Global Markets Fight Back Terrorists; Lumber Liquidators Whacked with Another Settlement; Starbucks Feeds America’s Hungry

The terrorists have not won…

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Image courtesy of FrameAngel/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Markets all over the world took a beating because of the cowardly terrorist attacks in Belgium that left dozens dead and many more wounded and forever haunted. Companies dealing in travel and hospitality industries suffered the most today with Royal Caribbean losing almost 4% and Carnival Cruise Lines taking its own 3% hit. Online booking site Priceline Group endured a 3% loss as airlines like Delta Airlines and American Airlines Group lost a couple of percentage points, as well. It’s no surprise, I suppose, that healthcare stocks actually saw increases, as did material stocks. But in a big f.u. to terrorism, the Dow Jones actually picked up a point as global markets rebounded later in the day, even those in Europe. Gold also rose, because well…gold always rise. Investors consider the precious metal as a perennially safe bet. Seems fair.

Tiiiiiiimmmmbbbberrrr…

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The settlements just keep coming in for Lumber Liquidators Holdings. Today’s award goes to the California Air Resources Board (CARB) – I laughed at the acronym too – in the amount of $2.5 million. The number seemed a bit low to me, especially since 40 of Lumber Liquidators 375 stores are in California, not to mention, the company’s flooring has the potential to cause cancer from the high levels of formaldehyde present in them.  Not exactly minor details, I feel. But the other reason I’m scratching my head is because there was no formal finding of any violation, nor was there any admission of wrongdoing by Lumber Liquidators. Just saying. This settlement, by the way, has nothing to do with Lumber Liquidator’s previous settlement with the DOJ that had the flooring company shelling out $10 million to the government agency. Naturally, shares of Lumber Liquidators are up by almost 16% and closed at $13.93. But considering that shares lost more than 70% of their value since that scathing “60 Minutes” report last March, and there are still plenty of class-action suits headed toward Lumber Liquidators, you probably don’t want to hold your breath waiting for the company to fully fiscally recover. In fact, if you ask Kase Capital’s Whitney Tilson,  who is a big fan of shorting Lumber Liquidators, he thinks the flooring company actually has a 50% chance of going bust.

Bon appétit…

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Don’t feel so bad skipping that sandwich you’ve been eyeing at Starbucks. If nobody buys it, you might just help feed someone who is considered “food insecure.” The plan came from baristas and now the coffee chain has made a pledge to donate 100% of its unsold food through FoodShare and Food Donation Connection (FDC). It’s all in an effort to feed the 48 million Americans who don’t have the luxury of knowing if or when their next meal is coming.  It is estimated that 15% of American households are considered “food insecure” while at the same time an estimated 70 billion of food waste is produced by Americans that are far more fortunate. Starbucks had already been donating pastries and other types of foods that had longer shelf lives since 2010. The challenge, however, was how best to preserve the highly perishable products like salads and sandwiches. But now the FDC will send refrigerated vans to all of Starbucks 7,600 plus U.S. locations, pick up all those unsold goodies and fill the bellies of those who could really use them. Starbucks plans to have given out 5 million meals by the end of 2016.

 

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Things are Looking Up on Wall Street. For Now; Could it Get Any Worse for Lumber Liquidators?; Will you Remain Loyal to Starbucks?

Could it be?

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Image courtesy of Teerapun/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Oil and other commodities had a nice little surge today with a lot of thanks to just released jobs numbers and inflation figures.  The surge helped the market achieve a moment of zen by stabilizing it and even almost erasing all the declines it took on Friday. All ten major S&P sectors were up. Yes, there are ten major ones. Some of these major sectors include oil, metals, autos and even retail. Stocks are also up, as is the Dow, which took in around 22o points. Not to be a downer but the S&P is still down around 5% for the year with oil hanging out at 12 year lows. However, U.S. crude is up around 7% checking in at about $31.44 per barrel. The International Energy Agency says that the U.S. is taking the “biggest hit right now,” but by 2021 it will lead in oil production. So where does that leave the U.S. for the next five years? Hmmm. Something to think about.

Don’t breathe easy…

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Lumber Liquidators is on a roll. Except it’s not a very good one. First, the flooring company agreed to a $13 million penalty and five years probation for a criminal settlement after it acknowledged that it illegally imported wood from forests that are home to endangered species. So not cool. Then, just when Lumber Liquidators was about to breathe a big sigh of relief over a February 10 CDC report that found its formaldehyde-laced wood floors weren’t that toxic, the CDC announces that they were mistaken. Its revised report indicated that their floors are, in fact, that bad and that certain types of Lumber Liquidators’ flooring from China are actually three times more likely to cause cancer than what was previously thought. Oops. It seems an error was made in the calculations when incorrect figures were used for ceiling height in determining the risks of exposure from the offending floors. Serious arithmetic issues are at work. Before, it was thought that 2 – 9 cases could be developed in 100,000 people. But now the figure is closer to 6 – 30 cases in 100,000 people that could develop cancer. Of course, that cancer risk is separate from other the many other ailments people could develop, including respiratory issues and eye, nose and throat irritations. Just this morning the company lost about a quarter of its market value, besides being down 83% for the last twelve months. But at least Lumber Liquidators has suspended sales of flooring from China and is strengthening its quality controls, which is cute and all but probably too little too late.

Hey big spender…

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It’s time to decide what your Starbucks loyalty is worth. The coffee chain is tweaking its rewards program and that will have you spending more cash to get the coveted perks. Under the current rewards program, customers earn stars for every purchase they make, and after 12 stars a customer can score a free food or drink item. Some shrewd customers have figured out that in one visit they have baristas ring up multiple items separately so that their rewards rack up quicker. With one star earned per purchase, this tactic has managed to infuriate other customers since the strategy increases wait times at the register. But that’s about to change as the new rewards program is based on dollars earned, regardless of how many purchases you manage to make, even in a single visit. Consumers will now earn two stars for every dollar spent and 125 stars gets you a free item. Figure it’ll cost you upwards of $60 before you hit that freebie. If you happen to be a Starbucks customer who miraculously manages to spend less than $5 in a single visit, you probably won’t like the coming changes. So now, like most rewards programs, from airlines to credit cards, the more you spend the more you earn. The goal, Starbucks says, is to get more people to sign up for the program. Of course, the new programs also conveniently increases store sales and profit.

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!

 

McDonald’s European Tax McMess; OPEC Member Smackdown; Unemployment Ups and Downs

Did the Hamburglar do it?

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Hold on to your McMuffins because the Golden Arches are under investigation by European regulators. Apparently McDonald’s neglected to pay taxes on its franchise profits earned in Europe and Russia since 2009. The EU says that 250 million euros made just in 2013 wasn’t  even taxed and McDonald’s had an unfair advantage over its competitors. Gasp. McDonald’s European franchise office is based in the teeny tiny country of Luxembourg. The trouble seems to have started when authorities in Luxembourg decided that McD’s was exempt from paying taxes on its profits because the U.S. was also taxing them on those profits.  McDonald’s, however, says the allegations are false and that it paid over $2 billion in corporate in taxes, besides other taxes, between 2010 and 2014. Starbucks, Fiat and Apple also faced similar investigations and Starbucks and Fiat ultimately found themselves forking over $34 million each in back taxes and penalties.

Can’t we all just get along?

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OPEC members just can’t seem to get along these days which is a bit unsettling considering they control a trillion dollar oil supply. Because of the oil glut and the fact that oil prices are so low –   a barrel closed at $42.49, the lowest price since 2009 – Venezuela is finding itself cash-strapped as oil is a big chunk of the country’s bread and butter. Together with a few other cash-strapped countries, including Ecuador and Algeria (don’t laugh), they want Saudi Arabia to cut back on its oil production output to help bring prices back up and make them less cash-strapped. Saudi Arabia doesn’t want to, but might consider doing so if Russia and Mexico do the same. Saudia Arabia, by the way, is the world’s largest oil exporter and is not cash-strapped so they don’t really feel the need to cut back. Saudi Arabia also said it would listen to what the other countries have to say. Which is nice and all. But it still intends to do what it wants. Like it always does. Russia also has no plans to cut back since it does not see a point in doing so. And besides, who tells Russia what to do? Iran wants OPEC to reduce output just so that it can make room for its re-entry into the wonderful lucrative world of petroleum production. But to be clear, Iran has no intention of capping its own output to help out with the current oil glut. Maybe, just maybe, Iran will agree to cap its oil production once it reaches its pre-sanction levels. After all, its gotta make up for lost times, you know?  OPEC pumped over 32 million barrels a day in November. Once Iran and Indonesia (yes, that country’s back, too) return, expect that number to be much much higher. While annual revenue for OPEC was $550 billion last year, in the five years prior, the organization was pulling down $1 trillion annually.

You say that’s a good thing?

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Applications for unemployment benefits rose to 269,000 applicants, gaining 9,000 newbies from last week and apparently that’s good news. Well, maybe not to the 269,000 applicants, but we won’t go there just yet. And even though that means that there are now approximately 2.16 million Americans right now collecting unemployment benefits – is that term an oxymoron? – unemployment is still considered to be at historically low levels. Believe it or not, this report actually points to a healthy job market. And why shouldn’t it? The number of unemployment benefit recipients is 9.3% less than it was a year ago. An average of 206,000 jobs have been added per month in the last year with a whopping 270,000 jobs added just in October. Even average hourly earnings are up 2.5% in the last twelve months. You can be sure the Fed will be considering this latest report as it mulls its decision to raise interest rates, which by the way, is more than likely to happen in about two weeks.

 

A Dow-ner of a Day on Wall Street; On Rate Hikes and Coffee; Chipotle’s Latest Effort Is Calorie-Free

All fall down…

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Fewer things are uglier than a 1,089 point plunge on the dow. And that’s just how Monday started off, within the first few minutes of trading. By closing, however, the market was down only 588 points. Phew. Apparently the market is correcting itself, so the drops shouldn’t be too alarming. Also don’t look too much into last week’s 1,000 point drop. At least that’s what the experts are saying. The term “correction” is meant to reassure us. So are you reassured now? But correction or not, overnight there was a big sell-off in China that brought about a very unsightly 8.5% hit to the Shanghai Composite Index which the Chinese media is very unaffectionately calling “Black Monday.” Yes. It’s that bad. And worse since the repercussions of this hit are spreading through Europe, and yes, even our shores. Feel free to cringe now. The world’s second biggest economy is slowing a little too much for our liking. Countries that depend on China to buy its commodes and luxury goods companies that have enjoyed selling to the Chinese are  now freaking out and revising their outlooks. Although, Apple CEO Tim Cook graciously pointed out, much to the delight of Wall Street, that the Chinese are, in fact, still buying, albeit, at a slower pace and that Apple actually had a record few weeks in China. Well, lucky Apple.

As for that rate hike…

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Whether you see it as a good thing or bad thing, plans for Janet Yellen and the Fed to hike rates in September just might have hit a wall thanks to the financial turmoil rocking the world as of late. Sell-offs, swings and losses (oh my!) just might have done the trick to put the kibosh on the Federal Reserve’s intention to raise rates next month, at least according to investors, who probably know a thing or two about that. In fact, that hike is now looking like it will take place around March. It’s all sort of ironic since the Fed seemed almost non-plussed about China’s fiscal comings and goings because the U.S. economy was the hogging the spotlight for the way it’s been picking up speed lately. Oh well. Guess that thinking caught up with the Fed. Incidentally, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, always at the forefront of the cause du jour, sent out an email advising employees to be sensitive to investors who seem a bit edgy, not from caffeine withdrawal, but rather from the volatile global market situation. He writes: “be very sensitive to the pressures our customers may be feeling, and do everything we can to individually and collectively exceed their expectations.” Can I get a kumbaya?

Scrumptious…

Image courts of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courts of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Chipotle’s got a plan. But this one has nothing to do with adding to its millennial-appealing menu. That part seems to be covered. It seems that a stronger economy, an increased demand for restaurant dining and a minimum wage increase across states and companies has put quite the crimp in the talent pool for Chipotle employees, resulting in fewer applicants and not enough workers to dish out the aforementioned millennial-appealing fare. To combat that, Chipotle is launching a “National Career Day” where on September 9, the Denver-based chain plans on hiring some 4,000 new employees. The company is hoping to attract talent with this latest initiative, throwing around terms like “six-figure salaries” for high-performers to earn (far) down the road. Chipotle’s already part of the the Starbuck’s led 100,000 Opportunities Initiative. Starbucks, McDonald’s, Wendy’s and a slew of other companies have all been offering up all kinds of new interesting perks to attract a greater talent pool, from college reimbursement to more paid vacation. Al things I can certainly appreciate. Chipotle already employs about 60,000 people and on September 9 the company will likely increase its workforce by 7%. All you have to do is register at http://www.nationalcareerday.com. All U.S. Chipotle restaurants will conduct interviews between 8 and 11 am and if you land a gig, look forward to making more than $10 per hour to start.

Take That Tsipras! Greece Agrees to Terms. Well, Maybe; Big Retailer Black Friday Smackdown; The New Campaign to Get Young Americans Work

What would Plato do…

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Stocks all over the world went back up and all seems right in the universe once again now that the Greeks don’t have to bail on the euro anymore – well, for now anyways. $95 billion in even more aid is headed to the government in Athens. But boy are the Greeks in for it. In exchange for this, dare I say it,  bailout, major reforms are in the works for the country’s pension system. And then there all those taxes they’re going to have to pay. Well, you gotta pay that money back somehow right? Maybe some sort of debt relief will come in the form of reduction, extended payments or even – don’t let the Germans see this one – partial forgiveness. But all of this is still talk, despite some verbal agreements from Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, since Greece’s Parliament sill needs to give its official thumbs up. In any case, at least the country’s banking system isn’t expected to come crashing down anytime soon. So yay.

Beating the holiday rush…

Image courtesy cooldesign/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy cooldesign/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Wal-Mart wants in on the Black Friday fun and is making sure Amazon’s Prime Day doesn’t get all the retail glory. The world’s largest retailer will also be slashing prices on thousands of items this week. Except Wal-Mart calls these discounts “rollbacks.” Just sayin’. Unlike Amazon, you don’t have to buy a special membership in order to get its great deals. “We just don’t believe you should pay a fee to get a better price,” Walmart’s Ravi Jariwala graciously explained. As if that wasn’t enough, free shipping comes with a just a $35.00 minimum, as opposed to the $50.00 minimum it usually requires. Wal-Mart has been losing a lot of ground to Amazon’s e-tail dominance in recent years and knows it has to up its “A” game. Which is all good news for consumers who get to reap the rewards here. Wal-Mart does have plans in the future to offer a similar membership program like Amazon’s Prime, but it will be half the price. As for the other big retailers gearing up for some Black Friday fun, Target and Best Buy will be joining in so get ready to whip out your plastic.

Percolating…

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Image courtesy of ddpavumba/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Howard Schultz found a way to rebound from his last poorly received social campaign. But this time around, people will agree he got it right. Dubbed the 100,000 Opportunities Initiative, the goal is to take 16-24 year olds from low-income areas, who are neither studying nor working, and give them gainful employment opportunities. In fact, there are about 3.5 million jobs up for grabs that don’t require a college degree and Starbucks, along with other more than a dozen other top U.S. companies, including Microsoft and Alaska Airlines, are eager to fill them. Like now. There are approximately 5.6 million young Americans who this initiative is targeting and who are eligible for these opportunities which range from full-time positions to internships and everything in between. Wall Street certainly digs Howard Schultz’s idea as well. Shares of Starbucks hit an all time high today.

Greece Needs a Man With a Plan; Cruisin’ to Cuba; Starbuck$-ing Your Coffee

Ode to a Grecian fiscal burn…

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Image courtesy of jesadaphorn/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Today is yet another day where the world gets to sit back and cry as stocks all over the globe continue to go south because the Greeks just can’t seem to get their debt crisis under control. The mood might have improved had Greek officials bothered to come up with some sort of plan to help ease the situation. But as more than one eurozone official put it, they have “no concrete proposals.”  However, Greece’s Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has a plan…to address the European Parliament on Wednesday, much to the irritation of many a European official, who aren’t eager to bail out Greece, yet again. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande also have a meeting planned with Tsipras. But both leaders have very different ideas about how to handle Greece. The Germans do not want Chancellor Merkel to give in to the Greeks, once more, and would even like to see Greece out of the eurozone altogether. In fact, one German official would prefer if Merkel would just completely reject negotiations. France doesn’t see the benefits of these actions but doesn’t exactly want to pony up the cash either.

Bienvenido….

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Image courtesy of Gualberto107/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

You can now add Carnival Cruise Lines to the list of operators making their way down to Cuba. “All of our research suggests there is huge pent-up demand for the Cuba experience,” a company spokesman noted. As part of the line’s “fathom” brand, travelers eager to visit the island nation will now have the chance to book that dream trip for a mere $2,990 per person – plus taxes and port fees. However, don’t bother bringing extra cash for gambling or booking reservations for snorkeling expeditions. Passengers aboard the Adonia ship, which carries just 710 passengers, will be required to spend eight hours of each of their trip days immersed in Cuban cultural experiences instead. If that sort of trip doesn’t appeal to you, then take it up with the U.S. government as this is all part of its rules and regulations in order to travel to Cuba.  At least you’ll have plenty of time to pack as the ships don’t set sail for the island nation until May of 2016. The tourism industry in Cuba generates more than $2.6 billion and plays a significant role in the nation’s economy. With the U.S.’s entry into the fold, you can expect that role to get even bigger.

Buzz-worthy?

Image courtesy of foto76/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of foto76/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Good news for Starbucks. But not for you. Coffee futures fell. A lot. But that cup of coffee you just picked up from the Seattle-based chain just got pricier as Starbucks started charging up to 20 cents more for its brew. The price per pound of coffee was over $221 back in October. But since then the price has fallen 44% to about $124.70 per pound. Overhead is the magic word here as Starbucks has a lot of it, from employee benefits, to rent to..well…coffee.  In fact, 88% of its costs come from goods sold – as in coffee . So, in keeping with corporate spirit, the coffee company has passed those price increases onto its customers. Funny how that works out. If you find yourself just a tad bit irritated by the price hike, then head on over to your local grocery store. and pick up some coffee products from J.M. Smucker. That company owns Folgers and has actually been cutting the cost of its coffee products since the price of coffee has been declining.