Apples to Apples: Warren Buffett Increases Stake in Tech Giant; Groupon’s Earnings Show Everyone Loves a Deal; Trump Wine Makes Trouble

Well, if Warren Buffett’s doing it…

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It’s all about Apple and airplanes these days for Warren Buffett. His company, Berkshire Hathaway, again increased its position in the iPhone maker to 57.4 million shares back in December. This means the company now boasts a hefty $7.74 billion stake in the Cupertino-based company. The Oracle of Omaha also decided to scoop up more shares in the airline industry’s four biggest carriers in the United States: American Airlines Group, Delta Airlines, Southwest Airlines and United Continental Holdings. This little purchase set Berkshire Hathaway back by about $9.3 billion. What’s a bit weird about Warren Buffett’s new-found affection for Apple, is that he has never been much of a fan of tech stocks only because – or so he would like us to think – that they are apparently outside his realm of understanding. I’m pretty sure there’s very little in this world that’s outside his scope of knowledge. Just saying. The airline investment was also a little surprising given Warren Buffett’s hands-off stance on the industry for the last twenty years. Now, however, he apparently sees some potential in airlines that he hadn’t seen in years. In any case, the timing of Berkshire Hathaway’s Apple purchase couldn’t have been better because shares of Apple closed at an all-time high yesterday, as I noted here in this blog.  In fact, shares of all the companies in which Berkshire Hathaway invested have gone up. Because if Warren Buffett puts his fiscal stamp of approval on a company, investors take that as a sign – albeit a not very scientific one –  and they all tend to follow suit.  As for his ten year old Walmart stake, the news was not as good. Berkshire Hathaway dumped almost all of its shares  – close to a billion dollars worth – and analysts are now wondering just how bad of an omen is that.

Get your Groupon, yo!

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Groupon, it seems, is not only beloved to bargain hunters, but to Wall Street as well, as the company just released its fourth quarter earnings, easily beating estimates all-around. For a company that’s all about posting discounts, it took in revenues of $935 million, when analysts only expected $913 million. While the company earned close to $370 million in profit, analysts were left a bit bummed, since last year’s number was higher, at almost $372 million. However, Groupon did add 7 cents per share, more than triple the expected 2 cents. Plenty of its success from the quarter is apparently due to its acquisition of website LivingSocial, which Groupon scooped up back in October.  Groupon’s customers increased by two million, one million of whom came from LivingSocial, and its total amount of customers purchased 11% more goods and services during the same period last year. Interestingly enough, the amount of purchases this past quarter was a smidgen lower, coming in at $1.70 billion, when last year at this time it was more like $1.71 billion. But hey, what do you expect from bargain-hunters, after all?

Cheers…

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In today’s installment of “Who’s Next to Face a Boycott for Carrying Trump Merchandise?”and the #GrabYourWallet campaign, we turn our attention to Wegmans Food Markets.  The offending merchandise in question is wine, or rather products from the Trump Winery, of which Eric Trump, President Trump’s son, is the President. While a group aptly named “Stop Trump Wine,” is calling upon Virginians to boycott businesses that carry the beverages because “Eric Trump shares the views of his father,” the local chapter of the National Organization for Women got 300 of its members to come up with ways to get Wegmans to put the kibosh on the products. But my question is, if the wine is really good, will the boycott be effective? Just wondering. Like all other retailers, Wegmans, with its 92 stores, explains that it only looks at how a product is performing. If the products in question are performing well, with people still buying them, and the boycotts aren’t necessarily having an effect, chances are, the wine stays put.

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French Company Goes Organic for U.S. Acquisition; U.S. Airlines Gear Up for Cuba; U.S. Banks Bond Over Brexit

Let them eat organic cake!

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Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Dannon Yogurt’s parent company, Danone (said with a French accent) is looking to pick up  a major U.S company that will effectively double its size. That’s assuming all goes according to plan. Danone wants to offer organic food provider, WhiteWave, purveyor of favorites like Silk Almond and Soy Milk, Horizon Milk and Earthbound Farms, $10.4 billion in cash for the fiscal pleasure of its company. That’s a 24% premium over WhiteWave’s thirty day average closing price and comes out to about to $56.25 per share. But for Danone, whose looking to make itself a bigger presence in the United States, it’s well worth it, since WhiteWave’s offerings tend to attract wealthier consumers. WhiteWave generates annual sales of about $4 billion and with this acquisition, Danone expects to see a $300 million boost in operating profit. Danone has also been struggling in other parts of the world and this acquisition would ease the burden of some of those lesser-performing markets. FYI, when companies offer to buy other companies, their offers tend be at least at a 30% premium. Because this offer was not, it theoretically means that the bidding door is still open to other offers from companies like Coca Cola, PepsiCo and Kellogg Co, to name but a few. In a regulatory filing, though, WhiteWave did graciously say that it wouldn’t solicit other offers. However, there are exceptions. Should WhiteWave go with another offer, Danone still wins because it will get a $310 million break-up fee.

Bienvenido…

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Image courtesy of Tuomas_Lehtinen/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Believe it or not, Hillary Clinton wasn’t the only topic of conversation today coming out of Washington DC. President Obama announced a proposal to allow eight U.S. airlines to provide nonstop service between Cuba and ten U.S. cities, beginning this fall. This will mark the first time in 50 years that travel of this kind will be available. And all this just one year after diplomatic relations were re-established. The city and airline selections were made by the Department of Transportation and the lucky airline winners are: Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Airlines, Frontier Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines, Spirit Airlines and United Airlines. American Airlines is actually no stranger to the island nation, as it has been offering charter services there since 1991. Just last year the airline made over one thousand chartered flights to Cuba, while JetBlue made over 200 chartered trips. That’s awfully welcome news for an industry that took a fiscal beating lately. The cities that can look forward to the new service had to have have substantial Cuban-American populations already in place. Hence, Florida finds itself the recipient of 14 out of the 20 daily nonstop flights, since it boasts the largest Cuban-American population. The cities include: Atlanta, Charlotte, Fort Lauderdale, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami,  Newark, New York City, Orlando and Tampa. According to Cuban officials, the number of American travelers to Cuba is up 84%, compared to last year, in just the first half of the year.  But there is still a trade embargo in place, which does include a travel ban. However, there are twelve convenient categories of reasons to fly to Cuba that you can check off should you decide to make your way to Havana any time soon.

Come together…

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It’s a fiscal kumbaya as four U.S. banks offered up their sincerest support for London following the Brexit vote. The gracious supporters include, JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley. The banks agreed to help British Finance Minister George Osborne find ways to ensure that the U.K. remains the prominent financial player that it always was, pre-Brexit. And of course they all will try and find new and exciting ways to lure and retain big banking to London so that the consequences of the Brexit don’t do the country in completely. While that sentiment no doubt warmed the hearts of investors all over the world, the investment banks could not offer up as much optimism as far as the jobs situation is concerned. After all, “no one in their right mind would currently invest in Britain.” Keeping those jobs there might might be the biggest challenge of all and no one wants to make any promises on that. Especially Jamie Dimon, who had previously mentioned that around 4,000 jobs could make their way out of London. In the meantime, the French wasted no time – I mean NONE! – in announcing to the world that it would make its tax regime as enticing as possible, in a not at all subtle attempt to grab some pricey banking business from London.

The Hostess with the Mostess is Baaaack; Airlines Take a Fiscal Hit, Yet Consumers Shed No Tears; Starbucks Set to Raise You Up

 

Sugar high…

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No need to get all sentimental here, but Hostess has arrived. Again. The Twinkie maker is set to go public in the fall, following a deal with Gores Holdings which picked up a huge stake in the company. It seems like only yesterday when Hostess rode a fiscal roller-coaster that almost had the sweets maker go bust four years ago. But those days are now far behind, as the Ding-Dongs proprietor boasts a $2.3 billion valuation. The folks who bought the company, Metropoulos & Co. together with Apollo Global Management LLC, were the same ones who restored Pabst to its original glory. They picked up Hostess for $185 million and borrowed another $500 million to basically rebuild the company from the ground up. They did just that, but smaller. Much smaller. Almost all union workers were ousted, equipment was upgraded and even robots were brought in for some labor. Just like “The Jetsons.” Sort of.  Before Twinkies disappeared from shelves for those dark seven months, the company employed 19,000 people, most of them union. Now there are closer to 1,200 employees – not including robots, and more than 95% of them are NOT union workers. Top brass also unloaded Wonder Bread and Nature’s Pride, got products into movies theaters and restaurants, launched a new marketing campaign with celebs, including the illustrious Will Ferrell and threw in a countdown clock in New York’s Times Square for New Year’s. Hostess also doubled the shelf life of its products to 65 days. You might not find that especially appetizing, but investors sure did. And in case you were skeptical about the Will Ferrell choice, then consider that Hostess’s market for sweet-baked goods is up over 16% and posted $650 million in revenue for 2015. The company is now poised to hit $772 million in revenue for 2016 and by 2017, profit is expected to grow to $101.8 million.  If you’re still not convinced that the Hostess tide is turning, then look out for frozen fried Twinkies, making their coronary debut in a few weeks. Then we’ll talk.

Karma, I tell you…

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Looks like the airlines have taken a hit and I suspect no one feels too sorry for the industry’s top players. Delta,  American Airlines, United Airlines and even Southwest posted declines between 12% and 31%. So sad, no? The demand just wasn’t enough for air travel and that, coupled with some other factors, made for some very unpleasant earnings and share declines. But cry me a river. These are, after all, airlines we are talking about. In my most humble opinion, it sometimes feel that they make a sport out of fleecing travelers. Just saying. Delta shares fell on the news that its revenue per each seat flown one mile dipped by 5%. Despite the wordiness of that calculation, it is how airlines measure their success. It also them helps determine just how much pricing power they have. And wouldn’t ya know it. They currently don’t have as much as they’d like. For now anyway. And that’s welcome news for travelers who aren’t too happy shelling out big bucks for uncomfortable seats. Delta, the second largest airline, actually had been expecting the decrease, but a smaller one of no more than 4.5%. The airline also ate a $450 million loss because they bet against fuel prices. Actually, Delta bet that fuel prices would jump and locked in some fuel purchase contracts called hedge contracts. Prices did, in fact, jump. Just not as much as Delta had hoped they so Delta ditched the contracts and ate a half billion dollars on them. So sad, no?

Nothing to buzz about…

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It’s July, oh faithful Starbucks drinker and do you know what that means? It means that it’s time for the price of your caffeine fix to go up. After all, it’s tradition. Actually, the tradition is to raise the prices during the first week of July, yet here were are and no increase. But fear not because Starbucks already made a statement that a price increase is on the horizon. Besides, due to a pricing glitch, some loyal drinkers were already charged that increase. Oops. However, those unfortunate consumers could have only been overcharged by, at most, 30 cents. There’s no official word yet on which drinks will be getting pricier, but  the ones that do go up will only go up by as much as – you guessed it – 30 cents. There is one more caveat, though. The amount of money a drink increases varies by region. So perhaps a move might be in order. Just saying. The fact is coffee futures keep going higher and are up over 10% just this year. Even if you are annoyed that your coffee habit is about to eat a bigger chunk out of your bank account, Starbucks knows that you’re still gonna keep whipping out the cash for it. In any case, if you think you did get overcharged on your recent Starbucks purchase, you can call the customer service hotline at 1-800-782-7282 to request your refund.

Subway Follows the Crowd; Sale Away: Cheap Southwest Fares Extended; SEC Wants to Take Down the Avon Pranker

Namaste no more…

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Image courtesy of Master isolated images/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Subway doesn’t just want you to eat fresh. The sandwich chain now wants you to eat au natural. The company jumped on the healthy ingredients bandwagon finally announcing that it will be unceremoniously dumping yellow number 5, and other ingredients you have come to love and rely upon for all your unhealthy needs. McDonald’s, Taco Bell and a host of other fast-food chains already announced their plans to ditch the edible offenders that also include artificial flavoring and preservatives. But Chipotle reigns supreme boasting cuisine that is non-GMO, a tough act to beat in the fast-food universe. Oh well, they can’t all be king – of fast food, that is. It’s a wonder Subway waited this long to make the switch seeing as how it took a 3.3% sales hit last year. The sandwich maker also had to deal with a smear campaign over its use of azodicarboamide, an ingredient that Subway used to make its tasty bread, but one that is also found in…yoga mats. How anyone even discovered that azodicarbonamide would be a great bread ingredient is beyond me, but I digress. If you’re dreading the day when artificial ingredients make their hasty retreat from Subway’s 27,000 U.S. locations, then fear not. The complete changeover is expected to take eighteen months.

Who doesn’t love a sale?

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Some sales are just better than others, especially when there are airplanes involved. So, what was supposed to be a 72 hour sale over at Southwest Airlines, has now been extended another 24 hours to give would be trippers more time to book some wallet-friendly travel. Apparently the airline couldn’t handle the volume of traffic that flocked to its website for the sale, hoping to score some cheap fares for flights all over the country. Many enthusiastic travelers, eager to score these thrifty seats were receiving error messages when attempting to book their tickets while other bargain hunters had to deal with a slow moving site. But Southwest has beefed up their tech resources to handle the sale traffic so you still have until the end of day Friday to score a $49 (one) way trip…to somewhere.

Faking it…

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Perhaps you recall the phony bid for Avon several weeks ago where a “company”  that went by the name PTG Capital filed a bid with the SEC to buy Avon? The “bid” was for more than three times the price of its stock and news of the offer sent shares up more than 20%. Turns out that the credit for the incredibly stupid prank goes to Nedko Nedev, possibly one of Bulgaria’s most embarrassing residents. Except it wasn’t so much a prank but rather a scheme that allowed Nedev to sell off his shares of Avon at a much higher price than he might have gotten for them had he done so legally. This scheme was nothing new for Nedev, who along with some other conniving associates, pulled this shtick with a few other companies including Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory. Even though Nedev probably made a few extra bucks, he probably won’t get to spend any of it seeing as how the SEC intends to get its hands on the proceeds, not to mention, slapping Nedev with a few extra fines. However, the scheme also exposed flaws (gasp) in the SEC’s filing system which companies can actually access following certain procedures. So in a way it’s a good thing. Sort of. Okay maybe not.

Snapchat-ting all the Way to the Bank; HSBC Is In Big Trouble, Yet Again; Virgin America’s Soarin Good Earnings

And just like that it disappears…

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Image courtesy of renjith krishnan/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Hindsight is 20/20 but in Snapachat’s case it’s more like 19 – as in billions of dollars. The social media and messaging app, which very presciently declined Facebook’s offer to buy them for a paltry $3 billion back in 2013, is rumored to be adding an additional $500 million to its coffers. This will now peg the company at between $16-$19 billion and could make it the second most valuable privately held company behind Über technologies and Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi. Started in 2011 and helmed by CEO Evan Spiegel, the app allows users to post pictures and messages that disappear within a few seconds after being opened. Snapchat boasts 100 million users and it should come as no surprise that 57% of its users are under the age of 25. Of course, its disappearing act is not the app’s only trick as it now has deals with, among others, Yahoo, CNN, ESPN…the list goes on, tailoring content just for you. Even movie studios are getting in on the Snapchat action and before long you’ll see Snapchat’s very own superhero series. If that doesn’t scream street cred, then I don’t know what does.

Don’t bank on it…

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Image courtesy of scottchan/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

There’s nothing like a little money laundering investigation to put a downer on your week. Well in HSBC’s case it’s “aggravated money laundering” which sounds so much more sinister than just plain old “money laundering.” This latest criminal investigation comes a week after the revelation that it helped some of its super wealthy clients and their 1,100 bank accounts, evade taxes. HSBC is on a roll, I tell you. Investigators suspected that if HSBC was helping its clients avoid paying taxes, then what else might it be helping their clients do? Hence, we have the money-laundering investigation.  A Swiss public prosecutor launched a criminal probe into the matter and has since raided the picturesque offices of HSBC. Good thing that former HSBC IT employee, Herve Falciani, very thoughtfully collected all those files pointing investigators into launching an investigation. Too bad he tried to sell the information first, though. That kind of looked bad for him. But probably not as bas as how it’s looking for HSBC right now. Of course, HSBC is said to be cooperating. Whatever that means. Do banks ever not cooperate?  HSBC did, however, sort of acknowledge it messed up on the tax evasion end blaming the fact that stringent standards weren’t in place as they should have been. You don’t say.

Flyin’ high…

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Image courtesy of hywards/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

If you’ve ever flown Virgin America, then it might come as no surprise (or maybe it will) that the airline just whipped Wall Street expectations with a little help from cheaper oil prices and fully booked planes. The airline only made its Wall Street IPO debut back in November but so far it has not disappointed as the airline took in $1.16 per share – a far cry from the 80 cents Wall Street expected it would earn. Revenue for the fourth quarter was $372.2 – a 3.4% increase over last year at this time, impressively taking down analyst estimates of $370.8 million. Started by billionaire Sir Richard Branson, the airline just announced big plans to give Southwest Airlines a very unwelcome run for its money by offering non-stop flights to Austin. Let’s just hope this little battle pays off for the passengers too.

Spacing Out Thanks to the FAA, Will France Say Adieu to $10 Billion? True or False: $59 Fares

Cleared for liftoff…

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Image courtesy of Victor Habbick/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Sir Richard Branson and his impending fantastic space voyage are good to go as far as the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) is concerned. Virgin Galactic, co-owned by Branson and Abu Dhabi’s Aabar Investments mapped out an agreement with the FAA over how the intergalactic adventure will work with US airspace. It hopes to launch its first flight on SpaceShipTwo by the end of 2014. Hundreds of people have already signed up for a flight that only sets them back about $250,000 – and is, of course, payable via super-cool and super un-regulated bitcoins.

Au revoir, BNP?

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Image courtesy of 1shots/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

France’s biggest bank, BNP Paribas, is already in some tres hot water over violating US sanctions against unpleasant countries like Iran and Sudan. The Justice Department has been conducting its investigation for quite a while and feels the time has come for BNP Paribas to finally pay for its wrongdoings to the hefty sum of $10 billion. What’s so special about this figure, besides its enormity is that it would be the biggest fine ever imposed on a misbehaving bank –by fives times as much. BNP, however, feels it should only have to pay around $8 billion. But Attorney General Eric Holder has even bigger plans as he is eager to remind the banking industry that none of them are “too big to jail.” He wants to bar BNP from even trading assets ( or as it’s called on The Street, dollar clearing) besides throwing the responsible individuals into the less than illustrious ranks of the unemployed.

Southwest. Oops. They did it again. And Again…

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Image courtesy of digitalart/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Southwest was in a whole heap of trouble yesterday and had to pay some embarrassing and avoidable fines (hey, just like BNP will likely do, almost). The trouble began when Southwest posted $59 fares on its website flying from Atlanta to LA, Chicago and New York. Of course those fares were too good to be true. Would be travelers were told that those fares were not available and were a mistake and never meant to be part of the sale even though they were heavily advertised. Hmmm. The US Department of Transportation didn’t care for this show of false advertising and let them know it. Lucky, for the airline it only had to pony up $300,000 which is probably what it earns in the time it takes you to read this paragraph. Despite its questionable sales tactics, shares of the airline have gone up over 40% this year. Another hmmm.