Uber Drama Revs Up; Gymboree’s Next Chapter in Life: 11; Aldi Ready to Feed You For Less. Much Less

These are the days of Uber’s life…

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The Silicon Valley soap opera we call Uber is making awkward, unpleasant headlines again. This time it’s because the rumor mill is swirling with talk that Uber CEO, Travis Kalanick, is about to take a leave of absence. Which begs the question about how this new development will affect Uber, if at all. Then we turn our attention to the now ex-number two honcho at the ride-sharing company, Emil Michael, who has left the Uber building. It’s doubtful he’ll be missed that much since he was apparently pressured to step down. In fact, Kalanick was advised to let Michael go earlier this year, however he declined to entertain that suggestion – a decision that eventually bit him in his corporate butt. Perhaps had Kalanick let Michael go when asked to do so, he might not find himself figuring out how to spend all his newfound free time. All this unpleasantness – well for Kalanick and Michael, anyway – ensued following a meeting with Eric Holder’s law firm. You remember him, dontcha? He’s the former U.S. Attorney General and if he’s got some recommendations, it’s prudent to follow them. Holder’s firm was retained by Uber to conduct internal investigations following accusations of sexual harassment and gender bias. The findings, his firm reported, were “ugly.” That doesn’t bode well for the world’s most valuable privately held company, now does it?

Another one bites the dust…

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Today’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing is brought to you by Gymboree, the children’s clothing store chain which can be found in just about any mall in the United States. Well, maybe not for much longer. The company still plans to remain in business, it’s just going to be shuttering anywhere from 375 to 450 of its stores. But rest assured, if you’re a frequent patron of the chain, there will still be well over 800 stores left from which to do your kids’ clothes shopping. If you are at all shocked about the store closures and bankruptcy filing, then clearly you aren’t one of the many creditors Gymboree refused to pay in the last few months. With increasing online competition and a major slowdown in mall traffic, it’s no wonder Gymboree just couldn’t make bank. The company is staring down the wrong end of $1.4 billion worth of debt and hopes to nail down a plan to help it shed about $1 billion of it.  The kicker, though, is that the company is still profitable, a bonus that a lot of analysts think will help propel Gymboree towards a bright, shinier fiscally nourishing future.

Grab your cart…

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Grocery chain Aldi has got some lofty goals. And if you’re thinking you’ve never heard of the chain, then just wait. The company just announced a $3.4 billion plan to make sure you do. Aldi has set its grocer sights on becoming the third largest grocery chain behind Kroger and Walmart. The grocery store chain currently boasts 1,600 locations from which to purchase your groceries, but by 2022, it expects to have 2,200 stores gracing the country.  Some 1,300 of its pre-existing stores are also being treated to a $1.6 billion remodel. And who doesn’t love a little remodel? However, the biggest thrill of all is that Aldi is going to attempt to price its merchandise over 20% lower than its rivals while adding 25,000 jobs in the process. If that doesn’t sound appetizing, the I don’t know what does.

Game Over for Gawker; Yelp-ing With Joy; Election Triggers Record Gun Sales

 

Over and done with…

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The invasion of privacy lawsuit that forced Gawker into bankruptcy has finally come to a close. Well, almost. All Gawker needs to do is write a check to Hulk Hogan for $31 million, which is actually small potatoes considering that the original judgement against Gawker was for $140 million. Hogan’s suit was helped by the fact that PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel secretly financed the suit. He’s no fan of Gawker founder Nick Denton ever since he outed Thiel back in 2007. Of Hogan’s lawsuit, Thiel said, “I saw Gawker pioneer a unique and incredibly damaging way of getting attention by bullying people even when there was no connection with the public interest.” He makes a valid point. In any case, Gawker was forced to file Chapter 11 bankruptcy and the company’s assets were sold in a government auction to Univision for the bargain price of $135 million. But I guess that’s what you’d call payback.

Surprise!!!

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Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Yelp had a nice surprise today in the form of a profit. And who doesn’t like a surprise like that?  However, with that profit came the news that the company would be saying goodbye to 175 employees – 4% of its workforce – since the company has been unsuccessful in its attempts to expand across the pond. Yelp, which reviews restaurants and other assorted businesses, makes its money through advertising, of course, and also through other services like online reservations. The company’s third quarter net income was $2.1 million, earning the site 22 cents per share, even though experts predicted a 3 cent per share loss. The company’s revenue rose by 30% to $186.2 million, again beating expectations of $183 million. That was a major change from Yelp’s year-over-year profit loss of $8.1 million and 11 cents per share. The company saw a 29% uptick in reviews which brought its total customers to 115 million users.

Oh shoot!

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Leave it to the presidential race to send gun sales soaring. Both Sturm-Ruger and Smith & Wesson have been reporting months of record gun sales. In the meantime, FBI background checks to purchase firearms rose 16% to 2.3 million this year from last year’s 2 million during the same period. And you can expect background checks to set a new record for 2016. How’s that for a correlation?  Anticipating new gun-control regulations, gun enthusiasts are stocking up as the second amendment figures prominently in this election. As a result, Sturm-Ruger not only experienced a sales surge back in the summer, but saw net sales in its third quarter jump 34% 10 $161.4 million as consumers loaded up on such favorites like concealed-carry pistols and AR-15 rifles.  Profits also went up for the company 66% to $20 million and $1.03 per share. Sturm-Ruger took all possible political outcomes into consideration both in the White House and the Senate.  While Hillary Clinton hopes to bring back the assault weapons ban, Donald Trump wants to tweak gun legislation and focus on healthcare for the mentally ill instead. The irony is that Sturm-Ruger sales went up following incidents involving gun violence that led to politicians demanding stricter gun-control laws. If gun enthusiasts feel that it will be more difficult to purchase guns in the future, they stock up now. During Sturm’s second quarter earnings call, the company implored its customers and “all freedom-loving Americans to take action in support of the Second Amendment.” Sturm-Ruger pledged $2 to the NRA for every gun it sold and offered to match all donations up to $5 million. Incidentally, despite record gun sales, shares of both Smith and Wesson and Sturm-Ruger had been down 11%. Look for Smith & Wesson’s earnings December 6.

 

Bit-drama; Sports Authority Strikes Out; Uber’s New Bosses

Bit-scam?

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An Australian man by the name of Craig Wright is claiming to be Bitcoin’s illustrious creator. But as much as he wants people to believe him and embrace him as creator-extraordinare of the crypto-cuurency, there’s plenty of reason not to bite. Insisting he’s Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonym behind the currency’s creator, Wright, a computer scientist, decided that it was time for him to reveal his true identity and correct all of the misinformation out there. Wright explained, “I didn’t take the decision lightly to make my identity public and I want to be clear that I’m doing this because I care so passionately about my work and also to dispel any negative myths and fears.” How…gallant. According to Wright, he substantiated his own claim by showing that he had access to blocks of bitcoin that could only have been created by the actual bona fide creator. How very convenient. But naysayers say he’s nothing more than a con man who used some blocks that had already been around and just copied them. Incidentally, Wright’s home was raided by police back in December as a result of a tax investigation conducted by the Australian Tax Office. Though Bitcoin launched in 2009, its creator, who is reported to hold about $450 million worth of bitcoin, fell off the virtual grid in 2011. There are a reported 15 million plus Bitcoins currently in circulation. Wright said he believes that Bitcoin can be used to make the world a better place and is set to release research on the massive potential of the crypto-currency. Awww! Can it cure cancer too?

Game over?

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Looks like it’s game over for Sports Authority, as the retailer will shutter its 463 stores after failing to reorganize itself following its Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing back in March. Initially, the chain had big plans to shut down just 140 of its stores. But now the chain will liquidate and very unglamorously auction itself off. There’s a hearing scheduled for May 16 but in the meantime, the flailing company is hoping somebody shows a little fiscal mercy in the way of a generous offer. Problem is, the offers it already had wouldn’t even be enough to cover the $100 million worth of administration and liquidation costs. Of course, there’s also the whopping $1.1 billion that Sports Authority owes to its creditors. Apparently Dick’s Sporting goods was catering the thought of scooping up Sports Authority, but don’t bother checking to see if Dick’s would keep the old sign in place. Because it wouldn’t. It has no intention of bringing on any negative associations. Fact is, Sports Authority and Dick’s were rivals with Sports Authority having the upper hand. But then Dick’s brought its “A” game and began presenting its merchandise better while also offering way more in the tech arena. Hence, Dick’s is not in the downward spiral in which Sports Authority finds itself with one analyst even calling it the only game in town now. Ouch. Perennial brick-and-mortar killer Amazon and friends also had a passive hand in Sports Authority’s demise. But ironically enough, deeply discounted merchandise at Sports Authority, as a result of liquidation attempts, have been hurting sales at Dicks and other sporting goods chains. Lately, anyway. But that fiscal dent will be minor and short-lived, especially when you consider that shares of Dick’s surged a bit today on the news of Sports Authority’s losing uphill battle.

Riding it out…

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About 1,000 Uber drivers in New York are going all out by forming an association (read: union) to take on Uber management. Calling itself the Amalgamated Local of Livery Employees in Solidarity, or Alles for short, this new association is, ironically, forming just as Uber celebrates its fifth anniversary this week in the Big Apple, where there are some one million active Uber riders. Alles was formed to protect and provide security for its members against all sorts of entities including insurance firms and car companies, just like unions protect employees. Except that Uber drivers are not considered employees but rather contractors. This comes after the ride-sharing app agreed to a $100 million settlement over expense claims in Californian and Massachusetts. The money, if approved by a San Francisco Federal judge, will be divided according to how many miles each Uber driver drove for the company. And while the $100 million settlement is still waiting approval from a San Francisco fedeal judge, lawyers in Florida and Illinois have filed two more class-action lawsuits against Uber claiming that the ride-sharing app violated the Fair Labor Standard Act. That’s in addition to the numerous other lawsuits staring down Uber all over the country.

Panama Paper Scandal Just Getting Started; Riding into the Pac Sun-set; How Victoria Secret Plans to Stay on Top

Paper fail…

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The Panama Papers continue their entertaining journey of embarrassing plenty of world leaders. For instance, British Prime Minister David Cameron has been haplessly defending himself after some documents in the Panama Papers unflatteringly revealed how he profited from his late father’s offshore investments, set up by scandalized Panamanian law firm, Mossack Fonseca. His father’s investment fund, Blairmor, shrewdly avoided paying taxes in the United Kingdom by having company board meetings in Switzerland and the Bahamas. Four months before David Cameron became the Prime Minister, he had the good sense to sell his stake for a not-so-whopping $42,000. The Prime Minister called the revelations a ”private matter” but then went on to say that all of his assets are totally legit.  Except it was said eloquently and with a British accent, which always makes things sound even better. Chinese Communist Party Leader Xi Jinping’s brother-in-law, in addition to a few other party members, also owned a piece of a Mossack Fonseca created shell company. But it’s doubtful Jinping’s power and status will be affected. Especially because the (shell) companies in question were conveniently gone with the wind by the time he assumed his leadership role. Interestingly, only one American has been spotted, so far, amongst the 11.5 million documents. It belongs to that of Chicago-based author Marianna Olszewski. But like I said, there are millions of documents to sift through so it could take awhile before other misbehaving Americans are discovered. Or not. These documents were from one but one firm out of hundreds or thousands of firms, both American and foreign, that perform these types of services. Besides, the U.S. is itself a tax haven. Just look no further than Nevada and Delaware. In fact, the U.S. is ranked as the world’s third most popular tax haven. Panama is much less popular, ranking way down at number 13.

Not so gnarly…

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SoCal-based company PacSun is the latest retailer to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy after posting a $10 million net loss in its fourth quarter. The retailer only managed to nail a profit in just one quarter out of the last six. Add to that increased competition and you’ve got a whole big fiscal mess. But fear not, if you’re a frequent PacSun shopper, as there will be “no immediate impact” on customers at any of the chains approximate 600 stores. As for the retailer’s 2000 employees, their jobs are safe…for now, anyway. Pac Sun, incidentally, also carries the Kendall and Kylie Jenner line, just in case you felt like handing over your hard-earned cash to the Kardashian/Jenner/Kanye clan. Private investment firm Golden Gate will be the lucky group to take PacSun back to being a privately-held company. The investment firm previously lent Pac Sun $60 million back in 2011 and will now magically turn 65% of the company’s debt into equity. Okay, so there’s no magic involved, but there’s definitely some creative math at work. After its bankruptcy reorganization, the company will secure a $100 million revolving line of credit from Wells Fargo. The skate/surf California retailer owes plenty of cash to creditors including $5.7 million to Nike and another $3.8 million to Simon Property Group Inc., the mall operator that is home to many a PacSun stores. Shares of the company plunged as much as 97% in the past 12 months and took another nasty dive today, losing over 40% of its value at one point, as it hit 5 cents. The retailer will join a long and less-than-illustrious list of retailers who also recently filed Chapter 11, including Quiksilver, American Apparel, Wet Seal, Delia’s, Sports Authority…well, you get the grim picture.

In on the secret…

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Victoria’s Secret (VS) is one retailer that is most definitely NOT filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The company is actually at the top its fiscal game, posting a 3% sales gain over the previous year and record sales for 2015. But that isn’t stopping the insanely recognizable brand from making some pre-emptive changes, lest the retail climate fiscally change at some inconvenient point. Unfortunately, those changes involve some restructuring that will leave 200 employees without jobs in both the company’s New York and Ohio offices. Victoria’s Secret, whose parent company is L Brands, wants to streamline its operations by separating and concentrating on its top three units: lingerie, beauty and, of course, teen-centric brand, PINK. So what becomes of all the rest of Victoria’s Secret’s other categories of merchandise? They’re going buh-bye. VS, which also owns Bath & Body Works, plans to gradually shift gears away from its iconic catalog. Apparently, the internet managed to make the catalog, among other sales methods, a virtual relic – no pun intended.

Economy Cools on Coal; Saving Chipotle One Burrito at a Time; Morgan Stanley Made a Mistake and Admits It!

Hot or coal?

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Feel free to play it naughty this year as Santa may not be able to scrounge up some coal to put in your stocking anyway. That’s because Peabody Energy, the largest American coal miner, might just be going bust, joining a slew of other coal companies. The company announced that it will be delaying a $71 million interest payment that’s due this week – and that, my friends, often signals that a company could be on the brink of filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Not that this would come as any great surprise since the stock lost over 95% of its value in the last twelve months and today tanked over 40%. Two years ago the company’s stock hit a high of $299.10. Now it’s barely hanging on as it closed at $2.20 today. The fact is that the global economy is slow enough to wreak havoc on major industries, in this case, coal. Only 33% of power came from coal in 2015. The coal industry has had to contend with stricter environmental standards that have put a major crimp in production. With natural gas being used more and more, seeing as how its cheaper and less polluting, several other coal companies have already gone under. And while nobody is crying over less pollution, it does mean that thousands of people will be out of jobs. Tens of thousands. As for Peabody Energy, the company has thirty days to make that $71 million or face default.

Burritos for all….

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It appears all is not lost at Chipotle as the food joint managed to recoup about 30% of its sales with the help of some free food – burritos, in fact. There is a lot of irony at work here. According to Chipotle CFO Jack Hartung, “Free burritos—turns out it works. It brings people into the restaurants.” It’s a good thing something is bringing folks back into the restaurants after that ugly E.Coli outbreak that sent millions of customers scrambling as far away from the restaurants as possible. As part of the company’s turnaround plan, Chipotle sent out coupons for free burritos to about 7 million customers. Then it decided that maybe sending out 21 million more coupons might not be such a bad idea. It wasn’t since 5.3 million customers already downloaded the first coupon and then, 2.5 million actually walked into a Chipotle, picked up their free burrito and, presumably, purchased a couple of other items off the menu as well. Hey, once you get ’em in the door…In any case, this quarter marked the first time that Chipotle actually forecasted a quarterly loss. Ever. Naturally, the company is still reeling from the losses over the outbreak. However, it’s also expecting to incur some heavy expenses for marketing and, of course, free burritos.

Um, about that price target…

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Wall Street insiders made a mistake and they are actually admitting it. Analysts at Morgan Stanley used to just love LinkedIn and thought the world of the platform. But that love has waned and thus the brokerage has downgraded the stock, savagely slashing the price target from $190 to $125. After all, LinkedIn’s earnings didn’t impress. Far from it, in fact, and the stock has gone down a whopping 54% in just the last three months. Morgan Stanley analyst Brian Nowak eloquently said of LinkedIn, “With its current product offering, LinkedIn isn’t likely to be as big of a platform as we previously thought.” That was harsh, I tell you. And just like that, shares of the company went down on all because the brokerages had a fiscal change of heart.

Delia*s Final Chapter;New Mortgage Nirvana Thanks to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; Frech Toast Crunch Epic-y Comeback

Down and out…

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Delia*s is joining the ranks of the bankruptcy protected now that it has officially filed for Chapter 11. While several of Delia*s teen apparel cohorts, including Abercrombie & Fitch and Urban Outfitters, are merely posting very unfashionable earnings, Delia*s will be getting $20 million just to help liquidate and close down its stores. The retailer, to which bright-eyed teenagers once flocked, can no longer compete with the H&M’s and Forever 21’s of the world. And don’t even get me started on competing with the behemoth that is Amazon. The New York-based chain has 92 stores scattered in malls across the country. With $74 million in assets and over $32 million in debt, its no wonder that Delia*s CEO Tracy Gardner and COO Brian Lex Austin-Gemas resigned. It’s probably safe to say that no one is mourning their departure – well, except maybe for them.

It’s baaaaaaaack…

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Image courtesy of foto76/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Justin Timberlake brought sexy back so its only fair that General Mills is bringing back French Toast Crunch. Yes, my fellow cereal aficionados, the dark days are behind us as the maker of Cheerios, Yoplait and Progresso Soups has finally found the wherewithal to bring us back our French Toast Crunch. The sister cereal to the ubiquitous and oft-loved Cinnamon Toast Crunch has been absent from grocery shelves in the United States for almost a decade – I shutter to think. With the invasion of Greek yogurt and fast-food wars breaking out, the cereal was unceremoniously discontinued as other alternatives shoved their way onto the breakfast scene. But consumer demand brought General Mills to its corporate knees, together with an online petition and a Facebook page dedicated to resurrecting the sweet, breakfast sesnation. Besides, General Mills figures those kids who group in the nineties downing French Toast Crunch are now at that age where they are paying for their own cereal now (at least they should be) and can buy it themselves (at least they should be).

3% down with that?

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Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

There are some very lucky soon-to-be first-time homeowners milling about thanks to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. New terms established by the companies are allowing applicants to put up just 3% down payment to get them into a new home. That’s down from 5%, fyi. Fannie Mae is starting to offer that deal December 13. Looking to refinance? How does reducing your equity to 3% sound? If you haven’t owned a home in three years, guess what? You still qualify.  Starting in March, Freddie Mac will let lower-income first-time home-buyers hand over a 3% down payment provided they agree to housing counseling. Melvin Watt, head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency and the dude who oversees Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, wants to spur lending to minorities and young adults because the lenders have made more stringent standards following the crash, and the tens of billion of dollars they had to pay towards lawsuits for underwriting less than ideal loans. Republicans, however, are not digging the idea, finding the whole thing too risky and eerily reminiscent of the policies that led up to that awful crash – from which the country is still not fully recovered.