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- Summary: Wal-Mart Stores Inc. announced that its same store sales for July grew by 2.4% year over year, at the high end of its previous guidance of 1-3%, and a significant improvement over the 1.2% increase in June. Other retailers are due to report their same store sales numbers Thursday. JP Morgan analyst Charles Grom ascribed the better-than-expected growth to more aggressive pricing and Wal-Mart's decision to launch its back-to-school campaign more than a week earlier than in previous years, on July 9th. Wal-Mart's 2.4% July growth is still below Target's revised guidance of 3-4%.
- Comment on related stocks/ETFs: Wal-Mart's stronger-than-expected same store sales data further confuses the economic picture, because it follows weaker-than-expected Q2 GDP data, increasing evidence of a severe slow-down in the housing market, and a discouraging Beige Book report. The best way through this muddle is to look at longer-term trends. John Hussman, in a must-read article, says recent data all confirm that the US economy is headed for stagflation, lower corporate profits and thus lower stock prices. Birinyi Associates, in contrast, argues that the economy is heading for a soft landing.
- Summary: Wal-Mart announced Thursday that it will sell its German operations to German retailer Metro AG. "After eight years of trying, Wal-Mart said it couldn't turn around its 85 German stores, which have lost money. Terms of the sale were not disclosed, but Wal-Mart said it expects to incur a pretax loss of $1 billion on the deal." This is the second time in recent months that Wal-Mart has exited a non-US market: in May it announced that it would sell its 16 stores in South Korea. Wal-Mart retreated from Germany because "hard discounter" Aldi, which sells a small selection of aggressively-priced own-brand products, consistently undercut Wal-Mart on prices. About 80% of German consumers live within 20 minutes of an Aldi store, and German consumers are prepared to shop around for the cheapest items from multiple stores instead of concentrating their purchases in a single store. That undermines Wal-Mart's strategy to become the one-stop-shop for an increasing array of products. Wal-Mart also lacked economies of scale in Germany, and the tepid outlook for German consumer spending also hindered its potential in that country. However, withdrawing from German will make it harder for Wal-Mart to increase pricing leverage with European suppliers for its Asda stores in the UK, and makes expansion into Eastern Europe less likely. Wal-Mart is now focusing its international expansion plans on China, India and South America. However, both those countries present challenges. India doesn't allow foreign companies to set up stores unless they sell only a single brand, and on Saturday Wal-Mart employees in Quanzhou, China established the company's first trades union.
- Comment on related stocks/ETFs: Wal-Mart's international operations account for 20% of its total sales and are its fastest growing. CSFB expects Wal-Mart's international sales to rise from $63 billion in 2006 to $78 billion in 2007. As such, any setback in Wal-Mart's global expansion is disproportionately significant for the stock (WMT). George Gutowski asks "Is Walmart unable to compete unless they have a complete monopoly?", but incorrectly assumes that Germany was a lucrative market for Wal-Mart with healthy consumer spending. Perhaps also there's a fundamental difference between European and American retailing: European consumers prefer to shop locally instead of driving to "superstores", and European cities are often better designed for users of public transport and pedestrians. And significantly higher taxes on gasoline further discourage the "drive to the superstore" so common in the US.
- Summary: According to the International Monetary Fund, the U.S. needs to balance its budget over the next five years in order to reduce dependence on foreign creditors and in order to lower the financial burden for future workers who must finance retirement for the large number of baby boomers. The IMF added Friday that the Bush administration shouldn't rule out raising taxes to balance the budget while urging Congress to consider eliminating some popular tax breaks and adopting a national consumption-based tax or higher energy taxes to help bridge the spending deficit. In addition, the IMF voiced concerns that high-deductible health-insurance plans, one of the Bush administration's measures to promote more efficient consumption of health care, are probably not enough to reduce health-care spending to levels more in line with other industrial countries.
- Summary: A broad coalition of utilities, government regulators and consumer advocates have come together to produce a National Action Plan for Energy Efficiency, which seeks to put regulations in place to reward utilities for promoting conservation. Currently, utilities in most states lose revenue for conservation. The announcement came on the heals of the week ended July 22 was, a record week for electricity use in the U.S. do to a national heatwave, during which utilities furnished consumers with 96,314 gigawatt hours of electricity, or nearly double the consumption logged in 1982, the baseline year for a utility consumption index by the Edison Electric Institute, a leading industry trade organization. Conservation practices are urgently needed to reduce stress to the electric grid, relieve upward pressure on electricity prices and cut emissions from power plants and the plan is to reimburse utilities who push conservation, on the regional and federal level. Among the coalition participants are 23 utilities, including several operating in multiple states such as Duke Energy Corp. (DUK), Southern Co. (SO), American Electric Power Co. (AEP), Xcel Energy Inc. (XEL), and others; state utility boards and regional grids in Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Iowa, Kansas, New Jersey and Vermont; and large retailers such as Wal-Mart (WMT).
- Comment on related stocks/ETFs: For more on the implications of the recent heat wave on the companies mentioned in this piece, see Heat Wave Raises Power Consumption -- Implications. Also, note the related recent conference call transcripts for American Electric Power and Southern Co, as well as Rob Zenilman's recent Chart: Utility Stocks - Annual Earnings Growth.
- Summary: Last year, the big health insurers saw remarkable profit growth as they raised premiums higher than underlying medical care costs grew. But as smaller insurers drop coverage due to the quickly rising costs, the insurers are caught between a rock and a hard place: if they lower costs to recover customers, they'll get caught in a price war and investors will dump their stock. That's precisely what happened twice this year to Aetna - following both quarterly earnings reports, its stock sold off heavily upon fears that the company will hold back on premium increases. WellPoint and others have stated that they would rather lose membership than cut premiums and profit margins, but there's only so far they can go before losing too much of their customer base, analysts state. Aetna acknowledges that it will fall 17% to 30% short of its original target of one million new members this year. One possible solution lies in giving consumers more data on price and quality, steering them toward cost-effective care.
- Comment on related stocks/ETFs: Aetna's now trading at a forward P/E of just 10, while WellPoint and UNH are closer to 14.
- Summary: Flash memory leader SanDisk will acquire msystems in a stock-based acquisition worth about $1.55 billion. The deal comes as Israel-based msystems attempts to shake off a options backdating investigation that delayed a stock offering planned for this past May. At Friday's pricing of SanDisk, the deal offers about $36 per msystems share -- a 26% premium over Friday's closing msystems price.
- Comment on related stocks/ETFs: Msystems CEO Dov Moran has been downplaying the likelihood of this for some time, but as Shlomi Cohen stated just days ago while predicting this deal, msystems needs NAND chips and SanDisk has them. Though it raised sales 20x over the past five years, msystems has been hampered in the recent past by supply constraints and low gross margins due to high NAND costs; its management apparently decided that only by joining together with a foundry principle (SanDisk, with its Toshiba partner) could the company see ongoing growth. This is a significant deal for SanDisk, whose market cap is currently only about 8x this purchase price. The acquisition appears negative for IP licenser Saifun (SFUN) because of the pressure SNDK/FLSH could bring to bear on the next-generation, four bit technology flash market (though it could raise the likelihood for a SFUN takeover), and marginally negative for AMD spinoff Spansion (SPSN), a Saifun licensee and SNDK competitor. Note that Sandisk and msystems led last week's price and volume breakouts among flash memory producers.
- Summary: Live Nation (LYV), formerly Clear Chanel Entertainment, a break away last year from Clear Channel Communications Inc. (CCU), will announce today that they have acquired a majority stake in Musictoday LLC, which runs fan clubs, Web sites, online stores and other services for hundreds of acts, including the Rolling Stones and Eminem. Last year Live Nation reported a net loss of $130 million on total revenue of $2.9 billion; since then the company has been searching for new revenue streams, as the price of signing musical acts to tour grows increasingly expensive. Live Nation CEO Michael Rapino see the Musictoday acquisition as adding to his company's allure as a "central point of contact" for all kinds of transactions between musicians and fans, perhaps most significantly, offering early ticket access and merchandise to fan club members before such items go on sale to the general public.
- Comment on related stocks/ETFs: Musictoday is the latest in a string of acquisitions for Live Nation, which is already the world's largest concert promotion company. Just this month, Live Nation has announced two other large acquisitions: The company picked up House of Blues Entertainment in early July as well as a majority stake in Trunk Ltd., a merchandising company on July 12.
- Summary: Verizon Wireless' new 'Chocolate' cellphone (built by LG Electronics - pictured at right, click to enlarge) contains a music player and is designed like an iPod -- the latest effort of the wireless carriers to bring customers over to the 'music-phone' model and win market share away from Apple. The exclusive phone is a joint venture of Verizon and Vodafone. Similarly, Cingular Wireless markets a Sony Ericsson 'Walkman' phone and Sprint Nextel has a 'Fusic' model also produced by LG. Verizon now has over 1.3 million songs available for mobile download at 99 cents each (same as Apple's iTunes), and the new phone has a 'look and feel' like an iPod, though without the signature click wheel. The phone has limited storage capacity, but an attachable drive can hold as many as 1,000 songs, and will be part of a $100 package that includes headphones and a cable to sync songs to a computer.
- Comment on related stocks/ETFs: As noted in the article, Apple CFO Peter Oppenheimer commented in the last conference call: '[w]e do not think that the phones that are available today make the best music players...We think the iPod is. But over time, that is likely to change, and we are not sitting around doing nothing.' Dean Bubley lays out the numbers showing Apple still has a huge lead over music-phones, even in nations where music-phone adoption is far ahead of the U.S. See Gizmodo's review of the Chocolate.
- Summary: Sony Corp reported strong Q1 results last Thursday but is not declaring a full recovery just yet. Senior VP Takao Yuhara, who also is in charge of Sony's investor relations said as much in response to press inquiries last Friday, adding that the Christmas shopping season will be a crucial test for the firm. Investors in Japan nonetheless found reason to believe that CEO Howard Stringer is implementing lasting and meaningful changes, sending Sony shares up 4.2% to 5,230 yen ($45.57) on Friday following Thursday's after-hours earnings release. A Macquarie Securities analyst said the turnaround in Sony's electronics business was stronger than expected and estimated a 3.8% operating profit margin for the segment, which is near Sony's internal target of 4%.
- Comment on related stocks/ETFs: Sony Corp (SNE) (Tokyo: 6758) did in fact report a nice quarter -- click here for a summary covering Sony's segment-by-segment financial results. Most impressive was its operating income of 47.4 billion yen ($411m) in its Electronics segment versus a loss last Q1 of 26.7 billion yen ($231m). Even better results could be on the horizon given Simon Lewis' Plasma's Bad Quarter - Good News For LCD. Lewis said by closely reading the latest quarterly shipment data by DisplayResearch "the LCD industry, especially Samsung, Sony (SNE) and Sharp (OTCPK:SHCAY) can be greatly encouraged" (emphasis in original). For its Game segment it is understandable that sales slowed ahead of the PlayStation 3 launch and likewise that development costs increased. What's key here is how successful the PS3 will be and how quickly Sony can recoup its costs. See Carl Howe's The Gaming Wars: Sony's PlayStation 3 in Prime Position, where he predicts Sony will have about 2 million PS3 units to sell for the Christmas season and will sell out even at its higher unit price of $599. Lastly, for its Pictures segment, hopefully for Sony's sake its marketing for Q2 releases pays off and operating profit swings to the black in forthcoming fiscal quarters. By the way, ordinary shares of Sony (Tokyo: 6758) extended their rally on Monday by gaining 0.96% to close at 5,280 yen ($45.74).
- Summary: Time Warner Inc.'s AOL unit announced that it will launch an online video portal containing video search and free and paid videos. Paid programming will come from cable channels MTV, Nickelodeon and A&E, while users will be able to upload videos for free viewing. "Company executives regard video as a cornerstone of [its free content] strategy and in March started a site featuring free reruns of vintage television programs, including "Chico and the Man" and "Wonder Woman." Called In2TV, the service drew about 1.8 million unique visitors in April, its first full month of operation, according to AOL.
- Comment on related stocks/ETFs: AOL has gone through a complete mind shift about linking out to external content and providing free content on the Web, and now seems focused on providing a great user experience regardless of who's content it points to. But the jury is out on whether this will be financially successful for Time Warner and whether it will benefit its stock (TWX). Note also that CNN just announced that it would boost its citizens' journalism initiative by allowing users to upload news-related audio and video.
- Summary: Matsushita Electric Industrial Co's successful turnaround has rewarded the firm's investors with a 38% rise in their shares over the past year. Despite this and a good quarterly earnings report by Matsushita last Wednesday, its 52% stake in unprofitable Victor Co. of Japan (aka JVC) remains an obstacle keeping its shares from going higher. Analysts believe Matsushita would trade higher if it could sell its stake in JVC. However, that is easier said than done. First, understand Matsushita and JVC have been partners for over 5-decades following the former's bail out of the latter shortly after WWII. Secondly, Matsushita is sitting on JVC shares that keeping going lower and lower, having fallen from a value of $820 million a year ago to about $640million now. Third, there are potential buyers but Matsushita doesn't want JVC falling in the hands of Asian rivals such as Samsung. Fourth, JVC's share price is inflated according to analysts since it carries a premium based on investors' thinking that Matsushita will sell eventually with the buyer offering a tender above market price. Lastly, Matsushita doesn't need JVC for its technology or marketing. Other options for Matsushita include absorbing JVC into its other businesses or reducing its stake. Recently appointed president Fumio Ohtsubo said earlier this month that he plans to watch over JVC's own efforts to turn itself around.
- Comment on related stocks/ETFs: Matsushita Electric Industrial (MC) (Tokyo: 6752) did report a good Q1 but based on its upward revision only of its first-half financials and rather pessimistic comments towards second-half business environments in China and the U.S., its upside could be limited. With Matsushita's shares down about 10% since April there will be more and more pressure to do something with JVC. See Matsushita Needs to Unload Bleeding JVC, in which Steven Towns is skeptical of a JVC turnaround but note the language of outgoing president Kunio Nakamura. Unfortunately for Matsushita investors an end to its relationship with JVC doesn't seem likely in the near-term. As the WSJ's Yukari Iwatani Kane points out, "Matsushita's indecision over JVC underscores a risk for the growing number of foreign investors in Japanese companies. Harmony and mutual respect between corporations sometimes take precedence over strategic interests, discouraging action that could help business in the long run."
- Summary: Canadian telecommunications-equipment company Nortel Networks Corp. (NT) has been stubbornly fighting giving up nearly $4 billion in net deferred tax assets and credits, citing that it would likely again become profitable in the near future. But according to a recent report by research firm Glass, Lewis & Co., the company's string of losses in past years dating to their most recent quarter (1Q06) suggests it might need to write down the value of tax credits earned in past years to offset tax liabilities on future earnings. As of the most recent figures available, Nortel had $3.9 billion in net deferred tax assets, an amount larger than any other asset on its balance sheet and one that dwarfed its $675 million in shareholder equity. Under GAAP rules, a company is supposed to write down the value of its deferred tax assets -- or establish or increase a "valuation allowance" tied to them -- if it appears more likely that it won't be able to use some or all of them before they expire. During the last 3 years, Nortel has posted a combined pretax operating loss of $218 million. The company continued that trend in the first quarter of 2006, with a pretax operating loss of $159 million meaning that they continue to be unable to take advantage of their large tax-deferred assets.
- Comment on related stocks/ETFs: For more on the continued struggles and string of bad luck faced by Nortel, read Investopedia Advisor's July 12 post Nortel May Never Recover Its Old Glory.
- Summary: This week's economic reports may well contribute to the dollar's recent slump, as concerns grow that an economic slowdown means the Fed will halt interest rate hikes in its August 8 policy meeting. On Friday, the dollar dropped sharply following the GDP figure that came in lower than expected. Though inflation inches higher, currency investors have chosen to concentrate more on the metric of lower growth. Eyes are on tomorrow's personal consumption report and manufacturing index report in this regard. Friday's July nonfarm-payrolls report will be particularly significant, the final piece of evidence before the Fed makes its decision.
- Comment on related stocks/ETFs: See John Hussman's latest market commentary on this and related matters.
- Summary: Small-capitalization stocks surged and outpaced the overall market Friday after a weaker-than-expected report on U.S. economic growth helped soothe interest-rate jitters. That, coupled with lower oil prices on Friday, helped spur small stocks, which are generally tied to macro factors like broad interest rates and the overall energy environment. In terms of index performance, the Russell 2000 gained 2.09%; for the week, the index gained 4.2% and is up 4% for the year to date. The S&P SmallCap 600 added 1.96% as well; for the week, the index gained 3.7% and is up 3.1% for the year. Among individual performers, Deckers Outdoor (DECK) surged 17% after boosting its full-year sales forecast to a range of $272 million to $278 million from $268 million to $276 million. Rackable Systems (OTCQB:RACK) plunged 39% after the provider of computer-server and computer-storage products reported declining sequential revenue and rising costs. Sierra Wireless (SWIR) slid 22% after it issued third-quarter guidance that was well below analysts' expectations. Coinstar (CSTR) climbed 12% after the owner and operator of self-service coin-processing machines reported second-quarter earnings above Wall Street's expectations. Volcom (VLCM) slid 29% after announcing its 3Q06 outlook would fall out well below analyst expectation. Genitope (OTCPK:GTOP) plunged 49%, Zones (ZONS) surged 31% and United Surgical Partners International (OTCPK:USPI) fell 17%.
- Comment on related stocks/ETFs: For more on RACK's meltdown in after-hours trading Thursday night, see David Gordon's Rackable Systems' Meltdown: Shares Lose 40% of Their Value Overnight.
Notable articles on Seeking Alpha today: Today's earnings schedule and estimates. Our one page Barron's summary. Rob Black's healthcare stock report and energy stock report. Latest conference call transcripts from Overstock.com, FPL Group and Thomson. Dean Bubley on why WiFi phones don't threaten the telcos. Mick Weinstein on why TheStreet.com's stock was hit last week. Long ideas: Smith Micro Software, SupportSoft, Waters Corp and TheKnot.com. Nick Perry on what's working and what isn't working. William Trent on how rising healthcare costs are impacting earnings. This week's IPOs, and excerpts from the Chart Industries IPO filing. (Full IPO coverage here.)
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