Twitter’s Attempts to Tweet Out Terror; Wal-Mart Boffo Earnings; EPA Calls Out Harley-Davidson

Tweet this…

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Looks like ISIS is going to have to find itself a new social media platform as Twitter pats itself on the back today after announcing it suspended 235,000 terrorist-related accounts in the last six months. That figure was about double over the previous period and the social media company went to great lengths getting bigger teams to review reports of flagged content on the site on a round the-clock-basis. Better spam detection and language capabilities also helped with the endeavor as the amount of time between content getting flagged and shutting down that content has gone down. But the great effort only really came about after Twitter took a lot of heat for allowing terrorist-related content to gain a big foothold on ISIS’s preferred site. Even the director of the FBI said how “Twitter was a devil on their shoulder” back in 2015. ISIS could have given courses on how to optimize media engagement as the terror organization regularly used Twitter to spread propaganda, recruit fellow murderers, raise funds for their evil ways and publicize its horrific actions. But to be fair, Twitter does have a policy in place prohibiting the promotion of violence and terrorism.  In any case, while Twitter concedes there’s no real “magic algorithm,”  to finding and shutting down terrorist activities on its site, there has been a noticeable drop on Twitter of all things ISIS and other terror-related organizations.

What bad retail landscape?

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It’s good to be Wal-Mart as the largest retailer in all the land posted better than expected results with revenue of $121 billion and a $3.8 billion profit for the second quarter, adding $1.21 per share. Analysts predicted shares would only gain $1.02. That profit was a very welcome 9% increase over last year’s $3.5 billion second quarter profit while the revenue figure beat projections by about $2 billion. If Macy’s Kohl’s and Target are left scratching their heads after their disappointing earnings, perhaps they should take a page or two from Wal-Mart’s playbook. The company made a major push in its e-commerce division, which always helps matters when you’re competing with the likes of Amazon.  Wal-Mart also increased its full year earnings outlook to $4.15- $4.35, up from $4.00 – $4.30. In addition to lower gas prices and warm weather, Wal-Mart brass attribute its great earnings to the boost they gave to employee wages which they think led to better customer experiences. Maybe it did. Maybe it didn’t. But there’s no denying the  company experienced stronger than expected sales growth.

Exhaust-ed…

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Look out VW. There’s a new emissions offender in town. This time the dubious distinction goes to iconic motorcycle maker, Harley-Davidson, who has to pay a $12 million penalty and another $3 million to fund a clean-air project.  The U.S. claims the company violated air pollution laws through its “super-tuner” devices.  These devices, while improving engine performance, also caused the exhaust levels for those engines to increase well beyond what they were allowed. Then there were some 12,682 bikes that were also found to be short of regulatory requirements. Even though Harley-Davidson graciously disagrees with the EPA’s findings, it settled if only to avoid a long-drawn out and very expensive legal battle. As part of the settlement, Harley-Davidson doesn’t even have to admit wrongdoing. After all, who likes to admit when they’re wrong, eh? In any case, the company will cease selling the devices by August 23 and will have to buy back and destroy the devices from the dealerships. Naturally, shares of Harley-Davidson did take an 8% hit following the news of its own emissions scandal, but they recovered relatively quickly. Sort of.

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

Not to their credit…

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

Miracle on 34th Street?

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

Farfegnugen…

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

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.

Volkswagen Puts the Brakes on Farfegnugen; Will GoPro Become a No Go?; Mickey’s Magical New Venture

Auf wiedersehen…

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Image courtesy of artur84/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Volkwagen’s stock took a big 20% hit today over a not-so-little emissions scandal that has investors screaming “Nein!” It seems that the world’s largest automaker – at least for the first six months of 2015 – used some software, that managed to mislead regulators into thinking that the German automaker was actually following rules regarding emissions when, in fact, it wasn’t. The Environmental Protection Agency and California are calling the software a “defeat device.” Catchy, huh? So now, Volkwagen wisely decided to stop selling certain diesel vehicles, including Jettas, Beetles, Golfs, Passats and even some Audis, until repairs and amends can be made. Close to 500,000 vehicles are part of this fiasco and account for about 20% of sales in the U.S. The offending vehicles emit nitrogen oxides that have a nasty little way of exacerbating respiratory conditions. If the EPA is lucky, it could fine Volkwagen a whopping $37,500 per vehicle, which is cray cray since I’m pretty sure the cars don’t even cost that much. At that rate, Volkwagen could shell out a ghastly $18 billion. However, in all likelihood, it probably won’t be that much. Of course, those fines don’t include any consumer lawsuits and false marketing accusations. How do you say “up the creek” in German?

Word up…

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Image courtesy of jesadaphorn/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Looks like Alexander Eule can kiss his free GoPro swag good-bye. The Barron’s writer penned a scathing article on why GoPro is but a “one produce wonder.” Likening the device to the relic we call Blackberry, Eule said that GoPro’s got a ton of competition headed its way and it’ll be a miracle if the company’s stock stays above $25 a share. GoPro, once a Wall Street IPO darling, made an auspicious ticker debut back in June of 2014, jumping over 30% from its initial offering of $24 a pop. Peaking at $98 in October 2014, the stock has been losing wind pretty steadily and is currently hovering today between $32 and $33 a share. While some have wondered if Apple might pick up the company, others have said no way. Why would Apple bother with an acquisition like that when it can just dip into its vast resources and talent and make a similar product. And that is basically what its doing as evidenced by its recent patent report which sent shares of GoPro down 12%. Apple might just be the least of GoPro’s competition worries as Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi also has a similar device in the works. In case you were wondering, GoPro has not commented on the story. Yet.

For real…

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Image courtesy of renjith krishnan/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Who better to invest on Virtual Reality technology than one of the finest purveyors of fantasy and make-believe? And so it begins that the Magical Kingdom/mega conglomerate corporation we call Disney is one of several companies throwing money at  VR start-up JauntVR. Hollywood is chomping at the bit to get in on the entertaining aspects of VR action that offers viewers a striking 360° perspective and Disney is hoping its $66 million contribution will see some exciting fiscal return action. Jaunt is hoping to emerge as the go to platform for anybody with a lot of money who uses cameras for a living. Even if they are into GoPro. There’s a whole slew of people and companies who have already used the technology, including Sir Paul McCartney and The North Face. ABC News took the tech to Syria to make a documentary featuring curators attempting to save antiquities in the war-ravaged country. Jaunt expects to use their new found cash to scale up its tech, help with growth and provide a nice welcome addition to its previously raised $100 million. If you’re at all curious what all the fuss is about, see for yourself at http://www.jauntvr.com/content/.

The Labor of LIBOR; Coal Company Not Energized by Obama’s New EPA Policies; Disgraced Bitcoin-er Busted

Don’t bank on it…

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Image courtesy of iosphere/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

From the most hallowed banking institutions of UBS and Citigroup, disgraced banker Thomas Hayes will now make his way to the halls of a correctional institution, all thanks to his role in the LIBOR scandal. On trial in the UK, Hayes pleaded not guilty, although jurors felt otherwise and now gets to spend the next fourteen years in prison contemplating his misdeeds. The U.S. already charged Hayes back in 2012 for his misdeeds at UBS and the Royal Bank of Scotland and a number of banks already had to cough up $9 billion in penalties over their involvement in rigging the benchmarks. Hayes was found guilty on all 8 counts of conspiracy to defraud. And it’s not everyday a trader gets convicted for rigging rates on the London Interbank Offered Rates. In fact, Hayes has the dubious distinction of becoming the first person to be convicted in the scandal, which makes sense, since he was apparently the ringleader for more than a dozen other brokers and traders who participated in messing with global rates for mortgages, loans and credit cards just so that they could profit. Those misdeeds affected some $350 trillion in global financial markets. Including ours. Talk about rude.

So un-coal…

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Image courtesy of dan/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Battered and broken is just one way to describe the coal industry as President Obama just announced the latest EPA policies which are supposedly going to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 30% by 2030. And of course that is splendid news. Just not for Alpha Natural Resources who made its own announcement today: bankruptcy. The natural gas boom combined with the new EPA rules have dealt quite the blow to the second biggest coal producer. While the company has over $10 billion in assets with around 8,000 employees, it also needs to ditch some $3.3 billion in debt. The once powerful coal supplier had to close more than 80 mines since 2011 as the shale boom began to take effect. And who can blame shale? After all, it is a cheaper, less polluting energy source.

Bit-fraud…

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Image courtesy of Victor Habbick/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Mark Karpeles, the disgraced head of collapsed Tokyo bitcoin exchange, Mt. Gox, has, un-shockingly, been arrested in Japan on suspicion of (gasp) fraud. Who would have thought. Apparently, Karpeles falsified documents and manipulated the computer system over thirty times in an effort to fatten up his bank account by about a million bucks. If the 30 year old Karpeles is found guilty, he might just become pen pals (no pen-pun intended) with Thomas Hayes, except the French-born Karpeles would be idling his incarcerated says in Japan. If you recall, 850,000 bit coins – equal to about $480 million at the time –  went missing under Karpeles’ watch. But wouldn’t ya know it, 200,000 bit coins were subsequently recovered by Karpeles, who must have remembered where he had apparently misplaced them. As for the remaining missing cyber-currency, well, Karpeles conveniently blames the theft on a “bug” from a cyber-attack. You don’t say…

Kraft Ketch-es Up; Amazon Wants FAA to Start Droning Around; Lumber Liquidators’ Slight Rebound

Ketchin’ Up…

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Image courtesy of Mister GC/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

HJ Heinz, as in, ketchup is teaming up with Kraft foods, as in Mac & Cheese and Philadelphia Cream Cheese, to become the world’s fifth largest food and beverage company. And just who is behind this master plan for food domination? None other than everybody’s favorite (and only) Oracle of Omaha, Warren Buffet – well, Berkshire Hathaway really, and Brazilian Venture Capital firm 3G. The two entities are throwing $10 billion at the deal, which seems like a relative bargain since the merger is expected to generate $28 billion in annual revenue.  Of course, federal regulators still need to give their seal of approval, along with Kraft shareholders. But considering that the stock went up a whopping 32% on the news I’m guessing they won’t mind. Plus, if you are one of the lucky shareholders, then look out for a cash dividend of $16.50 per share, not to mention a 49% stake in the new venture.

 Droning on and on…

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Image courtesy of Victor Habbick/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Amazon is taking on the FAA, telling them they lack the “impetus” to develop drone policies in a timely manner – said in the nicest possible way, of course. The e-commerce giant wants the agency to move quicker on issuing permits for drone testing. Like a lot quicker. Like before the model drones Amazon plans to use for its Prime Air Delivery Service become obsolete. Oops. Too late. Even Senator Cory Booker agreed with Amazon saying that if the FAA had been around during the time of the Wright Brothers, then commercial flying would have literally never taken flight. Then there are all those restrictions associated with the testing. For instance, drones can’t fly higher than 400 feet, and in some cases 200 feet, and the drones must also always be in view of the pilot. Where’s the fun in that? Amazon, and several other companies are wondering why it takes so long for the U.S., on average, six months longer to issue these permits when in other countries it takes about 1-2 months?  The drone industry is also irritated by it all seeing as how drone delivery is apparently way more economical, faster and cheaper with the added bonus of less traffic and pollution? Who doesn’t like that? But to be fair, the FAA has some not-so-minor concerns about the potential for drones to collide with commercial carriers carrying passengers. Not to mention the potential loss of link between a drone pilot and the drone.

Lumbering on…

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Image courtesy of Sira Anamwong/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Lumber Liquidators stock went up today by 8%, which actually came as somewhat of a surprise since the stock is down 59% for the year after a scathing “60 Minutes” report that found high levels of formaldehyde in its laminate flooring from China. The reason for its little upswing is presumably because the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has entered the fray by launching a federal investigation into the claims, also involving the EPA, CDC and Federal Trade Commission. Lumber Liquidators is said to be fully cooperating in the investigation. No kidding. But don’t bother holding your breath for results – they won’t be in for several months. Lumber Liquidators, by the way, says “60 Minutes” used a test that is considered unreliable, by Lumber Liquidators standards anyways. The company, which has 350 locations throughout the United States, has graciously offered to come test the flooring in your home. If high levels of formaldehyde are found to be present, then rest assured…Lumber Liquidators will do more testing. If those tests keep coming back positive then yeah, they’ll finally agree to replace the questionable, carcinogenic flooring.