Wal-Mart Brings it Home with Great Earnings; A New Pew Study is Out and the Results May Surprise You; SEC Takes a Swing at Golfer Phil Mickelson

Sweet…

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Wal-Mart showered us with the news of its higher than expected quarterly profits and that’s a good sign since Wal-Mart’s success is a barometer of the economy and how well it’s behaving. Wal-Mart, in case you weren’t aware, is considered to be less upscale than its rival, Target. Because Target did not do so well this quarter and Wal-Mart did, experts are quick to point out that those in a more modest income bracket are still spending, at Wal-Mart anyways, and that is always a welcome occurrence in a healthy economy. Wal-Mart can thank an increase in drug prices, which is not as bad as it sounds. Hey, people need their medicines. But that’s just one small reason for the impressive digits. Warm weather helped keep Wal-Mart’s utility costs lower, which also contributed to those welcome numbers. Don’t laugh. Any little bit helps, even if it does involve the thermostat. A profit is a profit and Wal-Mart’s was $.304 billion. That figure is actually less than last year’s $3.34 billion, but its because of investments to improve the retailer and not because of any negative reasons. The retailer shelled out $2.7 billion to increase entry level pay and that also helped out with some of that profit. The company added 98 cents per share when analysts expected only 88 cents per share. And who doesn’t like it when analysts get it wrong, right?   As a result of the fiscally delightful news, shares of Wal-Mart made a nice little jump today, which is especially good since shares had gone down over 20% in the last twelve months.

The gig is up…

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The Pew Research Center just released the results of its latest study, this time tackling the ever-popular “sharing economy.” For whatever reason, the center wanted to know what 4,787 U.S. adults think about Uber and Lyft, Kickstarter and Airbnb, to name a few. Turns out that 72% of U.S. adults have used at one of 11 different shared/on-demand platforms.  73% responded that they’d never heard of the term “sharing economy.” But that’s nothing compared to the 89% who didn’t know what a “gig economy” is. Then things started to get dicey. 15% of the people surveyed said they’d used shared and on-demand services like Uber and Lyft, yet 30% said they’d never heard of those apps. Household income and age played a big role in who used the apps. 41% of U.S. adults with annual incomes of more than $100,000 had used at least four of the services, which was more than three times that of adults whose annual incomes were less than $30,000. 39% of college graduates used at least four of the services. Not nearly so much for those who don’t have higher degrees. For those in the 50+ range, 44% said they’ve used at least four of the services. But of the 65 and above set , only 5% used the services. While ride-sharing apps were – no great shock – used primarily by young adults in big cities, middle aged adults were the primary users of services offered by apps like Airbnb. And even though Kickstarter and other crowd-funding apps have only been around since 2009, 22% of U.S. adults apparently gave donations through them. Yet 61% of those who responded said they’d never heard of the term “crowd-funding.”

Inside out…

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Pro-golfer Phil Mickelson is under investigation and it has nothing to do with sports. The SEC has set its sights on the five time major winner for insider trading. Apparently, Mickelson scored almost a million bucks and the SEC wants him to pay it all back…with interest. To be fair, Mickelson is classified as a “relief defendant” which means he hasn’t been officially accused of…anything. He does, however, still have to pay back his insider trading profit of $931,738.12, not to mention another $105,291.09 in interest. But hey, it’s better than doing time, a possibility for the two men who supplied him with the non-publicizied information. And those two men happen to be well known sports gambler Billy Walters and former chairman of Dean Foods, Thomas Davis. It’s no mistake that the “ill-gotten gains” were from Dean Foods. Which explains why Walters and Davis are now both facing criminal charges, while Mickelson’s attorneys get to call their client, who currently ranks 17th in the world, an “innocent bystander.”

Newspapers Gone Charitable; Not All is Golden in Europe for McDonald’s; Starbucks Not Letting an Itty Bitty Downturn Get in its Way

Read all about it…

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Not-for-profit has been taking on a whole new meaning lately for some unlikely reasons: newspapers. The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News and Philly.com have gone tax-exempt. It’s probably not the first place you think of when you want to make a charitable contribution, but it’ll gladly take one now. Along with an additional $20 million donation, billionaire H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, who controlled these publications, took the Philadelphia Media Network, tweaked things around a bit and morphed the newspapers into a public benefit corporation (PBC) that will be called The Institute for Journalism in New Media.  A little wordy, maybe, but the entity itself is dedicated to “independent public service journalism and investigative reporting that positively impacts the community, while also creating innovative multimedia content.” Got that?  The paper will still be run as a “for-profit” biz while getting you a tax deduction in the process.  In case you didn’t know, Kickstarter is also a PBC. Just saying. It’s an interesting idea just not an original one for a newspaper as there are a few other newspapers in Florida and Connecticut that have taken this approach. It’s a way to try and make newspapers relevant and successful in a digital era, not to mention, a last-ditch attempt to try and keep a publication from going bust

Hamburglar?

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So what are the Golden Arches accused of doing this time? Three Italian consumer organizations are charging that the fast-food chain is causing franchises in Italy to inflate the cost of menu items. You see, in order to snag a European franchise lease, a lessee must sign a twenty year contract – a contract that is twice as long as what other franchises require. But then, McDonald’s is also accused of licensing the premises for above market rates – by about ten times –  making it nothing short of a big pain in the but to switch competitors. So, in order to defray the costs of these above-market lease rates, European McDonald’s franchises jack up the prices on menu items with consumers bearing the brunt of the cost. At least that’s according to a survey cited by the coalition filing the complaint. Apparently, a whopping 68% – 97% of McDonald’s menu items in various Italian cities are more expensive in franchises than in company stores. Franchises make up 75% of McDonald’s European revenue and worldwide McDonald’s has made $9.27 billion in revenue from these franchises. But before the EU even considers launching a formal investigation into these alleged shifty practices, authorities will first send out a formal questionnaire. Depending on how well those questions are addressed will determine if there is sufficient cause to even open an investigation. Besides, those same EU authorities are already busy investigating McDonald’s in Luxembourg over allegations that it managed to evade paying $1 billion in taxes on its European operations.

Slowdown? What slowdown?

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There might be an economic downturn in China, but that’s not stopping Starbuck’s from expanding its empire there. Sure there are already 2,000 Starbucks stores caffeinating the world’s second largest economy. However, Starbucks feels that the country could use at least 1,400 more stores and plans to have them all serving up lattes by 2019. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz feels that China has the potential to become the company’s biggest market. And that’s not so crazy considering that China is already Starbucks’ second largest market and is the fastest growing one too. At a recent Starbucks event in China called the “Starbucks China Partner-Family Forum” (Alibaba’s Jack Ma was at the event so you know it was a big deal), Schultz wanted to reassure the Chinese that he totally gets their culture and has tremendous admiration for it. Hence, he made sure to acknowledge and give major props to the parents of its baristas. In fact, Starbucks wants so badly play nice with China and shower the country with oodles of corporate respect that he is offering to cover 50% of monthly housing expenses for Starbucks employees in China. For baristas there who so valiantly served up drinks for ten years, Starbucks is offering them a “career coffee break” – a year long paid sabbatical. Hěn hǎo!