Aetna Becomes Obamacare Dropout; Warren Buffet Takes a Big Bite Out of (the) Apple; TJX: Don’t Discount the Discounter

See ya!

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Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

In case it wasn’t entirely clear how some big insurance companies feel about Obamacare, perhaps Aetna might shed some light for you. The healthcare insurer is dropping out of the exchange in 69% of its counties. It’s dropping out of 11 of 15 states after eating $200 million in pre-tax losses during its 2Q. Of the 838,000 Affordable Care Act policies it has, 20% will be adversely affected. Aetna, which is the nation’s third largest insurer, isn’t the first health insurance company to do this. United Healthcare Group already dropped out of Obamacare exchanges and as did Kaiser, with more expected to follow. Whichever side you fall on in terms of the Obamacare debate matters not. It’s arithmetic that’s at play here. Aetna argues that they were losing big money to make the Obamacare policies work. Not enough healthy people were signing up and too many unhealthy people were. The premiums that healthy folks pay were/are intended to offset the large cost of the the unhealthy. Unfortunatey, things didn’t work out that way. The Departement of Health and Human Services was supposed to figure out ways to fix that issue. While its says it did, insurers say it didn’t – or at least, not enough. If you’re really bent on having Aetna insure you and your state’s just been dropped by it, you might want to consider moving to Delaware, Iowa, Nebraska and Virginia. Those states will still be offering policies from Aetna in 2017. Well, at least for now they will be.

Well, if Warren Buffet’s Doing it…

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Berkshire Hathaway’s very own oracle is taking a much bigger chunk out of the not-so-proverbial apple – the one based in Cupertino, that is. Warren Buffet upped his stake in the tech company by a substantial 55%. That’s in direct contrast to his fellow billionaire’s recent actions. George Soros just chucked his Apple stake out the window over concerns in China, or rather concerns about China’s policies regarding the iPhone maker. However, there’s a chance he’ll re-invest down the road. Activist investor billionaire Carl Icahn also ditched his Apple shares back in June. When he did this, shares of Apple had taken a slight dip, at which point Warren Buffet swooped in and increased his stake. Now his total stake of 15. 2 million shares is valued at about $1.7 billion. Shares of Apple, by the way, are up 14% since June. Incidentally, Wal-Mart didn’t fare so well as far as Berkshire Hathaway’s portfolio is concerned. The Oracle of Omaha cut Berkshire Hathaway’s stake in the world’s largest retailer by 27%, keeping it at just over 40.2 million shares. But Warren Buffet has had Wal-Mart in its portfolio a decade now and while his stake might be reduced, it’s probably still not going anywhere. For now. Curious what else Berkshire Hathaway has sitting in its very lucrative portfolio? Coca Cola, American Express, Johnson & Johnson, Kraft Heinz, Wells Fargo…to name but a few.

Who you calling off-price?

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Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Macy’s and friends might be bemoaning the state of the retail landscape. But they won’t get much sympathy from discount retailers T.J. Maxx. Its parent company TJX Cos came out with its second quarter sales results that had the retailer beating predictions.  But all was not perfect from the company that also owns Marshall’s and HomeGoods. It put out a bit of a bleaker picture for its third quarter that caused shares to fall today, despite its stellar performance.  In all fairness, that depressing and most unimpressive outlook is primarily because TJX Cos is waging war against a strong dollar. Besides, the company is giving out wage increases, so its hard to be mad at a company whose fiscal prowess is taking a hit for a very noble cause. There is even a silver lining – the company is turning out to be a big draw, luring shoppers away from malls with its deeply discounted merchandise on major name brands. Profit for TJX Cos was $562.2 million with 84 cents added to shares, while analysts only predicted 80 cents per share.  A year ago at this time, the company picked up $549.3 million with 80 cents added to shares. The stock is up 17% since January.

 

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Costco’s Credit Chaos; Macy’s Switches it Up with New Chief; VW’s Writing Checks

Not to their credit…

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So much for a seamless transition of the Costco Anywhere Visa cards. The club-retailer started accepting the card this week, after ending its 16 year relationship with American Express, and there has been no shortage of chaos. While American Express enjoys a hearty laugh over this new credit card debacle,  Costco customers have been flocking to Facebook to rage against Coscto and its Citigroup credit card. Since Monday, Citigroup has been flooded with phone calls from 1.5 million disgruntled callers whose issues included problems activating accounts, lengthy wait times to speak to a living human breathing customer service representative and even difficulty trying to pay off existing balances. I mean seriously, when was the last time you had a hard time getting someone to take money from you. Costco has over 80 million members worldwide and eleven million of them applied for this new card. Those cards were supposed to have arrived back in May. Unfortunately many didn’t. The card offers a generous cash-back program and has no annual fee and, which was the bone of contention between Amex and Costco, that ultimately put the kibosh on the relationship. About 25% of Costco shoppers used Amex cards for their purchases and Amex took a 6% fee that cost the retailer $180 million. Citigroup is the biggest credit card lender in the world and analysts think the new partnership is a great idea to cut down on costs. Visa’s fees will be considerably smaller, costing Costco somewhere between $60 million and $150 million. Which is great news, as long as you’re not standing on line right now trying to make a purchase with the store’s new Visa card.

Miracle on 34th Street?

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Long-time Macy’s CEO Terry Lundgren is getting set to bid a long and fond farewell to the department store he helmed for the last 14 years. While he still gets to remain chairman, succeeding him officially in 2017 will be Macy’s president and former Chief Merchandising Officer, Jeff Gennette. Lundgren might be a bit sad but Wall Street sure isn’t. Investors sent shares up on the news, which is especially reassuring since shares have gone down in value more than 50% in the last twelve months. To be fair, Lundgren’s contributions were nothing short of impressive. He made Macy’s the largest department store chain in the United States, among other shining achievements. But the time has come for a changing of the retail guard as Macy’s got hit with five straight quarters of same-store losses and its first quarter results were the worst they’ve ever been since 2008. That last bit caused a bit of panic in the retail sector as other big retailers worried that these results signaled an industry-wide problem. Some experts, me not being one of them, are convinced that Macy’s doesn’t have the chops, yet anyway, to compete with the likes of the Amazons, H&M’s and Zaras of the world. (Not that H&M’s recent results were all that impressive). With a strong dollar and falling sales, Macy’s had to close about 40 stores and cut thousands of jobs. As for Gennette, one source said, “He is going to make the radical changes” which sounds awfully ominous, but in fact, entails, at least in part, setting up an off-price store called Macy’s Backstage and making online shopping enhancements, which seem to be all the rage.

Farfegnugen…

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It’s official. Sort of. Volkswagen will cough up a settlement of about $10.3 billion to settle claims that it rigged emissions tests on some of its models. Part of the settlement includes offers to buy back about 500,000 odious vehicles which emit 40 times the allowable amount of nitrogen oxide into the air we breathe. By the way, VW is not expected, by the EPA anyway, to repair all of the offending vehicles. Some owners will receive as much as $7,000 in compensation. There’s a joke in there somewhere. Also, VW must set aside money for green energy projects besides establishing programs whose focus is to offset diesel pollution. Talk about karma. Both Volkswagen and the EPA declined to comment on the settlement, which I suppose is to be expected. This settlement is completely separate from other lawsuits suits filed by other U.S. states and is also separate from the Justice Department’s own criminal investigation into the matter. So it seems as though things are anything but settled for Volkswagen.

Forbes/Trump Smackdown; Getting Chip-py With It; Ralph Lauren Preps New CEO

Donald Donald Donald…

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Image courtesy of ponsulak/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

To take your mind off the fact that we have yet to find a cure for cancer and AIDs, or that people all over the world are living in abject poverty, we now turn our attentions to the Donald Trump vs. Forbes magazine smack down. The two entities are going head to head over Donald Trump’s estimated net worth, with Trump insisting that Forbes has its facts all wrong. “I’m a private company […] I like the people at Forbes but they don’t really know my assets very well,” the Donald said during an interview for CNBC. Forbes says that The Donald’s real estate fortune can be pegged at $4.5 billion, a figure that has the Republican presidential candidate in a snit because he is convinced that the magazine is trying to paint him “as poor as possible.” As if that were possible. Trump insists he’s worth more than $10 billion, questioning Forbes arithmetic skills. Common core, perhaps?  Forbes, in its calculations, doesn’t place a value on brand and that irritates the real estate mogul because the Trump brand, according to Trump, is very valuable and might have led Forbes to a far different fiscal outcome. Maybe. Donald Trump apparently does not take comfort in the fact that he was ranked as the 19th richest American, or that he is by far the wealthiest of the presidential candidates. He’s also miffed that Forbes had the nerve to say that he has a paltry cash stash of just $327 million (forget the research that went into computing that amount) “But I have a lot of cash,”  he insists in a CNBC interview, explaining away that his cash bank account is bursting from the $793 million sitting in it, all green and crispy.

Chipped off…

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Image courtesy of sscreations/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Today marks the dawn of a new -and hopefully less fraudulent-riddled – era, as business owners large and small now become liable for fraudulent activities. If a consumer’s info gets swiped, the business from which the offense originated eats the cost and not the bank that issued the card. Consumers, many who are now armed with credit cards containing EMV chips –  as in Europay, MasterCard and Visa (what you thought it was going to stand for some obscure tech jargon?) will now be able to conspicuously consume using new terminals intended to reduce exposure to fraud. In order for the chip to be really secure, a pin number should be used with it. Otherwise, don’t come crying to EMV. I say reduce, because sadly, it does not completely obliterate the cold, callous felonious act. It’s estimated that about 32 million consumers had their credit card info swiped last year, nearly triple that of 2013. The chip creates a unique code for every transaction. But if you have yet to receive your chip card, rest assured that your magnetic stripe-outfitted cards can still be used. Sorry to say but the chip cards won’t be of much use for your cyber-shopping excursions. So make sure the site with which you transact is legit. American Express is getting their chip-action going on October 16 while gas stations get until 2017 to upgrade their terminals.  So far more than 200 million cards with chips in them have been sent out.

Movin’ on up-market…

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Image courtesy of Sira Anamwong/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A new king has been crowned over at Ralph Lauren, as its namesake CEO, Ralph Lauren himself, “stepped up.” That is not a typo but rather a direct quote from the preppy American style icon, who also happens to be the largest shareholder and intends to maintain his creative input at the company. The new CEO is none other than Stefan Larsson, CEO extraordinaire to fast-fashion brands Old Navy and H&M. His resume actually had some haters doubting the dude who has a lack of luxury goods experience. But Wall Street doesn’t seem to mind as it sent shares of Ralph Lauren up a much needed 12% on Wednesday while also taking a 6% chunk off of shares of Gap Inc for losing its rock star executive. The haters apparently aren’t paying enough attention to the fact that under Larsson’s leadership, Old Navy saw three consecutive years of growth and was the only one of the Gap Inc. brands to show growth at all, 5% just this year. In the meantime, Ralph Lauren had some quarters that were anything but, shall we say, fashion-forward, and is down a dismal 37% for the year.

AmEx Wants to Know What Your Loyalty is Worth; How Do You Say Opel-ease in Russian?; FedEx’s Hit and Miss

Where’s your loyalty?

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Maybe membership does still have its privileges. AmEx is trying to make a comeback following its breakup with powerhouse retailer, Costco, and rumors of an impending break-up with JetBlue. To soothe it’s broken fiscal heart, the company is making plans to offer a rewards program called “Plenti.” Catchy, huh? Joining forces with Macy’s, Exxon, RiteAid, AT&T and a few other companies, AmEx is offering a loyalty program where American consumers get to cash in points earned on their AmEx cards, and then redeem the points at these retailers. I say Americans, because AmEx already has loyalty programs in other parts of the world, including Germany and Italy. Fill up your car at Exxon and then run over to Macy’s and buy yourself a shirt. Or some vitamins at RiteAid. Or insurance. Yes, I did say insurance since Nationwide Insurers is one of the partners. As is Hulu. Cool, huh? . Noticeably absent from the list of participants is a national grocer and home improvement retailer. But fear not, oh faithful spender, as rumor has it those slots are just about to be filled. If you’re wondering how AmEx benefits, it’s simple: AmEx gets a fee from its partners-in-retail. Clever indeed.

No more vroom…

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

GM is coming to a screeching halt in Russia after taking a 74% hit in sales there with an 86% hit on its Opel brand alone. Hence, GM has put the kibosh on Opel production altogether and will be drastically slowing down production on its Chevy lines, chalking it all up to a $600 million loss. The collapsed ruble and dropping oil prices have dealt a major blow to the Russian economy, with car sales especially down 38%. So GM decided to make a run for it. However, if you find yourself in Russia and jonesing for a Corvette, then no worries. Because Corvettes are imported, they will still be making their way into the country, together with Tahoes and Camaros. Can’t you just picture Putin cruising the Kremlin in a Camaro? Oddly enough, or not, the automobile company is still looking to up its Cadillac game in Russia. The luxury auto has yet to catch up to the popularity of European automobiles BMW and Audi. Tragically, only 72 of them have been sold in Russia in the first two months of the year.

Special delivery…

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

FedEx released its earnings report, regaling Wall Street and the world with news of its prosperous third quarter. One of the fiscal highlights was the $11.7 billion in revenue the company took in. Not a major difference than what experts forecasted, and a modest 4% gain over last year, but the number did hit its target so nobody was necessarily complaining on that front. The big exciting numbers, though, came courtesy of FedEx’s impressive profits. At $580 million and $2.01 per share, the company’s net income was a whopping 63% higher than last year at this time. Analysts only predicted a profit of $1.88. It’s kind of nice when analysts are wrong. Just saying. And for that very impressive feat, FedEx can thank low fuel prices. Of course there were a few other reasons too, but fuel could definitely be crowned the star of this one. But then its shares took a bit of dip today on the news of its less than impressive outlook. The company expects to pull in between $8.80 – $8.95 per share for the year but analysts much prefer to see $8.98 per share. FedEx’s performance tends to hint to Wall Street what we can expect from our fickle economy. So if FedEx is feeling a bit too fiscally modest and only moderately ambitious, it makes The Street a little edgy.

Expedia Challenges Priceline With its Latest Acquisition; Retail Sector: Where Have All the Shoppers Gone? Costco Breaks Up With Amex

Book it…

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Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Priceline look out! And you too, William Shatner. Expedia just announced its lofty plans to buy Orbitz Worldwide Inc.for $1.34 billion, which squares out to about $12 a share at a 25% premium. The folks at Expedia feel it’ll help them give Priceline Group Inc. a real run for its money – and reservations, I suppose. Orbitz already picked up Travelocity a while back for $280 million and now the online travel booking service also gets CheapTickets, and ebookers as part of this latest deal. As you may recall (and it’s perfectly fine if you don’t), Priceline itself made a few purchases itself last year when it scooped up a stake in ctrip.com International and OpenTable Inc. Apparently, mergers and acquisitions in the online booking arena are all the rage right now but let’s just see how it pans out fiscally for the consumers booking all those services.

Show me the money…

Image courtesy of stockimages/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of stockimages/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Will the retail sector get it right already? January proved to be a colossal fiscal bummer as the Commerce Department announced that sales in the retail sector fell, yet again, to 0.8%. Economists forecasted it would only drop 0.4% and it’s the second straight month to drop after December’s dismal 0.9% plunge. So what gives? After all, gas prices are low, employment numbers are rockin’ and even wages are coming up…a smidge. Apparently, Americans have been more inclined to actually pay down some of their debt and even save up some cash for a rainy day. The nerve of those fiscally responsible Americans, I tell you. But economists, the same ones who predicted those retail numbers would only fall to 0.4% instead of the 0.8% it did fall, are predicting that those numbers should come right back up to a more respectable level, if we give it some…space. Let’s just hope they’re right this time.

While we’re on the topic of retail…

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Image courtesy of photoraidz/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Costco shoppers rejoice. Next year when you go shopping at the wholesale warehouse you needn’t bother whipping out your Amex card anymore. The world’s second largest retailer and the charge card company just couldn’t work things out and thus an exclusive relationship between Costco and American Express is coming to an end March 31, 2016. The exclusive agreement allowed for Costco to pay a much smaller rate than other companies but alas, all good things must come to an end. The rate was so low , in fact, that it explains why the deal even lasted as long as it did. And thus, a sixteen year relationship has thrown in its fiscal towel. Sniff sniff. In Canada, a similar deal also came to an unfortunate demise last year. Oh Canada!  On Wall Street shares of American Express, took a bit of a hit while Costco shares actually went up. Perhaps next year, as you find yourself stocking up on a year’s supply of toilet paper and deodorant, you might just get to use your Visa or Mastercard, two cards that have so long yearned to be a part of the Costco magic.