Oh Nyet You Didn’t!: Yahoo Cyber Attacks Courtesy of Russia; Homebuilders Are Feeling Fine; The Fed (Finally) Comes Through With Rate Hike



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There is a first time for everything and today marks the first time that Russian officials were officially busted by U.S. federal prosecutors for cyber attacks. These officials, who are actually Russian officers, allegedly paid other hackers to break into Yahoo to steal information from hundreds of millions of users. So clearly, the officials weren’t the talent behind the scheme. Of the six people charged in the attacks, one of them is a hacker named Alexsey Belan, who had the dubious distinction of being ranked the FBI’s numero uno most wanted cyber-criminal for three years.  But don’t expect any swift justice. While one of the alleged perps was picked up in Canada and headed here to await his fate, the Russian intelligence officers are staying put and probably living large seeing as how there is no extradition in place between Russia and the United States. Among the numerous charges outlined are economic espionage and computer hacking, to name just a few. The attacks, which were revealed last September, were the ones that caused the search engine giant to drop its selling price to Verizon by $350 million. According to the indictment, it appears the attacks were state-sponsored, which has me wondering if things will now be awkward between Presidents Trump and Putin.

Exuding confidence…


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The magic number is 71. No really. It is. At least if you’re looking at the National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Housing Market index.  That means that homebuilder confidence is very high. Very. To put this number in perspective, anything above the number 50 is good. In March of 2016, that number was 58. So yeah, confidence abounds this year. Sure, the usual reasons are being given, including the fact that we are entering the season that homebuilders love, low mortgage rates and a solid labor market. But there’s another reason: President Trump. Yep. It appears he has begun rolling back on regulations, some of which are environmental, and that’s got homebuilders kicking up their heels in joy since they attribute 25% of the cost of homes to regulations. The regulation currently being rolled back is the Clean Water Rule, a rule that many builders call “burdensome” and which has nothing to do with putting dirty water into homes, I assure you.  Homebuilders see this rollback as a sign that even further de-regulation is in the wings, which would make home-building easier and quicker. And that is making builders positively giddy. And confident, of course.

Done deal…


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It’s official. The fed raised the benchmark lending rate by a quarter of a point. But that’s not the only big news. We are told to expect two more rate increases this year, which is especially weird since this is just the third rate hike in over a year. You may not feel the interest rate change now. And you may not feel it at all. But if you comb over your paperworks, from mortgages to credit cards to bank statements,  then you’ll notice the difference, albeit a subtle one. For now.  So subtle in fact that rates are still at historic lows. But it wont stay that way forever because by 2019 the rate is expected to hit 3% and stay there for quite awhile.  Hey what do you expect? Inflation is rising to the mark where the Fed wants it to, times are good, economically speaking and, just like with home builder sentiment, the strong labor market is putting a fiscal smile on a lot of faces.

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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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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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.

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

Rotten to the core…


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It’s game on between Apple and the FBI as the two entities tussle about unlocking an iPhone. The Feds feel this request falls under the Writs Act from 1789 that compels companies to assist in law enforcement. Apple is preparing to argue before a Federal court that software code should be protected by the First Amendment while terrorists the world over sit back and enjoy a good laugh at the the expense of the U.S and its constitutional rights. This is all because the Feds want Apple to unlock a phone belonging to San Berbardino shooter/terrorist Syed Rizwan Farook as authorities are convinced there is a lot of valuable intel contained on that one little device. In fact, since early October, Apple has received orders to unlock thirteen other devices, and an L.A. district court judge ruled that Apple should help the Feds bypass that pesky setting which wipes an iPhone clean after ten incorrect password guesses. Apple CEO Tim Cook is adamantly against this backdoor attempt to unlock an iPhone lest it fall into the wrong hands. Cook wants the issue decided by Congress and not the courts. Problem is, phones regularly fall into the wrong hands, as in this case, so what to do about a device that potentially holds vast amounts of life-saving information that could lead to the arrests and capture of more wrong hands?


All about the benjamins…


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After owning the title for so long, the city of New York no longer reigns supreme as home to the largest population of billionaires. The title of “Billionaire Capital of the World” now  belongs to Beijing, which is kind of weird since the Chinese economy has taken such a beating these last few months. These new findings come courtesy of the Hurun Report, a Shanghai-based firm that publishes monthly. And while Forbes’ compiles its own list of billionaires, the two publications tend to yield slightly different results, if only because they employ different calculation menthods. Incidentally, Hurun’s results did take into account January 15, the day when China’s economy hit the skids, tanking 40%.  But that still didn’t stop it from adding 32 new billionaires to the list, bringing its grand total identifiable billionaire population to 100. Beijing’s numero uno billionaire is Wang Jianlin, a real estate developer whose net worth is estimated to be $26 billion. Hurun chairman, Rupert Hoogewerf, says that these rankings don’t tell the whole story of China’s vast wealth, and estimates that only about 50% of China’s billionaires were identified. Plenty of the county’s other billionaires prefer to keep their wealth asecret so they don’t end up having to fork a chunk of it to authorities. New York still managed to welcome four more billionaires into its fold, giving the city a grand total of 95. Moscow took the third spot while Hong Kong and Shanghai scored spots four and five respectively.

Lowe’s and behold…


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Home Depot and Lowe’s regaled us with their earnings and it was good news, kind of. Both home improvement chains scored lofty gains in large part due to housing demand, low interest rates and job and wage growth – all super good things. Oh, and this time the warm weather actually helped sales too. But while Lowe’s quarterly sales gains were up 5.5%, Home Depot’s sales gains were way more impressive, gaining close to 9%, suggesting that Home Depot is benefitting way more from housing gains than Lowe’s. Which probably explains why shares of Lowe’s fell a bit today. Apparently Home Depot , according to experts anyway, has a stronger brand image and consumers see it as the go to store for their home improvement needs. Case in point, kitchen products are a big seller for Home Depot and that department killed it this quarter, while Lowe’s kitchen products department performed below average. Ouch. Home Depot also has 2,274 stores compared to Lowe’s 1,857 stores. In any case, Lowe’s is expecting to snag a 6% rise in sales, compared with analysts predictions of less than 5% and the company still added 59 cents per share with sales of $13.24 billion, smacking down predictions of $13.07 billion.

NYSE Gets Be-Glitched; Jobless Benefits Rise, But Nothing to Worry About. Yet; IMF Blames US Over World’s Slow Growth

Not such a NYSE day…

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Image courtesy of cooldesign/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Move over Greece and figure it out already. The outage glitch at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) is now taking center stage. The trouble is believed to have started Tuesday night when an upgrade was in progress. Problem is, by 7:00 am the next morning the issues seem to have not been resolved and traders were having difficulty connecting. At 11:00 am a warning was issued that the tech problems were being investigated. But, by 11:32 am, NYSE figured it would be a good time to halt trading. Good thing trading was able to shift seamlessly to other exchanges, as the US enjoys a system where there’s a lot of overlap in its financial markets. (Take that IMF: see below). As for NYSE, trading transferred to a back-up unit in New Jersey. So don’t bother making fun of anybody from there for a really long time. However, it still didn’t go unnoticed that it was the biggest outage in two years, that happened to coincide with technical glitches by United Airlines and the Wall Street Journal. Some suspect that it was no coincidence that all three of those systems experienced glitches. Even FBI Director James Comey said, “We’re not big believers in coincidence either. We want to dig into that part.” Although, at this point in time there’s no way to know what caused the glitches and if they’re at all related.

Speaking of glitches…

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Image courtesy of xedos4/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Well it’s not really a glitch…maybe just a hiccup – a summer hiccup.  The Labor Department released its numbers and well, it’s sort of a bummer. Turns out that applications for jobless benefits rose this week by 15,000 applicants to a total of 297,000 people. That is the highest number it’s been since February, when that awful figure hit a very unpleasant 327,000. However, there is a silver lining here, I kid you not. Most of those applications came from Michigan and Ohio and are likely due to auto-plant shutdowns who are in the midst of retooling its models for the next year. At least that’s what the experts think and well, they’re probably right. Anyways, it’s a lot more reassuring than any other reason experts can think of. As it stands, 2.33 million people are receiving jobless benefits (I’m pretty sure there’s an oxymoron somewhere in there), and while that figure may seem rather high, it is still 10% less than last year at this time. Besides, last week unemployment hit a seven year low and the number of folks applying for jobless benefits on a weekly basis has remained under 300.000 for over four months. All the more reason to breathe a sigh of relief. Sort of.

Blame it on the United States, why don’t you…

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Image courtesy of jscreationzs/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Maybe they’re just bitter because the American Women’s Soccer team won the World Cup Finals, but according to the International Monetary Fund, the United States is to blame because the rest of he world is experiencing slow growth. The IMF is predicting that the world’s growth will grow at a pace of 3.3%, .2% less than what it predicted back in April. And that, my friends, is what you call a downgrade. That is apparently the slowest growth pace since 2009, when there was a recession in effect and the economy didn’t grow but, in fact, shrank. Because the United States economy is apparently the biggest one in the world, and because we had a particularly frightful winter, fiscally speaking, the economy shrank .2% between January and March. When the the U.S economy shrinks, it drags down the rest of the world. So they say. Meanwhile, Greece’s inability to balance its books has been dominating financial news, yet its troubles are predicted to have a limited impact on the rest of the world. Even China, which happens to have a gargantuan economy, is walking away unscathed despite the fact that its stock market plunged. According to Mr. pish-posh IMF research chief Olivier Blanchard, “We don’t see it as a major macroeconomic issue.” Whatever.

Anthem Hits a Sour Note With Major Cyber Attack; Under Armour’s Over the Moon Ratings; Sony Executive Amy Pascal Down But Not Out


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Image courtesy of chanpipat/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Anthem now joins the illustrious list of major companies to get cyber-hacked, although the health insurance company has yet to definitively say how many of its 80 million current and former customers are affected. It can definitively be said that all sorts of personal information was taken, including social security numbers, names, birthdays, employment data etc. – the kinds of details that can facilitate a very rude and inconvenient identity theft. Anthem says no credit card information was taken. Just everything else of significance. Customers can expect to be notified if they haven’t already been, and in keeping with corporate-cyber-attack tradition, affected customers will also get free credit monitoring and identity protection.  Anthem, which just happens to be the second largest health insurance company, with Anthem Blue Cross, Anthem Blue Shield, Amerigroup and Healthlink under its wings, just might earn itself the uncoveted distinction of having suffered the largest data breach in the health care industry. Ever. However, it’s still looking to sign up new customers for that pesky February 15 Obamacare deadline. Naturally the Feds are involved and if it’s suspected that information was stolen, the FBI has graciously established the Internet Crime Complaint Center website: www.ic3.gov. Anthem also wanted everyone to know that the data of its associates was also breached if that’s at all reassuring, though I don’t know why it would be. Now go and change your passwords!

Bringing it on…

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Image courtesy of iosphere/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Don’t you just love a good athletic apparel smackdown? Today’s  smackdown is brought to you by Under Armour and its CEO Kevin Plank, who not so graciously told Nike and Adidas to get used to being number two during a CNBC interview. Charming, right? But after posting some boffo earnings that boasted 31% revenue growth to $895 million, I guess he earned the right to say that. Except that Under Armour is, in fact, currently the number two fitness apparel maker, behind Nike. Just saying. In any case, CEO Kevin Plank’s numbers were no accident. The company’s profits were up 37% to $88 million coming out to $0.40 per share. That, my virtual pals, was one cent more than what analysts predicted. Plank’s fiscal logic for Under Armour is pure fitness genius: The more people exercise, the more exercise apparel they’ll need. To add to its fitness arsenal, Under Armour picked up not one, but two calorie-counting, fitness-tracking apps: MyFitnessPal for the very robust price of $475 million and Denmark-based Endomondo, for a cool $85 million. MyFitnessPal currently has 80 million users with Endomondo coming in at 20 million users, mostly in Europe, and with those two acquisitions under its svelte belt, Under Armour hopes to become “the world’s largest digital health and fitness community.” How nifty.

Hack Attack Comeback…

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Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Sony Pictures Entertainment studio head Amy Pascal may be stepping down from her cushy spot at the top, but she’s not out of the picture. The executive, whose emails figured prominently in the Sony hack attack in December, if only because she made some racist comments about President Obama and called Angelina Jolie a spoiled brat (though she did say sorry), will now get a four year production deal with Sony.  While it’s safe to assume she won’t be working with Jolie, or Adam Sandler, or the President for that matter, she will get distribution rights to the the films she does. Not bad for someone who put her foot in her mouth, via email, subsequently earning herself some of the biggest A-list enemies imaginable. The movie “The Interview,” starring the cuddly duo of Seth Rogen and James Franco, was allegedly the source for all the hacking misery, as it poked fun at North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. The scandal cost Sony $15 million which coincidentally is the same amount of money the “The Interview” made from 2 million digital downloads – in its first few days of its release.