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.”

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The Middle’s Not Where It’s At; Unemployment Blame Game; The Fed’s Milky White Problem

Stuck in the middle…

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The middle class is shrinking and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Studies done by the Pew Research Center show that between 2000 and 2014, the middle class actually shrank in 9 out of ten U.S. cities. Of the 229 U.S. cities cited in the study, the amount of households classified as middle class dropped in 203 of those cities. Sure, some of those households left their socioeconomic perches because they graduated to the upper class. But that’s mostly not the case. In fact, the middle class now makes up less than half the population in the cities studied while the income inequality gap keeps growing. That could trigger some ugly economic consequences. The wider the gap gets, the more it is likely to inhibit economic growth. At least that’s what some experts think. What’s worse is that children raised in areas that are predominantly low-income, are less likely to reach the middle class. In case you were wondering, the middle class is defined as a household that earns an annual income between 2/3 to two times the median income. In 2014, a three-person household was considered middle class if its annual income was between $42,000 to $125,000. The largest middle class populations were found to be in the good old midwest. I’m sure there is irony in there somewhere. The largest low-income populations were found to be in the southwest, particularly near the Mexico border, while the highest populations of upper class were found to be in the northeast and the west coast. No matter where you stand on the issue, it’s one that is going to figure prominently in the November elections.

On the Verizon…

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Nothing like unemployment numbers to ruin an otherwise pleasant Thursday. The number of first time applicants rose by 20,000 to a grand total of 294,000 seeking jobless benefits. Unfortunately it marked the third straight week of increases of first-time applicants. But at least that number was still below the 300,00 mark  – for 62 weeks straight, mind you  – so the situation isn’t that alarming. Well, except maybe for those who find themselves out of work. Also, economists are actually pointing the finger at Verizon – or rather the 40,000 Verizon workers who went on strike back in April. They are likely the ones who have applied for jobless benefits while on strike.  Economists predicted that the number of applicants would fall to about 270,000, which makes perfect mathematical sense if you figure that the Verizon strike is apparently responsible for that unwelcome surge and without it the numbers would have dropped.

White as a sheet…

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The Fed’s been taking a lot of heat lately. And some of that heat has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that it hasn’t raised rates, yet again. Instead, top lawmakers penned a letter to Janet Yellen and company calling out the lack of diversity at the Central Bank which is “disproportionately white and male.” Ha! Who would have thought the Central Bank and the Academy Awards have something in common? Signed by 116 members of the House and 11 senators, the letter expressed disappointment over the Fed’s failure to “represent the public” and would like it to consider a number of factors, including race, when filling posts in the future. The letter did, however, praise Yellen for her strong leadership. So props to her on that. So just how disproportionately white and male is the Fed? Well, of the five current Fed governors, all of them are white. However, to be fair, two of them are women, including Janet Yellen, who happens to be the first women to head the Central Bank in its 100 year history. If that’s not disproportionately white and male, then I don’t know what is. Since monetary policy strongly correlates with hard-working Americans of every ilk, it does seem odd that the Fed is primarily made up of mostly one ilk. Give or take. At least minorities make up 24% of regional Fed bank boards. While that’s not an ideal representation, it’s still a 16% increase from 2010.

 

Classy…

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The middle class has fallen to less than 50% of the population, according to a new report published by the Pew Research Center. Gasp. The middle class used to account for 61% of the population and it’s a fact that has got everyone from economists to politicians in a tizzy, as each and everyone of them tries to dissect exactly what that means and how it will help or hinder their agendas. The upper class rose 47%, growing from 20 million people to 50 million people with their share of the national income pie up 49% from 28%. In case you were wondering, 190 million of us are not upper-class. Got three people in your household? Well, if your household income is $41,869, then call yourself middle-class. But, the good news is that the median income for the middle class has risen 34%…since the 1970’s. Then there’s lowest – and fastest growing – bracket: 70 million among us make just 9% of the national income. Apparently, 99% of gains are going to just the top 10% of the population and a family income of less than $50,486 after taxes has a nasty way of causing that particular family to go even deeper into debt. Some argue that this income disparity explains why economic recovery is taking so much longer than it should. Others, however, argue that it’s all matter of how you look at the information and that the picture really isn’t all that grim. Hmmm.

How do you like your stake?

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Guess what happens when Warren Buffett tells the world he owns shares of a company? If you guessed that shares go up then you’d be correct. For instance, today the Oracle of Omaha disclosed in a regulatory filing that his company, Berkshire Hathaway, owns a passive 8% stake in Seritage Growth Properties. So what makes for a “passive” stake? Basically, Warren Buffet buys a huge chunk, in this case about 2 million shares worth an estimated $70 million – $100 million and he, well Berkshire Hathaway anyway, sits on it for the long term. With Warren Buffett’s recent disclosure about his stake, the stock went up today as much as 17% at one point, hitting $41.18, all because of the exciting news. Seritage, by the way, is the spawn of a Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) that was spun-off from Sears Holding Group as a way to help the embattled retailer capitalize on its approximately 235 real estate holdings. And Sears did just that when it managed to raise $2.7 billion from the REIT.  Incidentally, while activist investors tend to love REITs, Washington DC is not fan of the practice and is doing its very best from letting spun-off companies turn into REITs. REITs don’t pay as much to Uncle Sam in corporate income tax like other companies do and its profits go almost entirely to shareholders. Then shareholders pay the taxes on those dividends at the same tax rates as their ordinary income. Preventing companies from exercising this little practice would raise about $4.3 billion for the government. But for now, Warren Buffett can just sit pretty sit on his big/little stake while Washington dukes out the issue in Congress.

Pay days….

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Look out Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, Android Pay…Walmart has entered into the almost crowded mobile payment arena by launching, you guessed it – Walmart Pay. Through its own smartphone app, you simply use a credit, debit or even a gift card and voila! That purchase is yours in just a couple of swipes. Testing has already begun at Walmart’s home base in Arkansas and will likely launch in all 4,500 plus stores by next year. Walmart has been on the prowl to find ways to make for an easier shopping experience…at Walmart. It’s estimated that 22 million people use the current Walmart app every single month and that more than 50% of those online transactions take place on mobile devices. Walmart’s system, by the way, is cleverly designed to integrate nicely with other payment applications, including all the ones mentioned in the first sentence. If you need any more of a reason to use Walmart Pay, then consider that it’s actually a more hack-proof alternative – the app stores your card but transmits an alternate card number that is generated by the card issuer. The merchant never gets the real number which leaves hackers with nothing to hack from the merchant. By the way, Walmart doesn’t accept ApplePay. How very convenient.

Passengers Are Getting Bagged, The Loan Danger and The Not So Magical Magic of Macy’s

Bagging it…

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Image courtesy of phasinphoto/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Results of the JD Power & Associates 2014 Airline Satisfaction study were just released. 11,370 travelers were surveyed. I was not among the surveyed. Out of a possible 1000 points, the industry as a whole scored 712, which is actually a 17 point increase over last year. Again, I was not one of the people surveyed. There were seven categories that were rated some of which include cost and fees, crew and aircraft. According to Rick Garlick, head of J.D. Power’s travel and hospitality practice, “It isn’t that passengers are satisfied with fees; it’s that they are simply less dissatisfied because they realize that fees have become a way of life with air travel.” Apparently 44% of travelers feel this way. I am of the 56%. Noticeably absent from the list was Virgin America. Sir Richard Branson’s airline does not yet qualify for the survey and the other airlines should be grateful for that. Alaska Airlines came in first for traditional airlines. Shockingly enough, American Airlines came in third (and not last!). Once again, I was not given the survey. Jet Blue ranked first in low-cost airlines. However, I find that Jet Blue tends to charge just as much as “traditional” airlines. US Airways came in last.

Student groans…

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Image courtesy of ddpavumba/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Just when you thought having to take out student loans was irritating enough, a new study, courtesy of the Pew Research Center, adds salt to the borrowers fiscal wounds. The study disconcertingly found that student borrowers don’t earn nearly as much as their debt-free peers. As if the socio-economic divide wasn’t enough to highlight the difference between the haves from the have-nots, the burden of having to pay back those education loans, which are exceeding the $1 trillion mark, are trumping the demand for home loans. Hence, the mortgage market is suffering some blows as well. All that money tied up in loans in the name of higher education are dragging down the US ecnomony even more than (gasp!) credit card debt. Because borrowers have a harder time building up assets, their debts tend to lead to more debt. The median net worth of a young household (young being under 40 years old) paying off student loans is $8,700 while a debt free young household has a median net worth of $64,700. But on the bright side – if you can call it that – college-educated households tend to earn twice as much income than a home sans college degrees.

Macy’s retail tale…

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Image courtesy of cooldesign/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Oh the magic of Macy’s, as the slogan goes. But it wasn’t that magical as their first quarter revenues fell 1.7% to $6.28 billion, which the 85 year old department store is attributing to the nasty winter that wreaked havoc on our lives and economy. However, first quarter net income rose 3% to $224 million, up $7 million from a year earlier thanks to lowered sales. It also beat analysts expectations which is always fun to watch when that happens. Its confidence in its ability to sell sell sell must be pretty intense since they increased their dividend. They’re also planning on putting big chunks of money into e-commerce.  Macy’s has about 840 stores nationwide.