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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Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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.

 

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Obama Dashes Pfizer/Allergan Inversion Dreams; Oil-Vey: The Wrath of the DOJ; Verizon Gets Awesome(ness);

Breaking up is hard to do…

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Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Pfizer can kiss its $160 billion merger with Allergan goodbye all thanks to some new treasury rules that seemed to have been designed just with this particular deal in mind. President Obama unveiled the new rules that make it harder for corporations to do inversions and basically make them not fiscally worth it. The rules make sure to target “serial inverters” which are foreign companies that became corporate giants by buying up American companies for tax reduction purposes. President Obama and the Treasury are trying to end corporate inversions and calls the practice “one of the most insidious tax loopholes out there, fleeing the country just to get out of paying their taxes.” Plenty of American companies have moved parts of their operations to countries where the corporate tax rates are more hospitable and essentially reincorporate in those places. The Pfizer/Allergan deal would have been the largest deal of its kind and would have effectively knocked off a $1 billion chunk of change from Pfizer’s corporate tax bill. Which explains why Pfizer was so eager to do its deal with Ireland-based Allergan. According to President Obama, global tax avoidance is a “huge problem.” So is climate change and the roster of presidential candidates, by the way, but Obama was only able to do something to curtail inversions. Just saying. Now experts suspect other foreign companies with large American operations will fall under the microscope and things could get ugly for them as well. Pfizer will now have to pay Allergan $150 million to reimburse the company for expenses from the deal that wasn’t. At least its not as much as the $1.6 billion AbbVie had to pay Shire back in 2014 when that $55 billion deal fell apart. Why Congress can’t make the corporate tax rate just as hospitable in the United States as it is in other countries, and maybe even attract foreign companies to come here and pay billions in taxes is a mystery to me. If someone has an answer, I’d love to hear it.

Oil drink to that…

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Image courtesy of renjith krishnan/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Pharmaceutical Corporations aren’t the only ones displeased the with the U.S. government today. Enter two of Big Oil’s biggest players who have some unkind thoughts for the Department of Justice. Halliburton and Baker Hughes happen to be the second and third largest oil companies and control 15.8% of the market share. Together, the two companies pulled down a combined revenue of $39.3 billion. Halliburton alone scored over a $5 billion profit for 2014. But in 2015, the oil giant didn’t fare nearly as well and instead posted a $165 million loss with a major decline in revenue. The drop in oil prices have left dozens of oil companies filing for bankruptcy as hundreds of thousands of people in the industry are now without jobs. Halliburton and Baker Hughes think a merger would help keep both of them from going under but the DOJ is not buying it. The DOJ says anti-trust is written all over this deal, calls it anti-competitive and feels it would make the newly-formed entity way too powerful. The DOJ argues that the deal would lead to much much higher prices and consumers would be at the mercy of the companies. But maybe Baker Hughes can console itself with the $3.5 billion break-up fee it gets to collect from Halliburton now that the deal won’t be going through. At least for now…

Everything is awesome…

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As wireless companies hunt for new ways to make money, Verizon figured out one way to do it – through the very hip and very lucrative teen demographic. So like any eager telecom giant, it found a business to buy that it hopes will help them pull in some of more cash. Enter AwesomenessTV, a company that’s home to some of YouTube’s most popular channels and features all sorts of short videos, from dating advice to celebrities. Verizon plunked down $160 million for a 24.5% stake in the company that boasts 3.6 million subscribers. DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc already owns a 51% stake while Hearst Corp owns the remaining stake. DreamWorks Animation was prescient enough to buy AwesomenessTV back in 2013 for the bargain price of just $33 million. This new deal puts AwesomenessTV’s latest valuation at a very cool $650 million. Part of the deal includes Verizon creating a mobile video service for the endeavor and it will be a part of Verizon’s go90 mobile video app – which of course, will be exclusive to Verizon.  Double boom for Verizon because there tends to be lots of juicy revenue in mobile video that comes from both data usage and advertising. AwesomenessTV already had an exclusive deal with Verizon to provide content for go90 so this new development ought to fit in nicely. DreamWorks Animation’s Jeffrey Katzenberg must also be pretty stoked about the deal since he expects annual revenue for AwesomenessTV to double because of it.

Things are Getting a Little Seated at Yahoo!; IRS Has Close to $1 Billion Up for Grabs; Wall Street’s Crazy ‘Bout a Sharp-Dressed Man

Board to tears……

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Yahoo added two directors to its board, bringing the grand total to nine seats, all in the hopes of making things that much more difficult to deflect attacks from hedge fund Starboard Value. Starboard Value has not been shy about expressing its disapproval over the way CEO Marissa Mayer has been handling matters at the tech giant. Starboard is on a mission to make an attack and win seats on the board so it can run the company in its own special way. The new folks coming to fill those seats are former Morgan Stanley executive Catherine Friedman and former Broadcom Corp CEO Eric Brandt. The seats originally belonged to tech entrepreneur Max Levchin and Charles Schwab. Yes, that Charles Schwab. But both vacated their seats amidst all the squabbling at Yahoo over how to run the company without losing tons of cash in the process. Board re-election comes later in the year but nominations are due this month and the process should be a fun little corporate spectacle as Yahoo has been under some fierce pressure to sell off its core web assets, including Yahoo Sports and Yahoo Mail. Among the potential suitors who are rumored to be interested in picking up those core assets are Verizon and Time, And now, instead of looking to grow the company, Marissa Mayer has switched courses and would be really happy to just execute a $400 million cost-cutting plan. That’s in addition to shareholder pressure of trying to spinoff of the company’s sizable share in Alibaba, without actually having to pay any taxes on the deal. That effort should be entertaining in and of itself.

In it to claim it…

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The IRS is sitting on close to $1 billion in outstanding refunds from 2012. The question is, can you claim any of it? Well there are an estimated one million taxpayers who qualify for a piece of that pie since they apparently failed to file their 2012 IRS tax return. Taxpayers get a three-year window to file a claim based on the return due date which this year happens to be April 18, 2016. All you’ll need to do is fill out the 2012 1040 form and collect the w-2, 1098, 1099 or 5498 from that same year. Just check out the IRS website if you don’t believe me. But filer be warned: If you didn’t bother filing your 2013 and 2014 return, then don’t bother collecting your refund just yet as it may just get withheld. The IRS, however, wants you to claim your refund, otherwise all that cash goes into the hands of the U.S. Treasury. IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said, “We especially encourage students and others who didn’t earn much money to look into this situation because they may still be entitled to a refund.”And I guess the IRS just isn’t that into the treasury if they are so eager for you to claim that money. Texas and California are the states with the most unclaimed refunds. And the average refund that could be collected clocks in at $718. So what are you waiting for?

A little less dapper…

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Tailored Brands, a.k.a. the company that owns Men’s Wearhouse and Jos A. Bank, finally experienced some Wall Street lovin’ as the stock jumped more than 11% today. The company hasn’t had a jump like this in two years and it’s all because the company announced that it would be closing about 250 of its stores this year out of over 700 that are dotted all over the country. It’s not that Wall Street didn’t care for the company’s merchandise, it’s that Wall Street didn’t like that consumers weren’t buying enough of it and the company was bleeding money. The company’s revenue took a nasty beating after brass decided to chuck Jos A. Bank’s “Buy One Get Three free” promotion back in October. This move apparently upset consumers who shopped at the chain for just that reason. Executives felt, however, that the promo cheapened the line, especially when the promo ended up in an “SNL” skit where the apparel was called “effectively cheaper than paper towels.” Ouch. Cheap or not, customers let the company know how they felt by sending sales down 32%, while Men’s Wearhouse managed to take in a 4.3% gain. The stock lost 30 cents a share in its fourth quarter, which was miraculously not as bad as the 37 cents analyst predicted the stock would lose.

A Green Giant Farewell; Mobile-ads: Verizon Set to Unleash Service; Everything Is Fiscally Awesome at Lego

Yo ho ho…

Image courtesy of  Mister GC/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Mister GC/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

It’s time for the Jolly Green Giant to pack his bags. Together with Le Sueur, the two brands are getting some new digs over at B&G Foods, home to favorites such as Cream of Wheat and snack sensation Pirate’s Booty (a personal fave). B&G is paying $765 million in cash for the joy of adding the oversized brand symbol to its coffers and is expecting the Giant and his 160 plus products to bring in net sales of over half a billion, adding 60 cents per share. Jolly Green Giant and Le Suer are currently under General Mills, however, the maker of  Cheerios has been noting a shift in consumer preferences and has decided now would be a good time to unload the two companies. Apparently, shoppers are preferring fresher selections, as opposed to the sauce laden and frozen offerings that Green Giant and Le Sueur crank out. General Mills, which also has Yoplait yogurt, will now focus its efforts – and of course, money – into cultivating its brands and geographical locations that have more potential. It will also put a bit more oomph into some edible health and wellness endeavors. Which basically means it will shift gears to whatever products and areas will bring in the most amounts of cash. Sounds fair.

You’ve got ad-sales…

Image courtesy of twobee/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of twobee/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

AOL (remember them?) also did a little shopping today picking up Maryland-based Millennial Media Inc. to the tune of $250 million to broaden its mobile-ad market share. At that price, the company was bought for $1.75 a share, a 31% premium to its closing price on Wednesday. Millenial took in almost $300 million in sales with an $83 million net loss last year. Verizon Communications Inc picked up AOL back in June for a trifle $4 billion, in an attempt to beef up its mobile ad technology, something at which AOL apparently excels. Verizon AOL now has big plans to challenge Facebook and Google (is that even possible?) who currently reign supreme over the mobile-ad market, and unleash its own mobile streaming video service called Go90.

Brick by brick…

Image courtesy of ArtJSan/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of ArtJSan/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Lego may not be a publicly traded company, but the company sure manages to pull in some boffo numbers, even surpassing Mattel as the world’s largest toymaker. Which is particularly insane since it only makes…well, Lego.  And while Mattel’s Barbie, Hot Wheel and Fisher-Price products still have sway, those toys, can’t seem to get a plastic leg up on Lego’s mesmerizing Ninjas and elves and…well, everything else. In fact, Mattel’s revenue fell almost 5% to $1.91 billion, with unwelcome help from Barbie and company. Lego, however, benefitted from foreign currency swings, not to mention a boost from The Lego Movie. The Danish company scored 3.55 billion Danish kroner, which translates to $537.5 million in the first half of the year and took in a 31% jump in profits. The company’s revenue also rose 23% to $14.14 billion. And there’s no reason to forecast that theses numbers won’t continue to rise. With a new Star wars movie coming out, which always does a fine job of boosting Lego sales, and a new video game, Lego Dimensions, due out late September, the toy company’s outlook is nothing but rosy.

That’s Sue Bad! Wells Fargo Faces City Lawsuit; Disney’s Enchanted Earnings; Sprint One Step Forward, Two Step Backward

You don’t say…

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigital Photos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigital Photos.net

Try not to get too emotional now, but Wells Fargo is getting sued by the city of Los Angeles for…get this...fraudulent business practices. I know. Hard to believe. According to City Attorney Mike Feuer, “The largest California-based bank had a culture of high-pressure sales that pushed employees toward “fraudulent conduct.” Apparently some of the bank’s employees allegedly opened unauthorized accounts, misused confidential information and charged fees all in the name of sales. Wells Fargo is also accused of failing to notify its customers that their information was breached. Customers were charged fees, many of which ended up in collections and damaged their credit reports. Unauthorized accounts were opened using money from existing accounts. Wells Fargo says that it did have a few misbehaving employees in their midst who were either fired or disciplined for engaging in such appalling practices. The lawsuit is seeking $2,500 – $5,000 per violation and an end to these practices. A statement from the bank said, “Wells Fargo’s culture is focused on the best interests of its customers and creating a supportive, caring and ethical environment for our team members.” But when asked directly whether unauthorized accounts were opened, the bank was conveniently mum.

Charming…

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Image courtesy of jscreationzs/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

They don’t call it the happiest place on earth for nothing. Disney came out with its second quarter earnings which were up a very magical 10%. Much of that was from its parks and resorts, which were up 24% alone. It helps that Disney not so charmingly raised its prices on them. Shanghai Disneyland, scheduled to open next year, ought to add a little more drama in the fiscal quarters following its debut. Profit for the company came in at $2.1 billion and $1.23 per share. Analysts only expected $1.11 per share while last year the House of Mouse took in $1.9 billion. There was a downside. Sort of. ESPN’s carrying fees ate into a lot of that profit but because sports games are so insanely popular, Disney still managed to make some cash off of them. But no earnings report since 2014 would be complete without mention of the surprise runway hit movie from the magical kingdom of Arendelle. “Frozen” continues to be a constant source of fiscal joy as toys from the film keep flying off the shelves. Even though Disney has yet to repeat the magical quarter from whence “Frozen” was released, it is hoping “Avengers: Age of Ultron” will facilitate that, as its release of “Cinderella,” while taking in a charming $495 million, was no “Frozen.” But then again, what is?

Are you listening?

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Perhaps you recall Sprint’s recent promotions to get customers to switch over from Verizon and AT&T? One involved cutting bills from other carriers in half. I recall chainsaws being used in these commercials. Then there was the promotion where Sprint even offered to eat the cost of customers’ early termination fees from the aforementioned carriers. Well, those tactics almost paid off. Sprint picked up 1.2 million new subscribers in its fourth quarter, bringing its total subscribers to 57 million, and keeping it comfortably perched at the number three spot amongst wireless carries. It just barely beat T-Mobile. But the math didn’t quite work out so nicely and Sprint also took a loss of $224 million losing 6 cents per share. It’s particularly harsh since Wall Street was only expecting a loss of about 4 cents. Revenue was down $8.28 billion when analysts expected $8.5 billion and was a 7% drop from last year. So I guess the promotions are over. Or will be.

Home Depot Officicially Hacked; Facebook’s New High; Organic Lucky Charms?!

Hacked…

Image courtesy of chanpipat/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of chanpipat/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Home Depot officially confirmed what was already assumed to be fact as of last week: The home improvement chain was hacked at least as far back as April. Home Depot is definitely in the running for having suffered one of the worst hack attacks. Ever. Banks noticed an unusually high amount of suspicious and fraudulent activity on ATM withdrawals. Information stolen from Home Depot has been surfacing in online cyber-crime shops where criminals can conveniently purchase stolen information. Who knew? Of course, the chain apologized and will not hold consumers accountable for fraudulent activities. Duh. If you’re a frequent Home Depot patron, expect to be issued new cards with chips in them, making it that much more challenging for any would-be criminals to help themselves to a shopping spree on your dime. With 2,200 stores dotting the US and Canada, the cost of the breach has yet to be determined but it’ll likely be sharing the spotlight with Target, whose own data breach is still wreaking havoc. Given the similarities between the two hackings, sources suspect it’s the same group of hacker/cyber-crminals.

Ranked…

Image courtesy of Master isolated images/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Master isolated images/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

It’s just another day in the fascinating cyber life of Facebook, whose stock hit yet another high of $77.89, putting the company’s value over the $200 billion mark. Speaking of Mark, Zuckerberg, that is, he himself is ranked as the 13th richest person, according to Forbes, with a net worth of $34.5 billion. That wealth comes primarily from his more than 61% ownership of Facebook. How convenient. Facebook now ranks as the 22nd largest company, comfortably sandwiched between Verizon and Toyota, companies that have been around much longer than the social media website (and Mark Zuckerberg). If you recall (and it’s okay if you don’t), Facebook’s IPO was a modest $38.00 per share. Oh, how hindsight is a bitter, teary 20/20.

Paying the price for organics…

Image courtesy of digitalart/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of digitalart/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

General Mills is going to get a bit more organic now that it is picking up Annie’s, of the bunny-shaped mac and cheese fame, for the green green price of $820 million. Annie’s boasts over 150 products that are sold in over 35,000 locations and just last year the company hit over $200 million in sales. Not bad for a company that was founded in 1989. Okay, not as good as Facebook, but still not too shabby. While the company was doing okay, an increase in the price of commodities began shrinking its margins, making a sale to a bigger company a worthwhile and fiscally prudent decision. Annie’s now joins the illustrious ranks of Lucky Charms, Wheaties, and one of my personal favorites, Trix. Silly rabbit.