VW Has Some Arresting; Mars Inc. Has Gone to the Dogs; Alibaba Woos Trump

Arrested development…

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The FBI made its second arrest in the Volkswagen Emissions Scandal. Which is sort of reassuring considering that it seemed like the responsible parties were going to skate free. But there is no skating in the future for Volkswagen executive Oliver Schmidt, whose being charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States. His job title, ironically, is “General Manager of the Engineering and Environmental Office for Volkswagen America.”  However, the environment was apparently the last thing on his mind when he allegedly involved himself in the plan to install secret software, known as “defeat devices,” into some 475,000 diesel cars in the United States. If you recall, this naughty software allowed VW automobiles to cheat exhaust emissions tests. The affected vehicles were emitting 40 times the legally allowable amount of pollution levels. VW has yet to comment on the arrests but did say that it was cooperating with the Department of Justice – which seems like a prudent move.  The automobile company is thisclose to settling some of those criminal and civil allegations that has cost it billions so far, not to mention a $15 billion settlement that involves repairing or buying back the compromised vehicles. As for the Detroit Auto show this week, VW executives will be noticeably absent, but presumably, not missed. The first person arrested in the scandal, Robert Liang, already pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government.

Out of this world…

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Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Mars Inc., maker of the beloved Snickers bar, just announced it’s buying animal hospital VCA Inc, adding 800 pet hospitals to its 900 animal clinics. But don’t go choking on your candy bar just yet if you think pet care and confections don’t mesh to your liking. You needn’t see the logic. Only the math. Last year, $13.7 billion worth of chocolate was sold which was barely more than the previous year. But pet food is projected to grow at an annual rate of 2.5% over the next five years. Mars Inc already had a big 18% chunk of the pet care industry as of 2015 and owns the brands Whiskas and Pedigree, besides the pet hospitals. People spent an estimated $63 billion on pet related goods and services this past  year – a number that has grown 60% over just a decade ago. So VCA fits right into Mars’s lucrative, yet diverse portfolio. Oh, and by the way, Nestle owns Purina. Mars picked up VCA for over $9 billion at approximately $93 per share – more than a 30% premium -and the new company will become Mars Petcare. How’s that Snickers tasting now?

“Big sticks” and stones…

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Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Everybody’s favorite Chinese e-commerce giant CEO, Jack Ma, had a very interesting meeting with President-elect Donald Trump today. The Chinese billionaire, would like very much to create a million jobs, right here in the United States, particularly in the Midwest. How very gallant of him, especially since there are all these icky growing tensions between China and the United States, courtesy of Donald Trump.  Ma is looking to grow trade so that small businesses and farmers in the U.S. can sell their goods and wares to Chinese consumers. A win-win for everyone, no? But of course there is that one big sticking point – Trump, or rather his plans to slap high tariffs on Chinese imports. An editorial in one of the China’s Communist Party’s newspapers read: “There are flowers around the gate of China’s Ministry of Commerce, but there are also big sticks hidden inside the door — they both await Americans.” I’m guessing China is stocking up on sticks here.

It’s About to Go Down Between Aetna and the Dept. of Justice; Target in Need of Retail Therapy; Barnes and Noble Has a Job Opening. If You Dare.

Put up your dukes…

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Image courtesy of iosphere/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

And the gloves are off between the Department of Justice and Aetna. Aetna announced it would be reducing its role in the Obamacare exchange, stopping to sell individual insurance, and the Justice Department was apparently warned about such actions last month. You see, because ACA has been costing insurance companies so much money, Aetna wanted to scoop up rival Humana to help absorb costs. But the Justice Department was against the merger over concerns that it would increase prices for consumers and limit competition – your typical antitrust concerns. In a letter to the Justice Department dated July 5, Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini made it abundantly clear that Aetna  would drop out of the Obamacare exchange if the merger did not go his way. It didn’t. And so here we are. Aetna crticics have cried extortion and threats. Aetna , however, calls it a strategic business decision after eating a $200 million loss in its second quarter. Insurers feel that mergers alleviate the enormous costs brought on by Obamacare. They argue that Obamacare has put a major dent in their economics and the government is not holding up its end of the bargain to help mitigate the situation.

Buyer’s remorse…

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Target has missed its target in what the company called a “difficult retail environment.” Well, for Target anyway. The sixth largest retailer cut its full-year fiscal profit after quarterly sales fell more than expected. One of the culprits was a smaller demand for its tech offerings, specifically Apple products. Of course, it’s to be expected that the company is constantly losing ground to Amazon. After all, who isn’t? The company has also been making a push to redo its grocery division by bringing in more organics, gourmet and healthful offerings. That endeavor hasn’t quite hits its stride. And that’s a problem since Target’s grocery division accounts for a fifth of the company’s revenue. Target did turn up a profit of $680 million. Too bad it was a 10% decrease over the same time last year. Sales were down 7.2% to $16.2 billion which was almost on par with estimates. CEO Brian Cornell griped that customer visits went down and now expects a profit range of $4.80 – $5.20, when before it was between $5.20 – $5.40.  It seems his turnaround plan is taking a bit longer to actually um,…turn. In other Target developments, to address its transgender-bathroom policy, the retailer is plunking down $20 million to install single stall bathrooms to its remaining stores that don’t already have them.

Buh-bye…

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Shelve this one under history as Barnes and Noble booted its CEO Ronald D. Boire. The bookseller felt the exec, who had the job for not quite a year, was “not a good fit.” However, to be fair, he did previously fit in at Brookstone, Best Buy, Sony and Sears Canada. Executive chairman  Leonard Riggio will take over until a more permanent replacement can be found and Riggio can finally begin his much-anticipated retirement.  The board said of Boire’s untimely departure that the decision was in “best interest of all parties for him to leave the company.” Ouch. In B&N’s most recent quarter – under Boire – the company took in $876.6 million. Impressive, right? Wrong. B&N took in $910 million the year before. It also lost $30.6 million, far more than the $19.6 million it lost during the same time last year. As efforts to trim costs and turn the company around have yet to yield any meaningful results, shares of the company have also managed to tank to its lowest price in eight months. While B&N has 640 stores dotting the planet, it is still losing ground to that animal we call Amazon. And once again, who isn’t?

 

Obama Dashes Pfizer/Allergan Inversion Dreams; Oil-Vey: The Wrath of the DOJ; Verizon Gets Awesome(ness);

Breaking up is hard to do…

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Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Pfizer can kiss its $160 billion merger with Allergan goodbye all thanks to some new treasury rules that seemed to have been designed just with this particular deal in mind. President Obama unveiled the new rules that make it harder for corporations to do inversions and basically make them not fiscally worth it. The rules make sure to target “serial inverters” which are foreign companies that became corporate giants by buying up American companies for tax reduction purposes. President Obama and the Treasury are trying to end corporate inversions and calls the practice “one of the most insidious tax loopholes out there, fleeing the country just to get out of paying their taxes.” Plenty of American companies have moved parts of their operations to countries where the corporate tax rates are more hospitable and essentially reincorporate in those places. The Pfizer/Allergan deal would have been the largest deal of its kind and would have effectively knocked off a $1 billion chunk of change from Pfizer’s corporate tax bill. Which explains why Pfizer was so eager to do its deal with Ireland-based Allergan. According to President Obama, global tax avoidance is a “huge problem.” So is climate change and the roster of presidential candidates, by the way, but Obama was only able to do something to curtail inversions. Just saying. Now experts suspect other foreign companies with large American operations will fall under the microscope and things could get ugly for them as well. Pfizer will now have to pay Allergan $150 million to reimburse the company for expenses from the deal that wasn’t. At least its not as much as the $1.6 billion AbbVie had to pay Shire back in 2014 when that $55 billion deal fell apart. Why Congress can’t make the corporate tax rate just as hospitable in the United States as it is in other countries, and maybe even attract foreign companies to come here and pay billions in taxes is a mystery to me. If someone has an answer, I’d love to hear it.

Oil drink to that…

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Image courtesy of renjith krishnan/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Pharmaceutical Corporations aren’t the only ones displeased the with the U.S. government today. Enter two of Big Oil’s biggest players who have some unkind thoughts for the Department of Justice. Halliburton and Baker Hughes happen to be the second and third largest oil companies and control 15.8% of the market share. Together, the two companies pulled down a combined revenue of $39.3 billion. Halliburton alone scored over a $5 billion profit for 2014. But in 2015, the oil giant didn’t fare nearly as well and instead posted a $165 million loss with a major decline in revenue. The drop in oil prices have left dozens of oil companies filing for bankruptcy as hundreds of thousands of people in the industry are now without jobs. Halliburton and Baker Hughes think a merger would help keep both of them from going under but the DOJ is not buying it. The DOJ says anti-trust is written all over this deal, calls it anti-competitive and feels it would make the newly-formed entity way too powerful. The DOJ argues that the deal would lead to much much higher prices and consumers would be at the mercy of the companies. But maybe Baker Hughes can console itself with the $3.5 billion break-up fee it gets to collect from Halliburton now that the deal won’t be going through. At least for now…

Everything is awesome…

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As wireless companies hunt for new ways to make money, Verizon figured out one way to do it – through the very hip and very lucrative teen demographic. So like any eager telecom giant, it found a business to buy that it hopes will help them pull in some of more cash. Enter AwesomenessTV, a company that’s home to some of YouTube’s most popular channels and features all sorts of short videos, from dating advice to celebrities. Verizon plunked down $160 million for a 24.5% stake in the company that boasts 3.6 million subscribers. DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc already owns a 51% stake while Hearst Corp owns the remaining stake. DreamWorks Animation was prescient enough to buy AwesomenessTV back in 2013 for the bargain price of just $33 million. This new deal puts AwesomenessTV’s latest valuation at a very cool $650 million. Part of the deal includes Verizon creating a mobile video service for the endeavor and it will be a part of Verizon’s go90 mobile video app – which of course, will be exclusive to Verizon.  Double boom for Verizon because there tends to be lots of juicy revenue in mobile video that comes from both data usage and advertising. AwesomenessTV already had an exclusive deal with Verizon to provide content for go90 so this new development ought to fit in nicely. DreamWorks Animation’s Jeffrey Katzenberg must also be pretty stoked about the deal since he expects annual revenue for AwesomenessTV to double because of it.

Nothing to Chirp About at Twitter; Lumber Liquidators Earnings Nearly Hit the Floor; Ben Bernanke’s Impressive Resume

Chirp…

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Image courtesy of Mr-Vector7/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

What’s worse? Having your earnings leaked prematurely or the fact that those earnings were so bad? Hmmm. This one’s a toss up. Either way, Twitter’s bummed on all ends. Earnings reports are released only after the closing bell or right before the opening bell giving traders/investors/wannabes a chance to study the numbers and figure out how to proceed. Twitter’s “inadvertently” pre-maturely released earnings, which occurred on its very own platform, sent the stock south 20% and even caused trading of the stock to be suspended for a period. But that was only Twitter’s second worst day ever.  As for the horrible numbers, sales are actually up 74% over the previous year but the problem – and it’s a big one – is that Twitter’s growth rate is not up. User growth grew 18% to 302 million active users. But last month it grew 20%. Those figures are only supposed to go up. Never down. And herein lies one of social media company’s many many problems. Another is that CEO Dick Costolo’s credibility has come under fire and here’s why: It seems he didn’t see the writing on the wall, namely that all signs were pointing to a major slowdown.

Floor-ed…

Image courtesy of Serge Bertasius Photography/FreeDigitalPotos.net

Image courtesy of Serge Bertasius Photography/FreeDigitalPotos.net

Things at Lumber Liquidators keep getting worse as the company reported its first quarter earnings and to the surprise of no one, the company took a loss of $7.9 million and 29 cents per share on $260 million in revenue. I have to wonder if analysts didn’t hear about the scathing “60 Minutes” report that accused the company of selling formaldehyde-laced flooring because they expected the company to at least gain 15 cents a share. To give you an idea of just how bad those earnings really are, last year at this time the company took in a profit of $13.7 million and 49 cents a share. In case you were wondering how the company even made any money this quarter, most of it comes from January and February, before the damning piece even ran on March 1. Much of those losses are because of all those legal and professional fees the company has been shelling out to defend itself. But it’s safe to assume that people also are probably not buying from a company that would allow toxins to make their way into the company’s products. And the trouble just keeps coming. Lumber Liquidators says it is aware of the over 100 pending class action lawsuits against it. Even the Department of Justice has entered the fray seeking criminal charges against the company under the Lacey Act. Oh and one more thing, its CFO, Daniel Terrell, needs to brush up his resume as he’s leaving the company.

Ben…

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Ben Bernanke’s LinkedIn profile seems to be filling up nicely. First he took a position as a distinguished fellow in residence at the Brookings Institution. Then he picked up a consulting gig at hedge fund, Citadel. Now, the former Federal Reserve Chairman has some new West Coast digs, thanks to PIMCO, who just announced that Mr. Bernanke would be joining its ranks as a senior adviser. PIMCO could definitely use Mr. Bernanke’s guidance right about now as investors have pulled about $100 billion from the fund following the departures of Co-Chief-Investment Officers, Bill Gross and Mohamed El-Erians last year. The former fed chairman will still have plenty of cash to play with as PIMCO handles about $1.59 trillion and runs the world’s biggest mutual fund. He’ll even get to “engage” with clients, which should help win back some of that $100 billion and assuage the fears of those finicky investors.

Is it Formally Formaldehyde From Lumber Liquidators; Adidas Who? Carrie Underwood Kicking the Right Game for Dick’s; Best Buy’s Electricfying Earnings

Wood you mind?

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Image courtesy of scottchan/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Just a day after a scathing “60 Minutes” report that accused Lumber Liquidators of selling products containing excessively high amounts of formaldehyde, the stock rallied today. Just not as much as the 25% hit it took yesterday. The company stands accused, by “60 Minutes” anyway, of selling Chinese-made flooring containing formaldehyde at much higher levels than what is acceptable and, for that matter, legal. The company, however, said the claims are “overblown” and went on to cast doubt on the “60 Minutes” report, pointing out that no victims were “highlighted,” no feedback was provided from regulators and the piece “relied on anonymous Chinese factory workers making accusatory statements.” Hence, analysts were able to send the stock rallying today. Lumber Liquidators has 318 stores in the U.S. and Canada. Incidentally (or not), the Department of Justice may also be filing criminal charges against the company for violating import laws.  Naturally, Lumber Liquidators said, “We stand by every single plank of wood and laminate we sell around the country.” Aw. Now if we could just know for sure if those planks are gonna kill us or not.

Losing your stripes…

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Image courtesy of woravit.w/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Some big changes are in store for Dick’s Sporting Goods come Thursday and they’ve got Carrie Underwood’s name written all over them. Literally. The American Idol winner and country music superstar is launching her very own “athleisure” brand, “Calia by Carrie Underwood.” And yes, “athleisure” is a real thing. However, in order to give the athletic apparel line the attention it deserves, Dick’s will be chucking its Adidas and Reebok lines (remember that one? Adidas owns it). While sales of women’s athletic apparel has been outpacing men’s, Adidas’ sales have been taking a big hit in the United States for some time now. People just aren’t digging the brand’s traditional looks that it keeps churning out. So goodbye Adidas. Hello Carrie! Or Calia!

Take that Amazon!

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Image courtesy of patrisyu/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Best Buy had a rockin’ good quarter thanks to people shelling out tons of money for big screen televisions and mobile phones. The electronics retailer reported its overall fourth quarter revenue was up 1.3% to $14.2 billion. Analysts were actually expecting $14.34 billion but for that minor failing we look no further than the strong U.S. dollar and some store closures in Canada (almost makes you think of Target, doesnt it?).  So why exactly was it rockin’? The company picked up a 77%  profit increase at $1.47 per share when analysts only expected a $1.35 gain per share. Even better, shareholders get to rake in a 51 cent per share dividend some time in April.  In case you were wondering where that mysterious “installation” charge on your bill came from, well, just take a look at Best Buy’s 3.2% revenue increase in the U.S. alone, not to mention its $519 million profit and voila – your phone bill financed Best Buy’s impressive digits by spreading out your mobile payments. Clearly, Best Buy didn’t have this lucrative little plan in place last year as it only pulled in $293 million. But hey, at least you get an upgrade soon, right?

Morgan Stanley Finally Owns Up to All the Trouble It Caused; It’s a Darn Claim Unemployment Filings Are Up; Sears is Losing It

It was just a matter of time…

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Image courtesy of dream designs/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Morgan Stanley is taking a bit of a beating today on Wall Street now that it has finally finally settled with the Department of Justice over its shady little role leading up to the 2008 financial crisis. Morgan Stanley reached a deal with the DOJ  that’ll have the bank paying $2.6 billion to get Uncle Sam off its back.  Attorney General Eric Holder and the DOJ will graciously end their probe into whether Morgan Stanley duped investors by telling them how very great their home loans were when in fact, they were anything but. This settlement is sure to put a major dent in MorganStanley’s 2014 profits. By major, I mean it’ll eat up nearly 50% of what MorganStanley got to take home in 2014. It officially lands Morgan Stanley on that illustrious list of banks who also had to shell out billion dollar settlements to the DOJ for their smarmy actions leading up to and during the 2008 financial crisis, including  – but not limited to –  Bank of America who reigns the top spot with a $16.7 billion payout. It’s followed by JPMorgan Chase which holds the number two spot for its $13 billion settlement. Citigroup rounds out the group with a $7 billion settlement.

Don’t stake this claim… 

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Image courtesy of renjith krishnan/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The number of people filing jobless claims went up. Not down. But up. The number climbed to 313,000 people instead of a projected 290,000. While the news is a bit of drag, economists  – who presumably know a thing or two  – are telling us that we can’t work ourselves up into a collective panic over one month’s lousy numbers. At least for now, anyway. First, the number of people filing those claims is still relatively close to the 300,000 mark. If it were way past that number, then yeah, having a fiscal freak out might be considered almost acceptable. Two, the labor market’s rockin’, sort of, and hiring is strong, which brings us to reason number three. Because hiring is strong, wages are actually going up. Walmart, TJ Maxx, Gap…the list goes on as to how many retailers are raising its employees’ wages. All these factors allow us to almost ignore this fiscal hiccup. However, leave it to Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen to remind us that, “wage growth remains sluggish” and that there’s always room for improvement.  You don’t say.

Loser…

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Sears isn’t having a very good year. Actually it hasn’t had a good year in…well, many many years. It just reported its fourth straight year of losses with this quarter losing $159 million and $1.50 per share. Incidentally, that figure is not nearly as dismal as last year’s $358 million fourth quarter loss. So you see, there is a bright side. Sort of. Run by the The Hoffman Estates, which also runs Kmart, the company has tried just about everything to help the ailing retailer reverse its downward financial spiral. From store closures to slashing inventory, the retailer has tried countless ways to cut costs. The company closed over 230 stores in 2014 and today has over 1,700 stores, which sounds impressive. But you know what’s more impressive? The over 3,500 stores the company had five years ago. The latest plan is to spin off between 200-300 stores into a REIT, which stands for Real Estate investment trust, by the way. The idea is apparently going to allow the failing company to pick up some $2 billion and help turn the fiscal tide. But if you want to know how exactly that works you’re on your own.

Happy Über New Year; DOJ: You’re Up, Morgan Stanley; Labor Department Jobless Claims are New Year’s Bummer

Year end surge…

Image courtesy of renjith krishnan/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of renjith krishnan/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A heads up to all of you located in cities where Über is actually allowed to operate: Über is getting ready to ring in the New Year with some price surging. Of course, Über prefers the less obvious term, “dynamic pricing.” Just don’t expect to see any dynamic pricing for the rider, who might very well be paying as much as seven times the usual fare if the service is used between 12:30 am and 2:30 am. New Year’s is expected to be the busiest night of the year for the ride-sharing app, and many other services similar to it, due to the heightened demand on this particularly auspicious day. On its blog, the folks at Über said they are expecting to give more than 2 million rides in a 24 hour period and you’re best bet for the service is to call right when the ball drops or if riders are feeling especially adventurous, they should wait until after 2:30 am. Über also offered to graciously  – and economically – text riders to let them know when surge pricing – excuse me, I meant to say “dynamic pricing”  – ends.

Unsettled business…

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Image courtesy of digitalart/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

It’s Morgan Stanley’s turn to tangle with the DOJ in an effort to reach a settlement for Morgan Stanley’s role in the 2008 financial crisis. Like its peers, including JPMorganChase, Bank of America, Citigroup, etc…Morgan Stanley is also staring down the wrong end of a DOJ investigation for its role in getting New Century Financial Corp to issue subpime mortgages. Apparently, the bank knew that homeowners would have a hard time paying mortgages but still issued them anyways. Well, that didn’t work out for anyone, now did it? Incidentally, New Century went bust following a bankruptcy filing back in 2007.

Wishing you an employment-filled New Year…

Image courtesy of nonicknamephoto/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of nonicknamephoto/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Leave it to the Labor Department to help ring in the new year with some disappointing news: namely that the number of people filing jobless claims rose last week by 17,000. While the total number of people still remains below the 300,000 mark (just barely), we are still left with 298,000 making a New Year’s resolution to get a job (we hope, anyways). Analysts actually only expected that number to hit 290,000, but, oh well. Can’t accurately predict ’em all. But we are supposed to be reassured by the fact that this time of year brings with it good tidings of volatile claims and all fiscal signs still point to a decent economic recovery and climate. Also, the four-week average, which tends to be more accurate, was only up by 250. So maybe it’s okay to breathe a little little sigh of relief.