasty fiscal crisis, she advised the U.S. Department of Treasury on AIG, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.  She was even under consideration for the role of Deputy Treasury Secretary. Not too shabby. She’ll be replacing Patrick Pichette who said he’s retiring to spend more time with his family. So friggin’ sweet.  Ms. Porat gets to report to Google co-founder and CEO, Larry Page, who is presumably just as stoked about his new hire as Wall Street is.

Would you like that to go?

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Image courtesy of Mister GC/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Is it a taco? Or is it a biscuit. Excellent question and for Taco Bell, whatever you decide probably won’t matter as long as you buy the darn thing. The fast-food chain is heating up the breakfast wars, yet again, armed with its latest weaponry – the taco biscuit, a biscuit in the shape of a taco. Got that? Last year Taco Bell took an advertising swing at McDonald’s with a campaign featuring people whose names were actually Ronald McDonald, devouring a Taco Bell breakfast and loving it. While it’s no doubt that McDonald’s did not care for this little shtick, the fact is that breakfast at the Golden Arches still accounts for 25% of McDonald’s sales when Taco Bell only sees 6% of its sales going towards the most important meal of the day (so they say).  Since traffic has been going up at fast-food establishments for the last four years, does the Taco Biscuit have what it takes to propel Taco Bell and its 6,000 U.S. establishments to hit its goal of seeing 20% of sales coming from breakfast? Time will tell, o’ fearless breakfast diner.