Debt Collectors Are on the Hook Now; Oracle Pays Big for NetSuite; VW’s Surprising Return to the Top of the Heap

Karma time…

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The tables are turning on debt collectors and after forty years it’s about time. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has got big plans that involve some major federal oversight for an industry that has plagued tens of millions of Americans for decades. In 2015, the CFPB received a mind-blowing 85,000 complaints against the industry. So you might just find it comforting to know that debt collection agencies had to pay $136 million to the CFPB and several states over debt collection issues and sales of credit card debt. Now, before debt collectors make their first, sometimes-harrassing, phone call, they are required to substantiate the debt and gather information so as not to try and collect anything that they are not entitled to collect. Speaking of harassment, the industry will need to put the kibosh on their “excessive and disruptive” debt collection tactics or face consequences. Consumers will now even be able to request that debt collectors not contact them at work or during certain hours. Debt collectors will also be required to wait thirty days before contacting family members of a deceased consumer from whom they wish to collect. Some of the 9,000 debt collection agencies are pleased with the new regulations because they feel they will clear up ambiguities. But these are, after all, debt collectors we are talking about, and they are primarily concerned with how their costs will go up for compliance. However, they can probably afford a few upgrades given that the industry sees $13.7 billion in annual revenue with about 70 million Americans in the throes of debt collection. You see, sometimes there are happy endings. Sort of.

Silver lining…

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Oracle is throwing down some major cash to pick up cloud computing business, NetSuite. Not that industry experts are particularly surprised. After all, Larry Ellison and his family already own about 40% of NetSuite shares. The deal is valued at $9.3 billion, which comes out to approximately $109 per share with a 20% premium on Wednesday’s closing price.  Larry Ellison will get about $3.5 billion out of it. So no doubt he’s celebrating. It’s one of Oracle’s biggest deals, with one just other ahead of it. NetSuite, which was founded in 1998,  supplies cloud-based business management services for about 30,000 companies in 100 countries. The company is touted as having paved the way for cloud-based computing and was the first company to offer business web-based applications. But the time now was ripe for some change and NetSuite apparently needed a little assistance from Oracle and its global reach to grow even greater. The official press release touted the companies as complementary to each other and that they will coexist in the marketplace forever. And that is just a beautiful and moving sentiment. Naturally, shares of both NetSuite and Oracle rose today, and why shouldn’t they. When the tide is high, all boats rise.

Winner winner…

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Diesel-gate be damned. Volkswagen is now the world’s largest automaker and there’s nothing you can do about it but scratch your head and drop your jaw. Even though sales in the U.S. continue to slump – though not as bad as you might think  – the German automaker sold more cars in the first six months of 2016 than Toyota, who is used to holding the title of world’s largest automaker. Volkswagen was poised to earn the title for the full year except the unfortunate emissions scandal put the kibosh on that goal. For four years in a row, Toyota was the world’s best-selling automaker through 2015. So it’s ego is probably feeling a bit bruised right about now. GM is in third place and experts don’t think it’ll ever win the top slot. Volkswagen sold 5.12 million cars to Toyota’s 4.99 million vehicles. Toyota’s sales were down by .6% over the same period last year while Volkswagen’s sales were miraculously up 1.5%.  To be fair, an earthquake in Japan damaged one of Toyota’s plants and that incident is being blamed for its shortfall in production. But apparently U.S. consumers seem to be more offended by the emissions rigging than the rest of the world with falling U.S. sales by 7%. However, the U.S. is a relatively small market for VW who counts Europe and China as its key markets. The question, though, remains if VW can keep it up and reclaim some glory.

 

 

Sweet Beat for Mondelez; Coca Cola’s Earnings Still Have Some Fizz Left; Twitter Needs a Growth Spurt

Ore-oh well…

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Last time Mondelez came up on this blog, it was because it made a $26 billion offer to buy Hershey Co. That deal would have created the biggest confection company. Ever. Except that Hershey Co. rejected the offer. In any case, the company still managed to beat estimates, cranking out earnings with a few ups and downs. Ultimately, Mondelez pulled down a profit of $464 million with 29 cents added per share. Unfortunately, the company also reported that sales fell a whopping 18% to just $6.3 billion. Some of those falling sales are being blamed on the strong U.S. dollar and that’s especially troublesome for Mondelez since most of its revenue is generated outside of the U.S. If you recall, Mondelez makes some of our country’s most beloved snacks including Oreos, Ritz Crackers and Trident gum. But Mondelez really would have liked to add Hershey Co. to its collection since 90% of Hershey’s revenue comes from the U.S. and the deal would have significantly increased Mondelez’s much-needed U.S. exposure. Instead, Mondelez CEO Irene Rosenfeld is going to attempt to trim $3 billion in expenses. The company also plans to bring its Milka brand of chocolate to China, a market where Hershey has struggled to make a dent and, in fact, lost money on the endeavor.

Fizzle out…

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Speaking of things sweet and highly caloric, Coca Cola also reported earnings with lower than expected quarterly revenue. This time China and Latin America are the culprits. Well, partly anyway. Apparently, consumer tastes in China are switching gears from soda to more healthful choices, especially premium water. And who doesn’t like their water premium, right? Latin America is making problems for Coca Cola all because of high levels of inflation in some regions there. On the bright side, revenue in North America picked up by 2%. Too bad that’s about the only place it picked up. And it’s not just Coca Cola that’s feeling the health burn. PepsiCo is also struggling to get consumers to re-embrace it’s fizzier offerings. Coca Cola’s net income came in at $3.45 billion, up 11% from last year’s $3.12 billion.  The beverage company took in $11.5 billion in revenue with 60 cents added per share. Analysts expected $11.6 billion in revenue but 58 cents per share. However, last year at this time, Coca Cola raked in $12.16 billion, a bummer no matter how you slice it. But Coca Cola’s CEO Muhtar Kent isn’t worried and feels that his beloved soda drinkers are still out there. They’re just not drinking as much as he would like them too. The fact is, the total volume of soda consumption in the U.S. declined by 1.5% in 2015, and by .9% in 2014. Which means Mr. Kent better figure out a way to get more soda drinkers or get his current ones to kick back some more.

Grow-tesque…

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On the heels of yet another celeb controversy on its site, this time over the cyber-abuse of Ghostbusters actress, Leslie Jones, Twitter announced its latest earnings.  And no, the results did not help lift the waning spirits of investors. Apparently CEO and Co-Founder Jack Dorsey has yet to pull the rabbit out of the hat as growth was so slow it was practically backwards at a paltry 1%. Revenue came in at $602 million, which was just 20% higher than last year at this time. At least shares picked 13 cents a pop, even though analysts predicted shares would only gain a dime. Expectations, however, were for $608 million in revenue, so nobody was particularly impressed by the three cent beat. Not shockingly, the stock took a nasty fall on the news, diving as much as 14% at one point during the day, and losing as much as $1.7 billion of its market value. That leaves its current market value at $11 billion, despite its $18 billion valuation. But we’re supposed to get excited for Twitter because its got some big plans for video that its hoping will actually reverse its negative fiscal tide. Videos are Twitter’s number one ad format and so it made deals with the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB. Of course deals with the DNC and RNC are also in place since U.S. politics has turned into a veritable sporting event. But even with all that entertainment on the platform, it’s not crazy to hope for a miracle for the one-time Wall Street darling.

Lookout China! Here Comes Walmart. Again; To Brexit? Or Not to Brexit? That is the Question; Volkswagen’s Emission Impossible

Ni-hao, Walmart…

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Because Walmart isn’t big enough, the retailer has now teamed up with China’s number two e-commerce site to take on…China. Alibaba, in case you hand’t heard, holds the illustrious top spot. In any case, Walmart will be selling its commerce marketplace in China to JD.com and in return Walmart will gain about 5% of JD.com’s total shares, which comes out to about 145 million shares, give or take. Those shares are said be valued at about $3 billion, depending on whom you ask. By the way, in terms of revenue growth, JD.com has outpaced Alibaba for almost the last two years. Walmart currently has a marketplace platform in place in China called Yihaodian, but JD.com will be taking it over in hopes of finally achieving some solid retail love in China, which has eluded the mega-tailer, thus far. Walmart’s thinking positive thoughts that this deal will help increase its market-share in one of the biggest economies in the world. Walmart opened its first store in China back in 1996, yet it is a bit bummed because it only has about 430 stores there as expansion in China has been underwhelming.

Hail or not to the Brexit?

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June 23rd’s Brexit vote is just around the corner so it would be prudent to discuss why the U.S. should care about British politics, even if its politicians aren’t nearly as entertaining as ours. So, in case you hadn’t heard, at issue is whether Britain should exit from the EU. Hence, the term “Brexit.” Catchy, huh? Brexit advocates cherish their sovereignty and find that as a member of the EU, they don’t find themselves enjoying their sovereignty quite the way they’d like. While that is awfully patriotic, there are major MAJOR economic drawbacks to a Brexit. British Prime Minister David Cameron is worried that a Brexit will hurt wages and usher in an era of uncertain economic stability. Economists and other assorted experts on the matter are worried that the pound, Britain’s currency, will plunge in value, should Britain make a run for it. A plunge in value of a currency is never a good thing, especially for the country whose currency is sent plunging. Of course, tourists and others buying Bristish goods and services might not mind that so much since everything for sale there would become a relative bargain. It’s also important to consider the potential epic losses for Americans whose economic interests are heavily dependent on exports to the U.K. But there are also plenty of other Americans who might become inclined to ditch their investments and other economic opportunities in Britain as well. An exit from the EU would require all sorts of new trade agreements – for everyone  – and those things just take forever to draw up. Britain’s interests would almost certainly take a back seat to the bigger and more profitable interests of the loftier EU. As of now, there are no tariffs between the 27 members of the EU. A Brexit would change that for Britain and make tariffs a way of life, together with high tea and Harrod’s. So I guess it’s a good sign – just not for Brexit advocates – that polls show a Brexit isn’t likely.  The British sterling rose and one of its indexes, the FTSE  (rhymes with tootsie) also picked up some steam as a result of the anti-Brexit poll numbers.

Smelling a rat…

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Ex-Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn is under investigation, which probably shocks no one. He is under investigation because German prosecutors suspect that Winterkorn violated securities laws since he waited too long to disclose to investors the potential cost of the ugly emissions scandal that continues to plague the auto maker. If you recall, the EPA is more than a bit peeved that Volkswagen manipulated results of emissions tests on its vehicles, with more than 11 million diesel vehicles poisoning the air we breathe. Winterkorn apparently knew about the emissions problems for over a year before he made any comments on it. He should have said something well before September 22, 2015. But he didn’t. And herein lies the problem. Even if he did resign days later. Of course, blame games in major companies have become somewhat of a sport, or in this case, a veritable comedy. Executives at the company are pointing fingers at a handful of mid-level employees – I kid you not – and assume that the public is going to believe them when they say that top management were completely oblivious to emissions manipulations taking place right under their executive-polished noses. Incidentally, there is another executive who is also under investigation but his/her identity has yet to be revealed. What has been revealed is that it is not ex-Volkwagen CFO Hans Dieter Poetsch. Lucky him.  According to the investigation, 17 people are said to be involved. But in the meantime, hundreds of lawsuits continue to mount against Volkswagen, and the car company has plans to pony up a $10 billion settlement in the U.S. come June 28.

Jeff Bezos Hearts India; Lululemon’s Zen-tastic Earnings; Is Your CEO Listed? You Better Hope So

Next. Big. Thing…

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India is looking very flush these days as Amazon’s Jeff Bezos decided to throw $3 billion at it. That’s in addition to the $2 billion he gave the southeast Asian country back in 2014. He made this announcement at a meeting of business leaders in Washington DC that included Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The reason why Bezos is showing India a lot of fiscal love is that it is Amazon’s fastest growing region, boasting 21 fulfillment centers and 45,000 employees. In other words, the e-commerce giant is banking on the “huge potential in the Indian economy.” Interestingly enough, Amazon can only sell its wares from its website through a third party, as mandated by Indian law. But that hasn’t been much of a problem for the e-tailer, who ironically, never seemed to adapt as easily to the local Chinese marketplace, and continues to struggle there and against the giant we call Alibaba. It’s worth noting that Amazon is not the only game in town, facing fierce competition from local e-commerce businesses, Flipkart and Snapdeal. But Amazon’s not sweating it since according to Morgan Stanley, it is estimated that consumers in India bought $16 billion worth of goods last year, more than $10.3 billion from the previous year. So clearly, there’s plenty of room on the Indian e-commerce playing field.

Lemonade mouth…

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Lululemon beat estimates and even raised its 2016 revenue forecast. So why is its founder and largest shareholder, Chip Wilson, in a snit? He’s probably still licking his executive wounds after being booted from his post for making stupid comments, among other short-comings. In a letter to shareholders last week, the 14.2% stakeholder ripped into the current directors because he feels that they can’t keep up the pace against other athletic apparel companies like Nike and Under Armour, to name a few. Wilson would like it very much if there was an annual election that would make the board of directors accountable for earnings results and, presumably, get him reinstated as CEO. As it stands, the current leadership, helmed by Laurent Potdevin, would probably be delighted to be held accountable for Lululemon’s latest earnings considering how well it performed. Sure, the retailer missed profits by just a penny, falling 5% to $45.3 million, yet still earning 30 cents a share. But shares are still up 27% for the year and the company had strong sales this quarter. It also found a way to control its inventory levels and, in the process, saw its revenue rise 17% to $495.5 million when analysts only thought it would pull down $487.7. So perhaps it’s time for Wilson to keep his thoughts to himself and just enjoy his burgeoning majority stake.

In case you were wondering…

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Glassdoor came out with its latest annual list, this time regaling us with the highest rated CEO’s. Bain & Company’s Bob Becheck tops the list with a 99% approval rating. Employees seemed to appreciate the support they receive from their boss, not to mention the company’s focus on professional development. And who doesn’t mind professional encouragement? But while Becheck scored the number one spot, two other CEO’s also received 99% approval ratings. So congrats to Ultimate Software’s Scott Scherr and McKinsey and Company’s Dominic Barton. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg kept his number 4 ranking from last year, while LinkedIn’s Jeff Weiner took fifth. Larry Page’s replacement at Google, Sundar Pichai, earned a 96% approval rating and the number seven spot, while Apple’s Tim Cook came in 8th, also with a 96% approval rating. Four women paved the way on this list, including Staffmark’s Lesa J. Francis, who took the 28th spot with a 94% approve rating, and Enterprise Holdings’ Pamela M. Nicholson, who graces the list at the number 31 spot, also with a 94% approval rating.

George Soros, Golden Boy; Home Run for Home Depot; Pandora’s Streaming Away From Profits

Just because George Soros is doing it…

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George Soros just put a whole lotta money in gold. Lucky for him. However, the non-George Soroses of the world are supposed to take note, because, after all, he is, “The Man Who Broke the Bank of England.” And also because, since his net worth according to Forbes is $25 billion, he knows a things or two. Or a billion. In any case, according to a very recent regulatory filing that folks like him have to file (it’s called a 13F, and you are welcome that I am sparing you the boring details), Mr. Soros has sold off about 37% of his stock holdings. He then whipped out $387 million to buy lots of gold, including picking up a hefty 19 million shares in Barrick Gold, the world’s largest gold producer. It seems Mr. Soros is a more than a bit freaked out by the state of the global economy, and especially the slowdown in China. He feels the fiscal climate is reminiscent to him of 2007 – 2008 period just before the fiscal crash we are all still trying to forget. Not everyone agrees with Soros and his decision for his Soros Fund Management, but hey, he is the one who, back in 1992, bet against the British pound and made $1 billion off that bet – in a single day. I bet he’s real popular there. Anyway, it’s no secret that gold has always been a strong performer on Wall Street, as well as other places, mind you. The precious metal is up 21% for the year. But, just so ya’ know,  Soros still has plenty of other cash in plenty of other places. Like eBay and Apple. And Yahoo. And Gap…well, you see where I’m going with this. In fact, he’s got $80 million invested NOT in gold. In case you’re wondering what stocks he did ditch, some of those include Alibaba Group and Pfizer. Also, TripAdvisor and Expedia are out of his portfolio. Though, he did keep airline United Continental Holdings. Go figure.

Home improvement…

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As the warm weather brutalized plenty of retail outfits lately, (sorry, Macy’s, Nordstrom), Mother Nature knocked it out of the park for Home Depot. In turn, Home Depot warmed our hearts by boosting its sales and profit forecasts after regaling us with the news of its better-than-expected earnings, courtesy of Mother Nature. And as we all know, Wall Street loves nothing better than better-than-expected earnings. Except when investors feel that shares have hit their potential, for the moment anyway, which explains why shares of the home improvement chain were a wee bit down today. But no worries. A good housing market and fabulous weather added some $250 million in sales for Home Depot in the quarter, with February being the sweetest month, fiscally speaking. For the year, Home Depot is up about 20%, posting a profit of $1.8 billion a $1.44 per share. That was a 14% boost over last year, not to mention that it trumped analysts predictions of $1.36 per share. The company also saw $22.76 billion in sales, again stomping on predictions of $22.39 billion. The earnings also showed that consumers are actually spending their hard-earned cash, as opposed to hoarding it under mattresses (okay, banks too), unlike what was previously thought because of the generally poor performance in the retail sector. Spending money is good for the economy and now economists aren’t so worried anymore because they realize where all that hard-earned cash went. For the full year the retailer thinks it’ll pull down $6.27 per share for the year. And Spring has hardly sprung!

Closing the box…

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Pandora Media has had better years. Even better decades. Founded in 2000, the company had its IPO in 2011 and has about 80 million active users. While it was amongst the first crop of music streamers, the company’s stock is now down about 40% for the last twelve months, having never caught the same momentum as some of its competitors, including Apple and Spotify. Enter activist investor/Carl Icahn protégé Keith Meister, who feels that the time has come for Pandora to put itself on the market. Keith Meister’s Corvex Management has some very strong feelings about how much better – and profitable – Pandora can be and seeing as how he’s got 22.7 million shares, giving him an almost 10% stake in the company, he’s entitled to more than just his opinion on the matter. As the largest shareholder in the company, Meister wrote in a recent letter how he has “become increasingly concerned that the company may be pursuing a costly and uncertain business plan, without a thorough evaluation of all shareholder value-maximizing alternatives.” Basically, he’s wondering if the folks in charge, namely CEO and co-founder Tim Westergren, knows what they’re doing. Wall Street certainly seemed to be agreeing with Meister, as it sent the stock up today as much as 7% at one point.

Rate Hike? What Rate Hike?; Chipotle’s Rocky Road to Recovery; McCormick’s Spicy Good Earnings

Easy does it?

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Well, if you’re looking for the Fed to raise rates, don’t hold your breath. Despite the fact that the Fed’s next meeting is planned for April 26th and 27th, experts think a move like that probably wont happen before July. It was initially believed that there would be four rate hikes over the course of the year, after the Fed raised the rates for the first time in nine years back in December. But now it looks like there will be just two.  Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen is still promising a gradual pace of rate increases, but even she admits that the economic climate just isn’t quite impressing these days. The Central Bank is paying very close attention to all the annoying economic issues going on in the world, like the global economic slump, the very very low oil prices and a relatively volatile stock market. Of course, it wouldn’t be right not to mention China’s own economic downturn.  Plus the Fed’s not too stoked about the rate of inflation, which has been holding steady at about 1% when its target is closer to a 2% rate. Add to that weak consumer spending and you’ve got a Fed that’s not looking to stir any fiscal trouble. Hence, the Fed has assured the country that it plans to “proceed cautiously” in its rate hike plans, which is awfully considerate, according to some people, anyway.

Burned burrito…

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Free burritos or not, Chiptole’s road to fiscal recovery is looking very far off.  Wedbush Securities analyst Nick Setyan came out with a new report that says he doesn’t expect the fast food chain to recover before 2018 – calling it “the best case-scenario” – and even lowered Chipotle’s price target from $450 – $400. Ouch. Before the food safety crisis, each Chipotle restaurant was pulling down $2.5 million in sales on average. But that’s not expected to happen again for quite some time, especially given the fact that Chipotle’s operating costs are only going to get higher and higher because of its more comprehensive and stringent food safety measures. And even though the company sent out coupons for nine million free burritos, with another 21 million free burrito vouchers en route, Chipotle will still eat a $62 million tab for that, as a burrito typically costs $7.10. But hey, whatever it takes to try and erase the ugliness of E. Coli and norovirus outbreaks, right? Even with all those vouchers being sent out, the company only expects that a quarter of them will actually get redeemed. Naturally, news of the report sent shares south when the stock is already down 37% since August. Shares of Chipotle closed today at 460.10.

Spice spice baby…

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Of all the companies to report earnings lately, this one’s pretty…spicy. Yes. I had to go there. McCormick & Co. just released its first quarter results and considering that the company’s products aren’t items typically used in bulk, the $13 billion company pulled in some very impressive figures. In the process, McCormick & Co. even managed to raise its 2016 outlook, and unlike other major food producers that have been struggling to keep up with a health/organic revolution,  McCormick hasn’t faced quite the same challenges. In fact, its stock is up around 28% in the last twelve months with a little help from some recent acquisitions. The spice-maker was expecting to earn between $3.65 to $3.72 per share. But now it’s looking like it’ll pick up between $3.68 and $3.75 per share for the year. Incidentally, despite China’s economic downturn, the country still managed to give McCormick some boffo growth. Perhaps there’s a correlation between economic stress and and a desire for spicy food? Hmm. Will have to explore that one…In any case, McCormick picked up a profit of $93.4 million on $1.03 billion in revenue and adding 73 cents per share. Analysts only expected 69 cents on $1.03 billion in revenue while the year before the company took in a profit of $70.5 million on $1.01 billion in revenue with 55 cents added per share. And if that’s not enough, McCormick also scored a new 52 week high today of 99.90.

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

Rotten to the core…

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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…

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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…

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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?

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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…

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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…

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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.

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!

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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…

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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…

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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.

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.