Costco’s Credit Chaos; Macy’s Switches it Up with New Chief; VW’s Writing Checks

Not to their credit…

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So much for a seamless transition of the Costco Anywhere Visa cards. The club-retailer started accepting the card this week, after ending its 16 year relationship with American Express, and there has been no shortage of chaos. While American Express enjoys a hearty laugh over this new credit card debacle,  Costco customers have been flocking to Facebook to rage against Coscto and its Citigroup credit card. Since Monday, Citigroup has been flooded with phone calls from 1.5 million disgruntled callers whose issues included problems activating accounts, lengthy wait times to speak to a living human breathing customer service representative and even difficulty trying to pay off existing balances. I mean seriously, when was the last time you had a hard time getting someone to take money from you. Costco has over 80 million members worldwide and eleven million of them applied for this new card. Those cards were supposed to have arrived back in May. Unfortunately many didn’t. The card offers a generous cash-back program and has no annual fee and, which was the bone of contention between Amex and Costco, that ultimately put the kibosh on the relationship. About 25% of Costco shoppers used Amex cards for their purchases and Amex took a 6% fee that cost the retailer $180 million. Citigroup is the biggest credit card lender in the world and analysts think the new partnership is a great idea to cut down on costs. Visa’s fees will be considerably smaller, costing Costco somewhere between $60 million and $150 million. Which is great news, as long as you’re not standing on line right now trying to make a purchase with the store’s new Visa card.

Miracle on 34th Street?

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Long-time Macy’s CEO Terry Lundgren is getting set to bid a long and fond farewell to the department store he helmed for the last 14 years. While he still gets to remain chairman, succeeding him officially in 2017 will be Macy’s president and former Chief Merchandising Officer, Jeff Gennette. Lundgren might be a bit sad but Wall Street sure isn’t. Investors sent shares up on the news, which is especially reassuring since shares have gone down in value more than 50% in the last twelve months. To be fair, Lundgren’s contributions were nothing short of impressive. He made Macy’s the largest department store chain in the United States, among other shining achievements. But the time has come for a changing of the retail guard as Macy’s got hit with five straight quarters of same-store losses and its first quarter results were the worst they’ve ever been since 2008. That last bit caused a bit of panic in the retail sector as other big retailers worried that these results signaled an industry-wide problem. Some experts, me not being one of them, are convinced that Macy’s doesn’t have the chops, yet anyway, to compete with the likes of the Amazons, H&M’s and Zaras of the world. (Not that H&M’s recent results were all that impressive). With a strong dollar and falling sales, Macy’s had to close about 40 stores and cut thousands of jobs. As for Gennette, one source said, “He is going to make the radical changes” which sounds awfully ominous, but in fact, entails, at least in part, setting up an off-price store called Macy’s Backstage and making online shopping enhancements, which seem to be all the rage.

Farfegnugen…

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It’s official. Sort of. Volkswagen will cough up a settlement of about $10.3 billion to settle claims that it rigged emissions tests on some of its models. Part of the settlement includes offers to buy back about 500,000 odious vehicles which emit 40 times the allowable amount of nitrogen oxide into the air we breathe. By the way, VW is not expected, by the EPA anyway, to repair all of the offending vehicles. Some owners will receive as much as $7,000 in compensation. There’s a joke in there somewhere. Also, VW must set aside money for green energy projects besides establishing programs whose focus is to offset diesel pollution. Talk about karma. Both Volkswagen and the EPA declined to comment on the settlement, which I suppose is to be expected. This settlement is completely separate from other lawsuits suits filed by other U.S. states and is also separate from the Justice Department’s own criminal investigation into the matter. So it seems as though things are anything but settled for Volkswagen.

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Get Your Resume Ready – The List of Highest Paying Companies is Out; Online Lending Risks Exposed; Home Sales Spring Forward

Benefits and all…

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Glassdoor just put out its latest list of companies that are better than yours. This time you get to hear the list of highest paying companies in America for 2016. In order to even be considered for the list, companies had to have at least 50 salary reports on Glassdoor. The top spot goes to Chicago-based business consulting firm A.T. Kearney who pays its employees a median salary of $167,534. Strategy&, another consulting firm, ranked number two while tech firm Juniper Networks took the number three spot. With the exception of Visa, which came in at number 11, no other financial firms made the list of twenty five companies. Instead consulting firms and tech companies dominated the list. Consulting firms are all about contacts, connections and a ” who you know”culture. Other “barriers of entry” include a good reputation and specialized skills and knowledge. Which explains why they are willing to shell out big bucks for sky-high salaries. Tech companies, however, value”what you know” that leads to a “war for talent” in that industry. Incidentally, there’s a big shortage of skilled workers in tech. Just saying. As for other notable companies who made the list, Google weighed in at number 5, Facebook ranked twelfth and Twitter appeared at number 13.

Borrower’s remorse…

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Online payday loans might seem like a great idea to many, but have actually turned into a major nightmare after borrowers were hit hard with major bank fees and account closures. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau conducted a study – its third in the industry – and found that about half of the borrowers who took out these high-interest loans had to eat a $185 bank penalty for overdraft and non-sufficient funds fees.  In case you were wondering, that high-interest rate is 300% – 500% on an unsecured loan.  Ironically, and tragically, I might add, this type of loan is favored by low-income consumers who use the method to pay off expenses in between paychecks. The penalties were incurred when the online lenders submitted repayment requests to the borrower’s bank. But if the accounts were low, and they usually were, the borrower got slapped with heavy fees. Online lenders would make repeated debit attempts on borrowers accounts, adding their own fees on top of the bank fees incurred. For the first unsuccessful debit repayment, the online lender would hit the borrower with a $97 penalty. A second unsuccessful debit repayment resulted in a $50 penalty. If multiple requests were made in a single day, the borrower would have to eat another $39. As a result, 23% of borrowers in the study had their accounts closed at the end of the 18 month period of the study. Fortunately, new regulations are on the horizon. It’s just too bad that no one is discussing the possibility of any retroactive recourse for the credit-scarred borrowers.

Home run…

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Existing home sales are up for March, according to the National Association of Realtors and Wall Street is rejoicing since February’s 7% decrease still induces cringing . Economists only predicted that sales would go up around 4% at an annual rate of 5.28 million, but instead they were up over 5% at an annual rate of 5.33 million homes. No doubt a healthy labor market and low mortgage rates contributed to those lovely figures and analysts feel secure in saying that it signals a strong start to the spring selling season. The median sale price of a home is sitting at $222,700, a 5.7% increase over last year at this time. Sales are up in all four of the country’s regions, with a big 11% boost in the Northeast. Unfortunately, sales at both the low and high ends weren’t as impressive, with a big shortage plaguing the low-end. The homes that sold in March sat on the market for an average of 47 days as opposed to February’s home sales that sat on the market for an average of 59 days.  Approximately 30% of the homes sold in March were purchased by first-time homebuyers while mortgage applications rose to their highest levels in nine weeks.

 

Chip Cards Get Moving; Netflix Growing Pains; Harley-Davidson Earnings Not Cruising

Feeling chipper…

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There are around 265 million Visa credit and debit chip cards floating around that have been providing some much needed security. Big merchants who upgraded their terminals for chip-enabled cards have noted an 18% decrease in fraudulent activity.  Five of the 25 biggest merchants who were not chip-enabled actually saw an 11% uptick in fraudulent activity. And while everyone is happy about the added security, both merchants and customers don’t care for the much longer transaction times. But now Visa finally finally made some improvements to its software with a “Quick Chip” upgrade. The new upgrade is expected to reduce wait times and shave off about 18 seconds from transactions times. Instead of dipping your card in the terminal and waiting a number of endless seconds until the terminal angrily beeps that you need to remove your card, you’ll dip it in and take it right out in two seconds. Wal-Mart also took cues from disgruntled customers and figured out a way to shave 11 seconds of their transaction times: by skipping the prompt that asks shoppers to confirm the transaction amount. Not sure how I feel about that one.  If you recall, merchants had to meet a deadline last October to upgrade their terminals. If fraudulent activity occurs, the merchant now has to pony up and banks are now OFF the hook.

Growing pains…

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Netflix is in 190 countries and can be accessed from just about everywhere. The company gleefully announced that it picked up 6.74 million new subscribers in its latest earnings report and its total subscriber-ship is hovering at 81.5 million paying viewers. The streaming video service has even managed to produce more original content than HBO  and figures that by the end of the year, it will have 600 hours of original programming under its belt. But that’s where the fun ends because today the stock fell 11%, experiencing its biggest same day drop in eight months, falling to $95.84. Investors are super-curious and worried about Netflix’s growth plans after giving the disappointing news about the amount of new subscribers it expects to gain…and lose. That’s right. Netflix expect some people to drop out and dare I say it…not lay their eyes on another episode of Orange is the New Black once subscription prices go up. Oh well. You win some, you lose some. The company is thinking it’ll add only about 2.5 million subscribers next quarter, and expects just 500,000 of them to be in the U.S. Then of course there’s all that competition from Hulu and Amazon. Because, after all, its not enough for Amazon to dominate e-commerce. More than eight brokerages decided that maybe now is a good time to announce that their target price for Netflix stock is going to get somewhat smaller, with the average price target coming in at $123. However, with all that bad news, Netflix still has big plans to surpass 100 million subscribers…by next year.

Not-so-easy rider…

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Harley-Davidson (HD) bikes might carry major street creed but its earnings tell a whole different story. The legendary motorcycle company just posted its earnings and well…they just weren’t as impressive as the product themselves. HD took in a $250.5 million profit, picking up $1.36 per share, but this time last year the company earned way more, topping out closer to $270 million and adding $1.27 per share. Analysts, by the way, only expected $1.29 per share to be added. That 7.2% year-over-year decrease had Wall Street scratching its head. At least revenue was up 4.8% to $1.75 billion from last year’s $1.67 billion. But while increased revenue is a good thing, HD’s .5% sales decrease in the United States is most definitely not. The company sold only 35,326 bikes in the United States and lost some market share to competitors, especially Polaris’ Indian Motorcycles. Apparently, Harleys have failed to attract younger consumers (read: milllenials). However, globally, Harley Davidson fared much better, selling 57,458 bikes, and expects to sell a total of between 269,000 and 274,000 bikes for the year – which is more than what was initially expected. Harley-Davidson graciously explained that “retail sales trends have significantly improved.” Which seems to be true, at least for Polaris, who has taken a big bite out of Harley-Davidson’s market share.

Forbes/Trump Smackdown; Getting Chip-py With It; Ralph Lauren Preps New CEO

Donald Donald Donald…

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Image courtesy of ponsulak/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

To take your mind off the fact that we have yet to find a cure for cancer and AIDs, or that people all over the world are living in abject poverty, we now turn our attentions to the Donald Trump vs. Forbes magazine smack down. The two entities are going head to head over Donald Trump’s estimated net worth, with Trump insisting that Forbes has its facts all wrong. “I’m a private company […] I like the people at Forbes but they don’t really know my assets very well,” the Donald said during an interview for CNBC. Forbes says that The Donald’s real estate fortune can be pegged at $4.5 billion, a figure that has the Republican presidential candidate in a snit because he is convinced that the magazine is trying to paint him “as poor as possible.” As if that were possible. Trump insists he’s worth more than $10 billion, questioning Forbes arithmetic skills. Common core, perhaps?  Forbes, in its calculations, doesn’t place a value on brand and that irritates the real estate mogul because the Trump brand, according to Trump, is very valuable and might have led Forbes to a far different fiscal outcome. Maybe. Donald Trump apparently does not take comfort in the fact that he was ranked as the 19th richest American, or that he is by far the wealthiest of the presidential candidates. He’s also miffed that Forbes had the nerve to say that he has a paltry cash stash of just $327 million (forget the research that went into computing that amount) “But I have a lot of cash,”  he insists in a CNBC interview, explaining away that his cash bank account is bursting from the $793 million sitting in it, all green and crispy.

Chipped off…

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Image courtesy of sscreations/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Today marks the dawn of a new -and hopefully less fraudulent-riddled – era, as business owners large and small now become liable for fraudulent activities. If a consumer’s info gets swiped, the business from which the offense originated eats the cost and not the bank that issued the card. Consumers, many who are now armed with credit cards containing EMV chips –  as in Europay, MasterCard and Visa (what you thought it was going to stand for some obscure tech jargon?) will now be able to conspicuously consume using new terminals intended to reduce exposure to fraud. In order for the chip to be really secure, a pin number should be used with it. Otherwise, don’t come crying to EMV. I say reduce, because sadly, it does not completely obliterate the cold, callous felonious act. It’s estimated that about 32 million consumers had their credit card info swiped last year, nearly triple that of 2013. The chip creates a unique code for every transaction. But if you have yet to receive your chip card, rest assured that your magnetic stripe-outfitted cards can still be used. Sorry to say but the chip cards won’t be of much use for your cyber-shopping excursions. So make sure the site with which you transact is legit. American Express is getting their chip-action going on October 16 while gas stations get until 2017 to upgrade their terminals.  So far more than 200 million cards with chips in them have been sent out.

Movin’ on up-market…

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Image courtesy of Sira Anamwong/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A new king has been crowned over at Ralph Lauren, as its namesake CEO, Ralph Lauren himself, “stepped up.” That is not a typo but rather a direct quote from the preppy American style icon, who also happens to be the largest shareholder and intends to maintain his creative input at the company. The new CEO is none other than Stefan Larsson, CEO extraordinaire to fast-fashion brands Old Navy and H&M. His resume actually had some haters doubting the dude who has a lack of luxury goods experience. But Wall Street doesn’t seem to mind as it sent shares of Ralph Lauren up a much needed 12% on Wednesday while also taking a 6% chunk off of shares of Gap Inc for losing its rock star executive. The haters apparently aren’t paying enough attention to the fact that under Larsson’s leadership, Old Navy saw three consecutive years of growth and was the only one of the Gap Inc. brands to show growth at all, 5% just this year. In the meantime, Ralph Lauren had some quarters that were anything but, shall we say, fashion-forward, and is down a dismal 37% for the year.

Nasdaq’s Getting Crafty; Costco’s Earnings Knock it Out of the Warehouse; Labor Market Laboring

How crafty…

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Image courtesy of sattva/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Etsy is looking to join the big kids on Wall Street. The online marketplace for all things crafty is looking to score $100 million for its IPO but that number could go much much higher. Brooklyn-based, Etsy, which would trade on Nasdaq under the ticker symbol ETSY (catchy, no?) was founded in 2005 and by 2014 it pulled in $195 million in revenue, a 56% increase over the previous year. Half of that revenue, though, comes from transaction fees. Plenty of that revenue also comes from the services it sells to its sellers, which are basically, payment processing, shipping labels and promoted listings. Impressive numbers definitely, but the company is spooking investors since it also took in a $15 million net loss last year and expects its operating expenses to “increase substantially.” Yikes. So yeah, that little tidbit puts a damper on things. Etsy currently has about 1.4 million sellers with close to 20 million buyers.

Are you even surprised?

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Image courtesy of photoraidz/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Costco came out with its quarterly earnings, easily topping analysts’ predictions and if that is at all shocking to you then clearly you have never stepped foot inside one of its 671 warehouses dotting the world. News of the good earnings sent shares rising today 2.5% and why shouldn’t it? The stock went up 30% during 2014 and is already up 10% this year. And while the strong dollar has been playing some nasty little fiscal tricks with its earnings, the third largest retailer still managed to nail $598 million in profit at $1.35 a share on $27.5 billion in revenue. Analysts were only expecting $1.18 on $27.65 billion in revenue. It should be duly noted that some of that profit came courtesy of a $57 million tax benefit over a special dividend from last month. But it should also be duly noted that same store sales were up 2% and sales up 8%. These earnings come on the heels of Coscto’s AmEx breakup and its new contracts with Citigroup and Visa. Now it even has plans to sell a Kirkland Signature Chevrolet truck – a particularly handy vehicle for your average Costco run.

LinkedOut…

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Image courtesy of winnond/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

For some not-so-pleasant news on the labor market we look no further than the Labor Department who just shared with us that the number of people seeking jobless claims for the first time rose to a seasonally adjusted 320,000 for the week ending February 28, adding an unwitting 7,000 applicants. That leaves us with close to 2.5 million people getting jobless benefits and that’s the highest number it’s been since May. Analysts actually expected that number to fall to under 300,000. Some people might even be wondering, “Hmmm. What seems to be going on with this fickle little job market of ours?” Excellent question. Naturally weather always makes a good scapegoat for this sort of thing. But otherwise, the Labor Department couldn’t really pinpoint any one reason why that offensive number reared its ugly unwanted head once again. Last week, that number also rose instead of going back down to a cozy semi-acceptable spot below the 300,000 mark. Experts were hoping that it was just a little labor market hiccup that would correct itself by this week. It didn’t.

Are You There Shareholders? It’s Me, Warren (2015); Forbes’ Magazine Names the A-Listers; Costco: AmEx Out, Visa and Citi In

Best Regards, Warren…

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Image courtesy of Boians Cho Joo Young/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Warren Buffet’s annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders arrived over the weekend, regaling us –  I meant them – with so many insights and wisdom about the economy and the ways of the investment Samurai. Among the many pearls, Mr. Buffet wanted to let folks know that “America’s best days lie ahead.” Things might have been a bit shaky the last few years, but darn be the naysayers  and things can and will only get better. Mr. Buffet also wished to remind people that “Market forecasters will fill your ear but will never fill your wallet.” Aw, Warren. There’s something very moving about the way the Oracle of Omaha advises people that all these financial experts surrounding us are good for nothing. He also offered some poetic words regarding his failed investment in British supermarket chain, Tesco: “In the world of business, bad news often surfaces serially: You see a cockroach in your kitchen; as the days go by, you meet his relatives.” The venture ultimately cost him a whopping $400 million and the Oracle attributes the loss, to among other things, not being decisive and fast enough about pulling out of the investment. Meanwhile, during an interview on CNBC, Warren Buffet said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) should be “less angry and demonizing” and should be more open to compromise. Ouch. I guess those two won’t be hanging out together anytime soon.

Speaking of Warren…

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Image courtesy of iosphere/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Omaha’s most famous resident made it to the number 3 spot on Forbes’ list of billionaires. Microsoft’s Bill Gates claims the top spot – again –  with a net worth of $79.2 billion while Mexico’s Carlos Helu Slim comes in for second. There are 1,826 billionaires on the list who have a combined total net worth of $7.05 trillion. However, the average net worth of the billionaires is actually down by $60 million this year to $3.86 billion. I know, how sad.  Seventy-one of those billionaires are breaking onto the list of the very first time. Among those first-timers is basketball great Michael Jordan who makes his big billionaire list debut this year with a little help from having increased his ownership stake in the Charlotte Hornets. But his restaurants, deals with Nike, Gatorade, Hanes, etc…allow him to claim the 1,741st spot with a net worth of about $1 billion. Forty-six of the billionaires are under the age of 40 with Snapchat’s Evan Spiegel having the distinction of being the youngest billionaire on the list.

Well hello, pardner…

Image courtesy of stock images/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of stock images/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Club goers rejoice! Costco has officially entered into agreements with Citigroup and Visa to become the wholesaler’s partner in credit. In the meantime, the retailer is bidding a not-so-fond farewell to American Express, who for the last 16 years had an exclusive deal with the chain. Citigroup will be putting out a Costco/Citi credit card with perks and generous rewards aplenty, in keeping with the Costco spirit, of course. Unfortunately, Costco shoppers must wait until April of 2016 to whip out the new plastic. However, debit cards know no bounds – or labels – and those will continue to be warmly accepted regardless of the issuer, at Costco’s 674 warehouses worldwide. And while AmEx is expecting to take some type of beating on Wall Street for the next two years, shares of Visa hit an all-time high today over this very exciting fiscal news.

Expedia Challenges Priceline With its Latest Acquisition; Retail Sector: Where Have All the Shoppers Gone? Costco Breaks Up With Amex

Book it…

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Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Priceline look out! And you too, William Shatner. Expedia just announced its lofty plans to buy Orbitz Worldwide Inc.for $1.34 billion, which squares out to about $12 a share at a 25% premium. The folks at Expedia feel it’ll help them give Priceline Group Inc. a real run for its money – and reservations, I suppose. Orbitz already picked up Travelocity a while back for $280 million and now the online travel booking service also gets CheapTickets, and ebookers as part of this latest deal. As you may recall (and it’s perfectly fine if you don’t), Priceline itself made a few purchases itself last year when it scooped up a stake in ctrip.com International and OpenTable Inc. Apparently, mergers and acquisitions in the online booking arena are all the rage right now but let’s just see how it pans out fiscally for the consumers booking all those services.

Show me the money…

Image courtesy of stockimages/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of stockimages/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Will the retail sector get it right already? January proved to be a colossal fiscal bummer as the Commerce Department announced that sales in the retail sector fell, yet again, to 0.8%. Economists forecasted it would only drop 0.4% and it’s the second straight month to drop after December’s dismal 0.9% plunge. So what gives? After all, gas prices are low, employment numbers are rockin’ and even wages are coming up…a smidge. Apparently, Americans have been more inclined to actually pay down some of their debt and even save up some cash for a rainy day. The nerve of those fiscally responsible Americans, I tell you. But economists, the same ones who predicted those retail numbers would only fall to 0.4% instead of the 0.8% it did fall, are predicting that those numbers should come right back up to a more respectable level, if we give it some…space. Let’s just hope they’re right this time.

While we’re on the topic of retail…

Image courtesy of photoraidz/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of photoraidz/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Costco shoppers rejoice. Next year when you go shopping at the wholesale warehouse you needn’t bother whipping out your Amex card anymore. The world’s second largest retailer and the charge card company just couldn’t work things out and thus an exclusive relationship between Costco and American Express is coming to an end March 31, 2016. The exclusive agreement allowed for Costco to pay a much smaller rate than other companies but alas, all good things must come to an end. The rate was so low , in fact, that it explains why the deal even lasted as long as it did. And thus, a sixteen year relationship has thrown in its fiscal towel. Sniff sniff. In Canada, a similar deal also came to an unfortunate demise last year. Oh Canada!  On Wall Street shares of American Express, took a bit of a hit while Costco shares actually went up. Perhaps next year, as you find yourself stocking up on a year’s supply of toilet paper and deodorant, you might just get to use your Visa or Mastercard, two cards that have so long yearned to be a part of the Costco magic.