Supreme Smackdown to Apple; Wall Street Bonuses Shrink, But I’d Still Take One; Amazon Store: The San Diego Sequel

Un-appealing…

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Not everyone has the ability to say no to one of the world’s most valuable companies. But the Supreme Court did just that to Apple when it graciously told its lawyers that it was not interested in hearing its appeal on an earlier ruling from June of 2015. Now, the iPad maker has to pony up some $450 million for its role in conspiring with publishers to increase book prices that apparently violated Federal antitrust laws. Apple feels that this ruling will “chill innovation and risk taking.” Maybe. But consumers still didn’t appreciate the way that Apple caused e-book prices to go from $9.99 to $12.99 and $14.99. Except Apple didn’t act alone, bringing in Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, Penguin, Simon & Schuster and MacMillan to help fleece e-readers everywhere. Basically, any publisher from whom you’ve ever read a book helped facilitate this antirust breach. Apple wanted to make sure the iPad got a nice little boost when it made its grand debut in 2010. So publishers got to set the price they wanted for e-books on Apple devices and in return Apple would enjoy a 30% cut of sales. This, my friend, is the nefarious practice known as “agency pricing.” Publsihers played along because they didn’t like that the price of e-books on Amazon was going down and this method provided a convenient way to recoup that cash. The publishers started charging Amazon the same prices that it charged Apple, forcing Amazon to raise its prices also. Apple will pay $400 million to e-book customers in the form of credits, in addition to $20 million to the thirty states that sued. Of course, that doesn’t include the $30 million in legal fees that Apple’s lawyers get to collect or the changes that Apple is being forced to make to its business practices.

Whose your daddy…

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New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli released some pricey data for one of New York’s top industries: Securities. Not that this will have you shedding tears, but the average Wall Street bonus fell 9% for 2015, checking in at $146,200. And while most people don’t come close to making that kind of cash in a year, the average Wall Street-er scored that, in addition to his or her salary. While that salary might seem high, consider that in 2006, the average Wall Street bonus was $191,360. And even though a whopping $25 billion worth of bonuses were awarded in 2015, it was 6% less than the previous year, as profit from broker-dealer operations dropped $1.7 billion to $14.3 billion. Profits for the six biggest banks hit $93 billion, by the way, which is more than 35% higher than the previous year. If you can believe it, that figure is still not as high as it should be and signals that the economy is still having a hard time bouncing back from 2008’s fiscal crisis. If you’re thinking about a career in securities, that might not be such a bad idea as the average Wall Street salary rose 14% in 2015 to $404,800. Except that prospects for 2016 look a bit grim and are actually expected to drop. There are approximately 172,400 people employed in the securities industry and 4,500 jobs were added in 2015. That figure, however, is still 8% less than it was pre-2008 fiscal crisis. By the way, these figures, we are warned, are not accurate estimates since they don’t include stock options and other forms of deferred compensation. The numbers also don’t include those for securities employees outside of New York City.

Isn’t it ironic…

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Mega e-commerce site, Amazon, arguably best known for being the largest online marketplace in the U.S. – not to mention some really great television –  is poised to open its second brick-and-mortar store where it will sell books, naturally, in addition to its own comprehensive line of tablets and devices. In fact, there will be nothing in the store that you wouldn’t be able to purchase on the company’s website. Rumors of the brick-and-mortar first surfaced when a big sign went up during the summer over the vacant space in a swanky San Diego mall. Then, last month, job postings for the 7,500 square foot store began appearing. Amazon’s store will be in good company as Tesla and Apple will be its mall neighbors. Meanwhile, the revenue expected from setting up an actual store isn’t expected to leave any meaningful dent in the company’s earnings. I guess it’s just a cute gesture for people who prefer to leave their homes to enjoy an actual physical shopping experience.

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No Slowing Down Alibaba; Feeling Taxed: Google’s Italian Problem; Ads Abuzz for Super Bowl

What economic slowdown?

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China’s economy might be on the skids but apparently Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. didn’t get the memo. The company released its earnings and reported that its sales rose 32% to $5.3 billion, easily beating analysts estimates of $5.13 billion. Alibaba even scored a profit of $1.93 billion, picking up 99 cents per share and beating predictions of 89 cents per share. The reason for these positively fabulous numbers have a lot do with insane revenues posted from November’s Singles’ Day. Singles’ Day saw 115 million buyers scooping up $14 billion in purchases. Alibaba CEO Jack Ma is also on a fiscal quest to bring China’s rural countryside onto the mobile shopping bandwagon and it’s been paying off royally.  Of course, shares of the stock rose in pre-market trading, just as they should. Alibaba needed the boost as its shares have declined 14% so far this year after falling back in 2015.  But then shares fell this morning by 2% (as did Yahoo since it owns a sizable chunk of it). Go figure. Ma’s grand plans for the company extend far beyond China and he would really love it if at least half of Alibaba’s revenue started flowing in from outside of China. Good thing he’s already got plans in motion to make that happen.

Google that…

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Authorities in Italy have set their investigative sights on Google charging that the tech giant evaded an estimated 327 million euros in taxes between 2009 and 2013. Of course, a Google spokesperson graciously noted that Google always pays its taxes wherever it operates and even explained how it paid 2.2 million euros in taxes on 54.4 million revenues back in 2014. Problem is Italian authorities aren’t buying it and estimate that Google’s revenues were ten times higher than what it reported. Italian authorities say Google basically redirected revenue to its regional offices in Ireland where the corporate tax rate is much more hospitable to big companies. Last week Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc. forked over $186 million to U.K. authorities for a different tax settlement. While that might seem a considerable sum, there was a huge outcry, particularly by those in Britain’s Labour Party, because they felt that the amount was way too small considering how much profit the company made. Incidentally, back in December, Apple had to settle with Italian tax authorities and ended up paying back 318 million euros.

Getting buzzed…

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With the Super Bowl just around the corner, some of the ads are already making for bigger stories than the game itself. Take for instance Death Wish Coffee. Never heard of it? You’re not the only one. The small business won a contest held by tech company, Intuit, and you’ll be able to catch the 30 second ad during the third quarter of Super Bowl 50. Death Wish Coffee began in 2012 by Mike Brown, who like so very many of us, was on the prowl for a very potent, caffeinated brew. As of now, Death Wish sells about 1,000 packages a day. But after the Super Bowl that number will likely skyrocket considering the 100 million-plus people expected to tune in to the big game. Death Wish Coffee will set you back about $20 a pound. But hey, that’s a small price to pay for the ultimate coffee fix, I suppose. And maybe by next year, Death Wish Coffee will actually able to afford the $5 million price tag for that coveted slot instead having to enter a contest to try and win it.

Singular Sensation for Alibaba; Don’t Bet On It: Online Daily Fantasy Sports Gone in a New York Minute; In: Higher Minimum Wage. Out: Tipping

Singled out…

Image courtesy of  bplanet/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of bplanet/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Did Alibaba just throw down the gauntlet to Black Friday? China’s biggest e-commerce site knocked it out of the fiscal park on November 11, aka Singles Day, shattering last year’s $9.3 billion record for the auspicious shopping event. In fact, just by midday the company had already hit $9 billion in sales. Some of the top sellers were Nikes and baby-related products. CEO Jack Ma kicked off the Singles Day shopping festivities by launching the event Tuesday evening with James Bond actor Daniel Craig and House of Cards Star Kevin Spacey. After all nothing says Chinese e-commerce like British and American actors, right? The earth-shatterting sales left many wondering what many are worried about a flagging Chinese economy and its October report that the country hit a particularly slow pace in the third quarter. What didn’t hit a slow pace i was mobile sales for Alibaba’s Singles Day, where 68% of the day’s transactions occurred.

You bet-or not…

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman just might be the least popular person on the planet right now. The AG sent “cease and desist” letters to fantasy sports companies FanDuel and DraftKings, ordering them not to accept bets from New Yorkers anymore. The AG called the companies a “new version of online gambling” and said the contests are “neither harmless nor victimless” because they lure in people who are predisposed to gambling addiction. AG Schneiderman went on to say that the companies are basically perpetrating “a massive, multi-billion-dollar scheme intended to evade the law and fleece sports fans across the country.” Ouch. FanDuel and DraftKings, however, argue that what they offer is “a game of skill.” There are currently 34 lawsuits in 13 states pending against the daily fantasy sports companies accusing its proprietors of unfair and/or illegal activity. DraftKings and FanDuel actually stopped doing business in Nevada after the state’s attorney there ruled that the business models meet the state’s definition of gambling and would therefore have to pay for a license.  Both companies are valued at about $1 billion each. Major League Baseball has a stake in FanDuel while the NBA has its own stake in DraftKings. FanDuel also has big money ad deals in place with both the Brooklyn Nets and the New York Jets. At least the AG isn’ t looking to get back any proceeds from New Yorkers who placed bets and actually won. Well, for now anyway.

Not tipsy…

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Image courtesy of maya picture/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

No more bragging rights for big tippers at Joe’s Crab Shack. Well, at least in 18 of the chain’s 131 locales. Parent company Ignite Restaurant Group has decided to do away with the “tip” model and the idea behind it is quite simple: The restaurant scraps tipping and then increases the minimum wage of its employees to $14 per hour.  It means that for some servers, it makes up for lost tip wages. “I personally believe tipping is an antiquated model,” CEO Ray Blanchette said investors at a recent meeting. That’s lovely and all but he also believes it helps improve service and reduces employee turnover. Besides, servers will get paid the same whether they work a busy shift or a slow one with fewer diners. Of course, that tip model means menu prices are heading north from anywhere between 12% to 15%. But considering that most tippers tip around 18%, there’s no great loss there. While Joe’s Crab Shack is the first national restaurant chain to try this out, restaurateur Danny Meyers Union Hospitality Group also put this model into place in New York. Joe’s started doing this back in August and incidentally, or not, its restaurant that adopted this no tipping model the longest has gained the most traction. Which is good since overall sales for Joe’s Crab Shack in the third quarter went down 6.6%. Ironically, the National Restaurant Association does not care much for the model because the “median hourly earnings for servers range from $16 – $22.” Do the math and you realize that could actually mean a nasty pay cut for plenty of restaurant employees.

Standard & Poor’s Overrated Ratings Settlement; Spirited Numbers for Whiskey and Bourbon; Who Will Radio in on RadioShack?

Poor ratings system…

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Image courtesy of suphakit73/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

It’s shaping up to be an expensive week for Standard and Poor’s, the ratings company owned by McGraw Hill Financial Inc. After two years of legal wrangling, where the Department of Justice accused the S&P of defrauding investors, S&P agreed to pay for $1.5 billion in a settlement. According to the lawsuit, S&P made sub-prime mortgages sound way better than they actually were, generously over-rating them during the height of that hard-to-forget financial crisis of 2008. One of the juicy little highlights from the lawsuit, as taken from an excerpt from an instant-messaging exchange between two of its analysts, goes a little something like this: “It could be structured by cows and we would rate it.” So what were they trying to say about our friends in the bovine community? Hmm. While S&P gets to avoid admitting actual wrongdoing, as per the terms of the settlement, it will be shelling out $687.5 million to the DOJ and another $687.5 million to 19 states and the District of Columbia. S&P said the DOJ was only coming down on them because it downgraded the US sovereign debt from AAA all the way down to AA+, but the DOJ says NOT! In a separate lawsuit, S&P  reached a settlement with pension fund, Calpers (California Public Employees Retirement System), also a victim of S&P’s too-generous sub-prime mortgage ratings system.

I’ll drink to that…

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Image courtesy of artur84/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

It’s been a very good year for bourbon and whiskey as exports of these spirited spirits topped the $1 billion mark. Even here in the US, sales for Kentucky bourbon and Tennessee whiskey grew, with revenue for both rising 9.6% to $2.7 billion and 19.4 million cases of the stuff being scooped up. 19.4 million cases? Who are you people drinking all this? But it’s the premium selections that are really hitting it big with drinkers…er, consumers, as revenue in that category is up over 19%. All this while beer seems to be experiencing a decline on the whole by 4% in the last five years, with Budweiser losing 28% for that same time frame, despite those super Superbowl ads. Craft beer, however, tells a different story as that tasty category is experiencing an uptick. Some analysts are even thinking all these increasing numbers come courtesy of millennials, who seem to prefer high-quality spirit versus the stuff their parents enjoy. By the way, it should be duly  – and might I add, fondly – noted, that Kentucky produces 95% of the world’s bourbon supply. Go Kentucky!

Shacked out…

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Image courtesy of cool design/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Rumors are swirling as to who will emerge and scoop up RadioShack as bankruptcy looms near for the company that was just never able to compete with the behemoth that is e-commerce. The New York Stock Exchange had suspended trading of the 94 year old company on Monday, with shares tanking down to $0.14 a share in after hours trading. So will it be Sprint who decides to take up some of RadioShack’s retail leases? The company has 4,300 stores in the US, alone. Or will Amazon add the chain to its arsenal and increase its brick-and-mortar presence in the world? Word on the street is that Jeff Bezos might do just that as a way to showcase some of the gazillions of products that Amazon has to offer, for the right price, of course.

Alibaba Love Story; CVS Gets the Last Hacking Laugh; Holiday Retail Shaming

Like you expected anything different?

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba dished out its very first earnings report since going public and surprised NO ONE! Revenue was up an insanely impressive 54% to $2.74 billion even though analysts only expected a “modest” $2.61 billion figure. Net income for the company was up 16% to $485 million which, incidentally, was not as much as hoped. But hey, that’s literally the price you pay to become a record-setting $25 billion IPO. If you recall, Alibaba (BABA) began trading at $68 per share when it made its Wall Street debut back in September. But if you’d like to purchase some shares today, you’re going to have whip out over $104 per share. I bet your kicking yourself over that one, huh? Alibaba’s active buyers are up 52% to 307 million users while the number of its mobile monthly users doubled. Yes. Doubled. No major IPO success story (or quarter) would be complete without bringing a little Hollywood glamour into the mix. Which is precisely why Alibaba Chairman, Jack Ma, has been kicking it in La La Land recently.

And they said it couldn’t be done…

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Image courtesy of Mister GC/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

CVS can take a non-emphysemic sigh of relief now that its earnings came out. The company’s idea to kick the tobacco habit from its shelves in close to 8,00 stores did not prove to be a fiscal disaster after all. On the contrary, the company posted better than expected earnings – across the board! Ha! Who says tobacco always wins? Actually I don’t know if anybody has ever said that…but moving on. True the company did take a bit of a hit over its initiative to pull smoking products from its shelves but revenue still went up. In fact, it was up by 10% and $35 billion – $250 million more than analysts’ predictions. But it gets even better. Retail sales were up over 3% to about $16.7 billion. It turns out that CVS got a little boost from Americans covered under ACA and Medicaid. But the big boost came from (drumroll please…) prescription drugs. Oh the irony…out with tobacco and in with prescription drugs.

Attention K-Mart shoppers…

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Image courtesy of cooldesign/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Now you can get your Black Friday game on the day before. Which is, of course, Thanksgiving. In fact, if you are so jonesing for a shopping fix wile most people have yet to wake up and defrost their poultry, take comfort in knowing that you can mosey on over to you local K-Mart, which will be conveniently opening its doors at 6:00 am, and staying open until (Black)Friday November 28 at midnight. Warms the heart, no? While a slew of retailers have decided to begin the Black Friday chaos/fun/sales before most Americans even digest their Turkey, there’s a whole group of companies that have shunned the practice of opening on the national holiday and have taken to retail-shaming their fellow retailers. Why there’s even a page dedicated to the cause appropriately called Boycott Black Thursday. K-Mart insists that employees who work Thanksgiving day are doing so voluntarily for “holiday pay.” Even though K-Mart and other stores are opening earlier to beef up sales, oddly enough, last year K-Mart sales actually fell during the holiday season after instituting this new “working-holiday” tradition.

 

Alibaba Raising the Roof on the Range; Olive Garden’s Breaking Breadsticks; United’s Flight Attendants’ Six-Figure Payout

Oh Ma gosh…

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Just when you thought China’s biggest e-commerce site couldn’t get any bigger, it keeps doing just that. While last weeks’ range for its highly anticipated initial public offering was hovering in the $60-$66 range, already an impressive feat, this week the range just grew that much larger. The price now looms in the $66-$68 range. There is just so much ridiculously insane demand for this IPO that CEO Jack Ma, a former school teacher and China’s richest man with a net worth of $21.9 billion, had no problem raising the money for the IPO on his roadshow. And no, this type of roadshow has nothing to do with nosebleed seats and bad beer. When a guy like Jack Ma goes on a roadshow he is trying to raise in interest and money for his company. Something which he had no trouble doing in the last couple of days. The company has raised $21.8 billion…so far.

Dude, lay off the breadsticks…

Image courtesy of Witthaya Phonsawat/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Witthaya Phonsawat/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

It seems Olive Garden needs to lay off the breadsticks and push the alcohol. At least according to Starboard Value LP, a firm that holds an 8.8% stake in Darden restaurants, Olive Garden’s parent company. Starboard is also taking issue with Olive Garden’s unlimited salad offerings. And don’t even get Starboard started on the pasta. “How does the largest Italian dining concept in the world not salt the water for pasta?” Starboard’s words, not mine. If you don’t believe what you’re reading then check out its just released 294 page turnaround plan. Darden rebutted with its own charming little 24 slide presentation challenging the report whose suggestions, Darden feels, are “not based on reality.” Though, to be fair, Darden has already been implementing many of the other suggestions. The question, however, is can you really blame Darden’s poor last quarter earnings on unlimited breadsticks?

Pay day…

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Image courtesy of biosphere/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

It pays not to be a flight attendant on United Airlines. Literally. The company, which currently has over 23,000 employees, apparently has too many flight attendants. So the airline graciously and, in my humble opinion, generously, reached an agreement with the Association of Flight Attendants to offer up to 2,100 early buyout packages to flight attendants (assuming they meet certain requirements, of course). Some of those packages will be worth up to $100,000. Yes. $100,000 to quit your job. Incidentally, United Airlines was the only major airline to post a loss this past quarter.  Also incidentally, it’s cheaper to employ less experienced flight attendants. I’ve had a few flight attendants  – of varying degrees of experience – who I’d like to see take that package. Of course, I wouldn’t give them $1 much less $100,000. Unfortunately, all the money I’ve plunked down just to have the privilege of traveling on United Airlines doesn’t entitle me to an opinion on the matter.

IP Whoa! A Bit of a Situation and Tesla Fizzles In the Garden State

What happens in China doesn’t necessarily stay in China…

Image courtesy 1shots/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy 1shots/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

You might MIGHT not have heard of Alibaba only because it’s not based in the United States. But you should get to know them. I mean really get to know them. The Chinese based e-commerce site carries more goods than eBay and Amazon combined. What’s more is that it’s expected to be the biggest IPO since Facebook’s auspicious debut setting all sorts of fun and expensive records. But the decision to take the IPO to the US has made Hong Kong a smidgen unhappy since Alibaba controls about 80% of all e-commerce in China. US based Yahoo also owns about a 24% stake in the company. And six of the most powerful banks in the US have all got their tongues wagging hoping to get a nice slice of the underwriting pie.

Just a bit of a discrepancy?

Image courtesy of ratch0013/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of ratch0013/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

In the soap opera we call bitcoin, Dorian Satoshi Nakamoto continues to deny that he is the man behind über hot cyber currency, bitcoin, despite being fingered as the creator by Newsweek magazine. He even issued a statement via his attorney. In it he laments that he had to discontinue his internet service “due to severe financial distress” and hasn’t had steady work in a decade. Something tells me he could use a couple of those bitcoins right about now. The person believed to be the creator is said to own about $400 million worth of bitcoins. Bitcoin creator, whoever you may be, wherever you may be, (assuming you are not Dorian Satoshi Nakamoto, that is) it would be really cool, if you could throw a bit of coin Mr. Nakamoto’s way for all the trouble he’s going through just because he shares a name with you.

New Jersey is soooooo not with the current…

Image courtesy of Danilo Rizzuti/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Danilo Rizzuti/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

If you were thinking about going into one of those really cool Tesla stores to discuss purchasing one of its automobiles, just know that in New Jersey, my electric car-loving friend, they’re just talk. At least they’re going to be. No more Tesla showrooms. The correct term shall be galleries. Auto dealers in New Jersey (and Texas and Arizona) do not want you buying products directly from Tesla. They want you to go through a middleman/woman/person to purchase your vehicle because they’re deeply concerned and want to protect you. Oh, the oxymoron! Perhaps it’s because Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk just didn’t shell out enough cash for his esteemed politicians that he had his business model uprooted in the Garden State. After all, auto dealers forked over about $140 million for local, state and federal elections because they care. Mr. Musk ponied up a little less than $500,000. Who knew that working tirelessly to create a state of the art, environmentally conscious automobile that wins Consumer Reports Best Overall Car means you just don’t care?