VW Still Writing Checks for its Bad Behavior; Lululemon’s Sour Outlook; Economy Shows Some Impressive Muscle

Putting this baby to bed…

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Looks like Volkswagen will be handing over $157 million to ten U.S. states to settle environmental claims over the auto company’s notorious diesel emissions scandal. Among the lucky – if you can call it that – recipients of these funds are New York, which snagged $32.5 million, Connecticut which took in $20 million, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maine, Rhode Island, Oregon, Vermont and Washington, which all took in various amounts of the remaining settlement.  Incidentally, that $157 million was well below what the states originally sought. There was already a previous $603 million settlement with 44 other states, but this latest one is separate from that. In fact, the German car company has agreed to spend up to $25 billion to settle claims and make buyback offers. Just wondering if that means it will actually hit that figure or will the company try and do their best to come in as under as possible.  As part of this latest ten-state settlement, VW now has to offer three new electric vehicles in those states. Two of those vehicles need to be SUV’s. Which to me, looks like a bit of a win for VW, but hey, what do I know. In the meantime, as part of a $4.3 billion settlement with the Department of Justice, VW pleaded guilty to fraud, obstruction of justice and falsifying of documents in a district court in Detroit earlier this month. The company can also look forward to major audits, oversight and monitoring for the next three years. Sort of like what Wells Fargo has to go through as payback for its fraudulent account scandal. Am I seeing a pattern?

Soured…

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Fancy trendy yoga apparel maker Lululemon was upsetting Wall Street’s zen today after announcing that its first quarter sales marked a “slow start” to the year. Which is  really just CEO code for “Yikes! Our quarter sucked.” And with that news, shares of the company took a very ugly 23% plunge to $51 a pop, a stock price the company hasn’t seen since December of 2015. This news was especially weird because Lululemon did better in holiday sales than most other clothing retailers. Yet now, this quarter now becomes the very first one in seven years to see same store sales go down. The company took in almost $790 in revenue with a $136 million profit that added 99 cents per share, even though analysts were expecting that figure to be closer to $784 million with a $1.01 profit per share. Last year at this time the company made off with a $117 million profit that added 85 cents per share. Competition from Nike and Under Armour definitely turned up the heat on the super-pricey Lululemon, with their vast offerings and more affordable selections. But CEO Laurent Potdevin blamed the company’s neutral offerings instead, arguing that they lacked  “depth and color for spring” that consumers are apparently craving. That’s got to be it, right?

Yes, you need to know this…

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There was a lot of spending this quarter. A lot. In fact, consumer spending was so strong that it caused the economy’s GDP to grow at a 2.1% rate, more than what was thought in initial estimates. In the process, that impressive growth rate even made up for areas of the economy that didn’t perform up to snuff, like trade and business investing. In fact, for all of 2017, analysts are actually expecting to see a 2.3% rate of growth. Of course, the fact that the labor market is strong, with higher incomes and wages, helps with all that consumer spending as well. Naturally. That 2.1% rate is a major upward shift from last year at this time when that rate stood at 1.6% and had the dubious distinction of being the weakest period of growth in five years. This next bit may cause you to cringe, but one of the reasons for this anticipated impressive growth rate is President Trump. He’s got plans, in case you hadn’t heard, for tax cuts and spending. Say what you will, but moves like that help economies. And who doesn’t like a little economic boost.  However, if it makes you feel any better, Trump thinks he can get that rate up to 4%, and economists are laughing on the inside at him for even thinking he can pull off that feat.

VW’s China Redemption; Fitbit Numbers Way too Skinny; Deal Drama: Walgreens/RiteAid vs. Regulators

Emissions Scandal? What Emissions Scandal?

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Volkswagen is in the news yet again. And this time it has nothing to do with poisoning the air we breathe. I know. Hard to believe, right? VW is making headlines because it has been crowned the world’s largest automaker, easily besting Toyota, after reporting that it shipped 10.3 million cars in 2016, a 3.5% increase from the year before. Toyota only managed to sell about 10.2 million cars, giving it just a .2% boost over the previous year. T’was a brutal blow dealt to Toyota’s ego – not that it’ll never admit it – since the Japanese automaker held that top spot for seven out of the last eight years.  Toyota says it’s not concerned with being in in the number one spot as long as it’s making good cars.  Toyota definitely makes good cars but I doubt anybody would believe that it’s not itching to reclaim the top spot next year. So what part of this great big planet was scooping up all those VW’s that helped the German automaker earn this dubious distinction? It certainly could not have been in the United States, where the car company isn’t exactly popular following “diesel-gate” and the on-going saga we call the “emissions scandal.”  Well, look no further than China, which stands as the primary reason for VW’s fiscally historic achievement, despite the negative sentiment against it in the rest of the world. It’s not that China is a smog-loving country filled with emission worshippers. However, it must have helped that VW sold almost no diesel cars to the country. Which probably explains the country’s on-going enthusiasm for Volkswagen. The Chinese just really dig VW’s. And in case you were wondering, GM rounded out the third spot. In fact, GM used to regularly claim the top spot, but along came 2008 and burst that bubble when the US carmaker faced the wrong end of bankruptcy and a federal bailout.

Fit to be tied…

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Fitbit is looking anything but fit these days as the company released a preliminary earnings report, ahead of its February date, showing that the hype for its wearable devices is wearing…thin. For the full year Fitbit expects to pull down revenue for 2017 between $1.5 and $1.7 billion, and is expecting a reorganization to cost approximately $4 million. That reorganization, by the way, involves getting rid of about 110 jobs, or roughly 6% of its workforce. The company has been struggling to find ways to keep sales momentum for the wearable device. CEO James Park is hoping to turn Fitbit into a bona fide digital health company. And that’s a noble endeavor, indeed. However, that plan could literally take years that Fitbit may not have.  The company had slashed forecasts for the holiday season, but a move like that never ever bodes well. Competition from Apple, not to mention companies offering cheaper alternatives, have put a major damper on Fitbit’s sales, with 6.5 million devices sold during the fiscally critical holiday season. Apparently, that number just wasn’t good enough and the data only gets worse. Fitbit is reporting estimated revenue of between $572 million to $580 million. While that number might seem respectable, it’s actually disastrous, if only because the company had initially predicted that it would pull down as much as $750 million in revenue, with analysts forecasting $736 million. As for growth, Fitbit can now expect that figure to come in at around 17%, when initial expectations had been closer to 25%. As for shares, they didn’t just fall – they plummeted. They plummeted the most in three months, hitting its lowest intraday price. Ever.

Deal or no deal…

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A deal has finally been struck between RiteAid and Walgreens. Again. If you recall, and it’s okay if you don’t, this deal has been in the works for the better part of fifteen months. Apparently, RiteAid’s new price tag is now coming in at $2 billion cheaper than its previous $9.4 billion price tag, and the official deadline for the deal has been extended as well. The deal was supposed to have closed back in 2016. But, details, mostly those involving regulatory approval, still need to be hammered out. So now, the new official deadline is July 31. In order for the deal to go through, Walgreens needs to sell off stores in certain regions where competition issues might complicate matters. The company needs to dump between 1,000 and 1,200 stores, but at least it will now only have to shell out between $6.8 billion and $7.4 billion, or roughly $6.50 to $7.oo per share, depending on the amount of stores it ultimately sells.  Once those are sold off, regulatory approval should come swiftly. Naturally, shares of RiteAid took a nasty tumble once investors realized they were losing significant bang on their mega bucks.

Bugging Out Over VW Settlement; Trump Thinks He Can Do It All; Time to Buy a Keurig?

Buggin’ out…

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VW is getting set to pony up some $4 billion in settlement money after agreeing to plead guilty to charges of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government and obstruct a federal investigation. To break it down, the company will cough up $2.8 billion in criminal fines and another $1.5 billion in civil penalties. With that settlement, the company achieves the dubious distinction of having the largest penalty ever levied by the U.S. government against an automaker. Pretty classy for Europe’s largest car manufacturer. But I guess that’s what happens when you get busted for trying to cheat on emissions tests. VW had initially insisted that the scheme was the work of a few isolated employees. But now, lo and behold, six German execs are now facing charges, and the arrests probably won’t stop there. While Oliver Schmidt was already arrested in Florida this week, the others are still biding their time in Germany, with no guarantee that they’ll meet with justice courtesy of the United States judicial system. And even though VW swears it’s changed its naughty ways and is cooperating fully with authorities, it’ll still be watched for the next three years – just to be sure. Shares of the company rose as much as 4% today, it’s highest price since the scandal first erupted. But that doesn’t mean that this unfortunate episode has come to an end as there are still plenty of other countries that could also very well pursue action against Volkswagen.

Not so sure about this…

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Looks like Trump’s not going anywhere. Not even away from his business empire. The President-elect, in a news conference today, discussed that he will not be selling off his global empire and put his liquid assets in a blind trust. However, his assets will still be placed into a different type of trust that will keep him from making decisions that would personally benefit him.  According to Trump’s flack, a blind trust wasn’t even a realistic option for Trump anyway since real estate can’t just be sold off so easily as stocks and other assets can.  Instead, he will remove himself from all business dealings, resign from all his positions and hand-off control to his two sons. It’s just not clear when he’ll actually stick to that plan since just this weekend he turned down a $2 billion development deal in Dubai. Speaking of which, his company will not enter into any new business deals abroad until after his term ends. How gallant of him. Domestic deals, however, are a whole other story. They’ll be permitted as long as they are met with approval from an ethics adviser hired to work specifically for the Trump organization. See how that works out? Ethics watchdogs aren’t down with Trump’s plan since they feel it will do little – if nothing – to prevent conflicts of interest. But ethics or not, the fact is, a President is not required by law to even avoid conflicts of interest. Donald Trump also stated that he could run both the White House and his business except that he won’t because it doesn’t look nice. Ya think?

Are you ready for this jelly?

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Savor that cup of coffee now because it’s about to get a bit more expensive. Well, that’s assuming it’s packaged coffee. The biggest coffee roaster in the U.S., J.M. Smucker Co – yes, the one that makes jelly – decided to raise the prices on its packaged coffees, including its Folgers, Dunkin’ Donuts and Cafe Bustelo brands. I did say a bit because that increase, on average, will only be about 6%, since the costs involved in producing green coffee have gone up as well.  But don’t bother blaming the jelly company execs. Blame Arabica coffee futures. Or rather, Mother Nature, since coffee futures have gone up 30% in the last year due to drought conditions in several coffee-producing regions. In all fairness, J.M. Smucker Co. actually decreased the price of its coffee last May courtesy of a Brazil oversupply. So I suppose things are just kind of even-ing out. Incidentally, K-cup pods are excluded from the price increase. So if you haven’t bought one of those nifty machines yet, now might be a good time to scoop one up.

Twitter’s Attempts to Tweet Out Terror; Wal-Mart Boffo Earnings; EPA Calls Out Harley-Davidson

Tweet this…

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Looks like ISIS is going to have to find itself a new social media platform as Twitter pats itself on the back today after announcing it suspended 235,000 terrorist-related accounts in the last six months. That figure was about double over the previous period and the social media company went to great lengths getting bigger teams to review reports of flagged content on the site on a round the-clock-basis. Better spam detection and language capabilities also helped with the endeavor as the amount of time between content getting flagged and shutting down that content has gone down. But the great effort only really came about after Twitter took a lot of heat for allowing terrorist-related content to gain a big foothold on ISIS’s preferred site. Even the director of the FBI said how “Twitter was a devil on their shoulder” back in 2015. ISIS could have given courses on how to optimize media engagement as the terror organization regularly used Twitter to spread propaganda, recruit fellow murderers, raise funds for their evil ways and publicize its horrific actions. But to be fair, Twitter does have a policy in place prohibiting the promotion of violence and terrorism.  In any case, while Twitter concedes there’s no real “magic algorithm,”  to finding and shutting down terrorist activities on its site, there has been a noticeable drop on Twitter of all things ISIS and other terror-related organizations.

What bad retail landscape?

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It’s good to be Wal-Mart as the largest retailer in all the land posted better than expected results with revenue of $121 billion and a $3.8 billion profit for the second quarter, adding $1.21 per share. Analysts predicted shares would only gain $1.02. That profit was a very welcome 9% increase over last year’s $3.5 billion second quarter profit while the revenue figure beat projections by about $2 billion. If Macy’s Kohl’s and Target are left scratching their heads after their disappointing earnings, perhaps they should take a page or two from Wal-Mart’s playbook. The company made a major push in its e-commerce division, which always helps matters when you’re competing with the likes of Amazon.  Wal-Mart also increased its full year earnings outlook to $4.15- $4.35, up from $4.00 – $4.30. In addition to lower gas prices and warm weather, Wal-Mart brass attribute its great earnings to the boost they gave to employee wages which they think led to better customer experiences. Maybe it did. Maybe it didn’t. But there’s no denying the  company experienced stronger than expected sales growth.

Exhaust-ed…

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Look out VW. There’s a new emissions offender in town. This time the dubious distinction goes to iconic motorcycle maker, Harley-Davidson, who has to pay a $12 million penalty and another $3 million to fund a clean-air project.  The U.S. claims the company violated air pollution laws through its “super-tuner” devices.  These devices, while improving engine performance, also caused the exhaust levels for those engines to increase well beyond what they were allowed. Then there were some 12,682 bikes that were also found to be short of regulatory requirements. Even though Harley-Davidson graciously disagrees with the EPA’s findings, it settled if only to avoid a long-drawn out and very expensive legal battle. As part of the settlement, Harley-Davidson doesn’t even have to admit wrongdoing. After all, who likes to admit when they’re wrong, eh? In any case, the company will cease selling the devices by August 23 and will have to buy back and destroy the devices from the dealerships. Naturally, shares of Harley-Davidson did take an 8% hit following the news of its own emissions scandal, but they recovered relatively quickly. Sort of.

Debt Collectors Are on the Hook Now; Oracle Pays Big for NetSuite; VW’s Surprising Return to the Top of the Heap

Karma time…

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The tables are turning on debt collectors and after forty years it’s about time. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has got big plans that involve some major federal oversight for an industry that has plagued tens of millions of Americans for decades. In 2015, the CFPB received a mind-blowing 85,000 complaints against the industry. So you might just find it comforting to know that debt collection agencies had to pay $136 million to the CFPB and several states over debt collection issues and sales of credit card debt. Now, before debt collectors make their first, sometimes-harrassing, phone call, they are required to substantiate the debt and gather information so as not to try and collect anything that they are not entitled to collect. Speaking of harassment, the industry will need to put the kibosh on their “excessive and disruptive” debt collection tactics or face consequences. Consumers will now even be able to request that debt collectors not contact them at work or during certain hours. Debt collectors will also be required to wait thirty days before contacting family members of a deceased consumer from whom they wish to collect. Some of the 9,000 debt collection agencies are pleased with the new regulations because they feel they will clear up ambiguities. But these are, after all, debt collectors we are talking about, and they are primarily concerned with how their costs will go up for compliance. However, they can probably afford a few upgrades given that the industry sees $13.7 billion in annual revenue with about 70 million Americans in the throes of debt collection. You see, sometimes there are happy endings. Sort of.

Silver lining…

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Oracle is throwing down some major cash to pick up cloud computing business, NetSuite. Not that industry experts are particularly surprised. After all, Larry Ellison and his family already own about 40% of NetSuite shares. The deal is valued at $9.3 billion, which comes out to approximately $109 per share with a 20% premium on Wednesday’s closing price.  Larry Ellison will get about $3.5 billion out of it. So no doubt he’s celebrating. It’s one of Oracle’s biggest deals, with one just other ahead of it. NetSuite, which was founded in 1998,  supplies cloud-based business management services for about 30,000 companies in 100 countries. The company is touted as having paved the way for cloud-based computing and was the first company to offer business web-based applications. But the time now was ripe for some change and NetSuite apparently needed a little assistance from Oracle and its global reach to grow even greater. The official press release touted the companies as complementary to each other and that they will coexist in the marketplace forever. And that is just a beautiful and moving sentiment. Naturally, shares of both NetSuite and Oracle rose today, and why shouldn’t they. When the tide is high, all boats rise.

Winner winner…

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Diesel-gate be damned. Volkswagen is now the world’s largest automaker and there’s nothing you can do about it but scratch your head and drop your jaw. Even though sales in the U.S. continue to slump – though not as bad as you might think  – the German automaker sold more cars in the first six months of 2016 than Toyota, who is used to holding the title of world’s largest automaker. Volkswagen was poised to earn the title for the full year except the unfortunate emissions scandal put the kibosh on that goal. For four years in a row, Toyota was the world’s best-selling automaker through 2015. So it’s ego is probably feeling a bit bruised right about now. GM is in third place and experts don’t think it’ll ever win the top slot. Volkswagen sold 5.12 million cars to Toyota’s 4.99 million vehicles. Toyota’s sales were down by .6% over the same period last year while Volkswagen’s sales were miraculously up 1.5%.  To be fair, an earthquake in Japan damaged one of Toyota’s plants and that incident is being blamed for its shortfall in production. But apparently U.S. consumers seem to be more offended by the emissions rigging than the rest of the world with falling U.S. sales by 7%. However, the U.S. is a relatively small market for VW who counts Europe and China as its key markets. The question, though, remains if VW can keep it up and reclaim some glory.

 

 

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.

Fiat Gets Going with Google; April Showers Bring Great Car Sales; Building-A-Profitable-Bear

Behind the wheel…

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It might just have been a bit of good luck that car company Fiat gets to team up with Google to engineer some self-driving cars. The company will supply Google with 100 Chrysler Pacifica hybrid minivans and it will mark the first time that Google shares its inside information with outside entities. If you’re thinking of saving up to buy one, don’t bother. They won’t be for sale. Besides, they’re minivans. Google has dealt with other car companies, like Toyota, except Google did the work on the cares rather than working together with Toyota. This collaboration is a sweet deal for Fiat, which has a lot of catching up to do in the way of technological advancements in their vehicles. Besides, the company is kind of low on cash and wouldn’t have had enough of it to make a meaningful investment towards tech upgrades. But with this new collaboration in the works, it doesn’t have to worry about raising money for that. How very convenient.

New car smell…

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Speaking of Fiat, global sales of the company sank around 2%, keeping up with the rest of the grim state of the global economy. But all was not lost as sales in the U.S. picked up 5%, selling 200,000 cars and trucks while dealing a minor blow to analysts’ estimates of a paltry 4.6% increase. Sales of Jeep also scored big compared to the same time last year as it increased 17%. But that’s minor compared to sales of Compass and Renegade automobiles which more than doubled. Sales of automobile in the U.S. in April were so good that it just might be coming off of the best April. Ever. Car sales are considered a fairly accurate barometer of consumer spending and last months’ numbers indicate that the economy, the U.S. economy, that is, is looking good and healthy. Individual sales of cars throughout the industry was up 3%, with a lot of help from SUV and pick-up truck sales. Unfortunately I did not contribute to any sales growth. The volume of cars sold told a very different and unpleasant story by dropping 3.5%. Some companies have also lopped off major chunks from their incentive programs seeing as how they tend to eat the bottom line. Not that this should come as any great shock but VW was down 9.7% as it continues its brutal journey back from its emissions scandal. Some analysts thinks the car industry is about to hit a peak. But apparently it’s just a cyclical issue and nothing that should cause you to lose sleep. Unless of course you’re in the business of selling cars.

Bear market…

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Build-A-Bear just released its earnings – yes, it is a publicly traded company – and the results didn’t exactly leave investors feeling…warm and fuzzy. Ya dig? The DIY stuffed animal biz that boasts some 400 stores picked up $3.53 million in profit, adding 22 cents per share. Too bad the company missed expectations of 37 cents per share and didn’t perform nearly as well as last year at this time when the company scored a profit of $6.82 million with 40 cents per share added. Revenue was up 1.7% to $95 million for the quarter compared to last year, but again, the workshops missed estimates of $96.6 million, fuzzy ears and all. To be fair, however, it will probably still get a fourth straight year of profitability, even if the numbers don’t wow investors. In the fiscal blame game, the company pointed the finger at some expenses tied to store remodeling, international expansion and the ever-pesky high tax rate. The board announced that it hired advisers to come up with “a full range of strategic alternatives.” Which is basically code for trying to figure out a bunch of ways to make more money. Investor J. Carlo Cannell, who happens to own an 8% stake in the company, feels that the board is the real problem and called them and their actions “financially unsophisticated, lacking in proper corporate governance and shareholder unfriendly.” Don’t hold back now, J. Carlo.