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.

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SeaWorld Earnings Tank; Unstoppable Facebook; Expedia’s Vacation Plans

Nothing to Sea here folks…

Image courtesy of bandrat/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of bandrat/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Once again, the life aquatic seems to be taking a hit. SeaWorld is still having a hard time trying to convince the world, and PETA, that its Killer Whales are much happier at the theme parks than in the wild where they’d have to fend for themselves. “Blackfish,” a scathing documentary released in 2013, continues to paint SeaWorld as the bad guy and even though there’s technically no such thing as bad publicity, this situation might prove to be the exception. The company’s third quarter earnings were short of estimates with profit – yes, it still made one – of $98 million adding $1.14 per share. While forecasts were for $1.18, the $1.14 added per share was still better than last year’s take of $87 million in profit with $1 added per share. Revenue also disappointed since it increased by just .2%, coming in at $470 million, when analysts predictions were for over $508 million. Brass at SeaWorld blamed the weather and legal fees for those digits. Can’t mother nature catch a break? Attendance took a .4% hit, dropping to 8.37 million people. Former Dollywood CEO Joel Manby has taken over the reins at SeaWorld and its 11 theme parks. That should be fun to watch. Despite the dismal earnings, SeaWorld San Diego is looking to expand its Killer Whales tank. Except, they have to promise not to breed them there. But SeaWorld has no intention of making any such promises. So stay tuned…

Facebank’d…

Image courtesy of  basketman/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of basketman/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Just when you thought Facebook couldn’t get any bigger, and I don’t know why you even thought that, the social networking company gave us some new and even more improved digits. For instance, Facebook’s new market cap is valued at $308 billion. More than Intel and Cisco, companies that produce actual tangible products.  From there Facebook continues its fiscal celebration by sharing that it sold $1 billion more in ads than it did a year ago. I did write billion. Facebook’s total ad revenue was up 45% and, mind you, 78% of Facebook’s ad revenue comes from mobile. Its revenue is also up 41% to $4.5 billion and is trading around $109 per share. By George, that’s three times more than its IPO price. The company also added 31 cent per share on $896 million in net income, just $90 million and one cent more than it did last year at this time. Of course, then there’s Facebook’s 1.545 billion total monthly active users. Just to clarify, Facebook gets over one billion visitors every single day.  Facebook is still blocked in China, yet it remains the company’s biggest advertising market. The ever industrious Mark Zuckerberg and his team of 12,000 are finding ways to get around the mainland. After all, the baby-faced CEO is determined to Facebook his way into one of the worlds biggest countries and is on a mission to bring the web to every single person on the planet. That could prove to be an impossible feat with out China in the mix.

Do not disturb…

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Image courtesy of phasinphoto/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Expedia went shopping today and picked up vacation home rental website HomeAway for the bargain price of $3.9 billion. Actually, I’m not sure how much of a bargain that was since Expedia is paying $38.31 per share, a 20% premium over Wednesday’s closing price. But no matter as this deal might just solidify Expedia’s status as an online travel superstar. Kind of like what Amazon is to e-commerce. Some, however, are a wee bit concerned that there might just be some antitrust issues involved since Expedia has been on a bit of a shopping spree having picked up Orbitz Worldwide – which also owns Cheaptickets.com –  for $1.38 billion, and Travelocity for $280 million. And while HomeAway boasts over one million vacation home rental listings in almost 200 countries, it’s not necessarily competition to Airbnb since Airbnb lists homes as opposed to vacation rentals. In any case, the alternative accommodation space industry is estimated to be worth about $100 billion so it’s probably safe to say that there is room for a little competition.

Wild Things at the ECB Conference; Google Gets Antitrust Slapped by EU; Smith & Wesson’s Shares Shoot Up

Think you’re having a bad day?

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Image courtesy of noppasinw/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Mario Draghi, President of the European Central Bank just might be having an even worse day than you, this April 15. And he didn’t even have to file his taxes. As Mr. Draghi was speaking at a conference in Frankfurt, Germany today when a female protester literally jumped onto the table from which he spoke and threw a stack of papers and confetti at him screaming, “End ECB dictatorship!” Now folks have been known to take intense issue with what they consider to be measures that are just a bit to harsh for fiscally challenged European countries, especially Greece and Spain, but if I didn’t know any better, I’d say Ashton Kutcher was somewhere in the room telling Mario Draghi he’d just been punk’d. But…Ashton wasn’t there. Alas, if only the rest of the conference had been as exciting. Instead the ECB President went on to discuss the less riveting topics surrounding the state of the European economy, how it’s allegedly improving and that the $1.2 trillion quantitative easing program is apparently working. In case you were wondering just what on earth is quantitative easing, or QE, as the cool kids call it, it’s a super special type of monetary policy used when the regular one doesn’t seem to be working properly (the details of which I will not delve so as to maintain my audience). As for the protester, Josephine Witt, who managed to pass through multiple security checks posing as a journalist, she gleefully tweeted: “I would say, the #ecb ‘s security service is just as good as putins.”

Speaking of Europe…

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Google’s not having the best day in Europe either. The all-mighty search engine is getting called out by the European Union for abuses of power. The EU is handing Google a “Statement of Objections,” with an antitrust complaint that accuses the company of favoring and promoting its own services and products over competitors in user search results and comparison shopping. Google has a 90% share in Europe’s search engine market and 35% of Google’s ad revenue comes from Europe. The United States also began a similar investigation but dropped it after Google graciously agreed to make some changes. The changes, however, weren’t enough for companies like Microsoft, Yelp, Expedia etc., who are happy about this probe since they feel that Google’s search engine dominance is making for a very uneven playing field. The EU is also investigating whether Google forces mobile device companies to use them and whether or not those companies are even allowed to tweak Android software.

Shoot ’em up…

Image courtesy of Surachai/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Surachai/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Firearms: Love ’em or hate ’em matters not when there’s money involved. Shares of gun maker Smith & Wesson saw a 13% increase on shares today as the company announced that orders for firearms are picking up.  In fact, the stock hit a high today of $14.75 and is up over 50% since the beginning of 2015. Last year the company took in over $626 million in sales, a record for the company. Even though sales aren’t expected to come close to that figure this year, Smith & Wesson is still expected to rake in between $546 – $550 million dollars –  and no one seems to be taking issue with that. Well, at least not on Wall Street.

Raise Praise for Walmart ; Pinterest Tries to Double Up; Priceline’s Beamed Up Earnings

You raise me up…

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Image courtesy of             nongpimmy/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

It’s a good day to be a Walmart employee. No, seriously. It is. The gargantuan retailer just announced it’ll be raising the salaries of some 500,000 of its hardworking employees raising to about $1.75 more than the Federal minimum wage. Full-time employees will go from an average of $12.85 an hour to about $13 per hour. Part-timers will see their paychecks go up to $10 per hour from the average $9.50 they make now. The pay-raise fun begins in April and CEO Doug McMillon says it’s all part of a master plan to improve customer service, employee morale, etc. Those are all nice and pleasant things, of course, but no doubt Walmart is really hoping it will also lead to higher sales and profit. Walmart figures higher pay will help attract and retain employees that know the value of good customer service. And if it improves its somewhat tarnished reputation for its lousy pay practices in the process then why not?  So how bad could their pay practices have been that the company is implementing this change? Well, a majority of its employees’ salaries were so low that, all together, they were eligible to receive millions – I repeat, millions – of dollars in public benefits.  This initiative will cost Walmart about $1 billion, but hey, you’re worth it.

 In the land of unicorns…

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Image courtesy of vectorolie/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The next social media darling that may be headed off to the wonderful, not-so-mystical land of Silicon Valley “unicorns” is Pinterest. By “unicorns,” I am referring to billion dollar startups, a term thoughtfully coined by Cowboy Ventures founder Aileen Lee. But apparently these “unicorns” are turning out to be a bit more ubiquitous than previously thought as Pinterest is but among a larger group of “unicorns” and “decacorns” and “super-unicorns”…but I digress. Founded by CEO Ben Silbermann, Pinterest graciously allows users to “pin” images of all kinds of stuff that appeals to them on their boards, thereby bringing light and joy to the world. And now Pinterest is said to be adding a “buy” button. That ought to bring even more light and joy. Adding e-commerce into the social media start-up picture tends to prove lucrative on so many levels. Pinterest is rumored to be raising funds to the tune of $500 million. Any takers? This new round of funding would put the company in the $11 billion valuation stratosphere, nearly doubling its $5 billion valuation it had back in May.

But what does this mean for Captain Kirk?

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Image courtesy of jscreationzs/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Priceline, the company shilled by the inimitable William Shatner, beat Wall Street estimates for its fourth quarter earnings taking in almost $452 million with adjusted earnings at $10.85 per share. Well beam me up on those numbers, Scottie, because analysts only expected Priceline to score $10.05 per share. Those impressive digits were helped by growth from hotel and car rental reservations. Revenues were $1.84 billion and, once again, those analysts predicted the online travel booking service would only rake in $1.8 billion. Naturally, shares of Priceline took a joyous upswing in the news and clearly sending the message to Wall Street that the Orbitz-Expedia deal didn’t seem to have any adverse affects on the company. Well, not yet, anyway. If you’re in the market for some shares of Priceline, it’ll only set you back about $1,200.00…per share.

Expedia Challenges Priceline With its Latest Acquisition; Retail Sector: Where Have All the Shoppers Gone? Costco Breaks Up With Amex

Book it…

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Priceline look out! And you too, William Shatner. Expedia just announced its lofty plans to buy Orbitz Worldwide Inc.for $1.34 billion, which squares out to about $12 a share at a 25% premium. The folks at Expedia feel it’ll help them give Priceline Group Inc. a real run for its money – and reservations, I suppose. Orbitz already picked up Travelocity a while back for $280 million and now the online travel booking service also gets CheapTickets, and ebookers as part of this latest deal. As you may recall (and it’s perfectly fine if you don’t), Priceline itself made a few purchases itself last year when it scooped up a stake in ctrip.com International and OpenTable Inc. Apparently, mergers and acquisitions in the online booking arena are all the rage right now but let’s just see how it pans out fiscally for the consumers booking all those services.

Show me the money…

Image courtesy of stockimages/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of stockimages/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Will the retail sector get it right already? January proved to be a colossal fiscal bummer as the Commerce Department announced that sales in the retail sector fell, yet again, to 0.8%. Economists forecasted it would only drop 0.4% and it’s the second straight month to drop after December’s dismal 0.9% plunge. So what gives? After all, gas prices are low, employment numbers are rockin’ and even wages are coming up…a smidge. Apparently, Americans have been more inclined to actually pay down some of their debt and even save up some cash for a rainy day. The nerve of those fiscally responsible Americans, I tell you. But economists, the same ones who predicted those retail numbers would only fall to 0.4% instead of the 0.8% it did fall, are predicting that those numbers should come right back up to a more respectable level, if we give it some…space. Let’s just hope they’re right this time.

While we’re on the topic of retail…

Image courtesy of photoraidz/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of photoraidz/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Costco shoppers rejoice. Next year when you go shopping at the wholesale warehouse you needn’t bother whipping out your Amex card anymore. The world’s second largest retailer and the charge card company just couldn’t work things out and thus an exclusive relationship between Costco and American Express is coming to an end March 31, 2016. The exclusive agreement allowed for Costco to pay a much smaller rate than other companies but alas, all good things must come to an end. The rate was so low , in fact, that it explains why the deal even lasted as long as it did. And thus, a sixteen year relationship has thrown in its fiscal towel. Sniff sniff. In Canada, a similar deal also came to an unfortunate demise last year. Oh Canada!  On Wall Street shares of American Express, took a bit of a hit while Costco shares actually went up. Perhaps next year, as you find yourself stocking up on a year’s supply of toilet paper and deodorant, you might just get to use your Visa or Mastercard, two cards that have so long yearned to be a part of the Costco magic.

The EU Is Mad At Apple, The EU’s Cabdrivers Are Mad At Uber and Nobody’s Mad At Expedia

An Apple a day isn’t keeping the EU away…

Image courtesy of digitalart/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of digitalart/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Apple (AAPL), Starbucks and other major American corporations are being investigated by the European Commission for tax evasion. It’s only fair, after all, since the US started this whole tax evasion investigation business going after Swiss banks and their clients. It seems that some countries including Ireland, the Netherlands and even teeny tiny Luxembourg are very gracious to certain large corporations when it comes to how much they charge them in taxes. Apple apparently paid only about 2% on tens of billions of dollars in foreign income by putting that chunk of cash through a subsidiary in Ireland “with no declared tax residency.”  Yeesh. It sounds like the average US citizen pays a higher rate on his or her taxes than a company that just offered a seven to one split. However, Apple CEO Tim Cook swears that every dollar that was owed to Uncle Sam was duly handed over. Which brings us back to the United States and the whole big raging debate on how much corporations should be taxed and then what to do with that money. Enter the politicians and well…you can be sure nothing will get resolved.

Offensive driving?

Image courtesy of digitalart/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of digitalart/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Speaking of Europe, our neighbors across the pond experienced some traffic issues today courtesy of cab drivers in London, Madrid, Paris, Berlin…While ride-sharing app Uber was busy getting a $1.2 billion investment infusion from multiple investors, cab drivers overseas were busy planning protests to show their lack of appreciation for this innovative technology. Cab drivers are a wee bit irritated over the service, arguing the app threatens their livelihood, is unregulated and unsafe. However, what makes it anymore unsafe than riding in a traditional cab is unclear. EU drivers also have to put up $270,000 to get a license. Uber drivers do not. Just to be certain their voices were heard, they took great pains to snarl traffic, block tourist centers and shopping districts and leave thousands of potential passengers stranded and frustrated.

A bit of excitement at Expedia…

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

You can now congratulate Expedia on being the largest (though not the only) travel website to officially accept bitcoin for hotel payments. It has teamed up with bitcoin payment processor Coinbase to help out with the virtual/crypto-currency which has had exchange rates from $395-$659. It joins a growing illustrious and industrious list of companies accepting bitcoin for a variety of goods and services, including trips to space on Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. You can start spending all those bitcoins at Expedia on Wednesday…assuming you have any.