"Microsoft is a big intellectual roach motel. All the big minds go in, and they don't come out." -- Paul Saffo, director of the Institute for the Future, on innovation Cash-strapped U.S. steel (X) may have hit on a solution for companies scrounging for the dough to pump up pension funds that were recently flattened by the stock market's slide. Just sign over some forests -- or other valuable assets.
On Aug. 4, the steelmaker told analysts it was asking for government permission to transfer 170,000 acres of timberland, mostly in Alabama, to its pension funds. The company values the assets at $100 million. But the trees are young so the "valuation will grow over time," says Chairman Thomas Usher. He hopes to get Labor Dept. approval by yearend.
Although not as creative, a few other companies have been thinking outside the box, too. General Motors (GM) moved $1.24 billion in Hughes Electronics (GMH) stock into its underfunded pension plans earlier this year. Truck maker Navistar International (NAV) got the O.K. to put $175 million of new shares in its funds. And Northwest Airlines (NWAC) is waiting for approval to contribute stock in a commuter-airline subsidiary. The request has been hung up because the stock, not publicly traded, is hard to value. Surely there must be other treasures in the corporate attic that companies could sign over. Merrill Lynch (MER) Chairman and CEO Stan O'Neal has certainly made his mark on the executive suites of the world's largest brokerage. On Aug. 6, head of investment banking Arshad Zakaria became the 10th senior exec to exit since O'Neal became president in 2001. According to Merrill, Zakaria, 41, will "retire" at the end of the year. The announcement comes one week after his mentor, Vice-Chairman Thomas Patrick, was forced out.
Now watch for O'Neal, 51, to put his stamp on the board. In the next three years, 5 of Merrill's 11 directors will reach the mandatory retirement age of 72. For example, W. H. Clark, former chairman of Nalco Chemical, is 71. Former Pitney Bowes (PBI) Chairman George Harvey is 72. And board member Robert Luciano, the former chairman of Schering-Plough (SGP), turns 70 in October. "The ability of a CEO to appoint his own candidates to the board is almost as valuable as the President appointing a Supreme Court justice," says Michael Madden, a general partner of private equity firm Questor.
Part of the reason for the bad blood between O'Neal and Patrick revolved around Patrick's frustration at not getting a board seat. In June, O'Neal backed Alberto Cribiore, 57, managing partner of private equity firm Brera Capital, for the board. Patrick could not be reached for comment. Emily Thornton Still nursing a grudge against France? No need to pour your Bordeaux down the drain. This summer, the French are getting hit where it really hurts: their $110 billion-a-year tourist industry. Visits by foreigners were down an estimated 25% in July from the year before -- bad news when tourism accounts for 6.6% of the economy. "The summer has been a total bust," says Andr? Daguin, head of a leading hoteliers' group.
Hotels and tour operators say bookings by Americans are off 50%, but not because of boycotts. The big culprit is the euro, which has gained 15% in value against the dollar and 11% against the British pound in the past year. That hurts because France gets more American and British tourists than any other European country.
Adding to the gloom, strikes by performers forced the cancellation of summer arts festivals in Avignon and other cities. And in July, vacation spots along the Mediterranean were evacuated because of wildfires. Even Mickey Mouse is hurting. Euro Disney shares fell 23% on Aug. 1 after the company said it might not meet debt repayments because of a falloff in visitors.
Not everyone is staying home. France will likely get 70 million visitors this year, more than its population of 60 million. There's no doubt it would be fun to be Tim Duncan for a day -- as long as it's not tax day. Duncan, who earned $12 million last season while leading the San Antonio Spurs to an NBA championship, will pay an estimated $288,000 in "jock tax," a form of nonresident income tax athletes pay when their teams play in other states. That seems fair enough, given the megamillions pro athletes earn. But the dirty little secret of the tax world is that athletes get tougher treatment than other highly paid workers when it comes to collecting taxes.
Twenty states have passed special taxes that target (TGT) the incomes of pro athletes. State officials contend that the tax codes are blind to profession. But when a CEO pops in, enforcement tends to be lax. "The reason the tax man gets athletes is their schedules are highly public," says David Hoffman, an economist at Washington's Tax Foundation.
Admittedly, it's hard to work up a lot of outrage on behalf of well-paid athletes. But what's good for the ballplayer ought to be good for the CEO. That's just playing by the rules. In the 1990s, companies rushed to boost revenues by building up their own finance businesses. Today, many are racing to get rid of them. On July 15, Sears (S) Roebuck sold its credit-card operations to Citigroup for $3 billion. Now, Circuit City Stores (CC) says it's considering unloading its $3 billion portfolio of bank and credit-card receivables.
The scale of the deal flurry is impressive. Companies from energy provider Aquila (ILA) to communications-services provider Alltel (AT) have sold $7 billion worth of financing businesses this year. That's the most since 1998, when such sales peaked at $8.4 billion, according to Thomson Financial. By yearend, the total could reach $10 billion. "This is one of the few areas of mergers and acquisitions that has grown," says Richard Peterson, a strategist at Thomson.
Retailers' credit-card portfolios are the hot targets. Buyers are eyeing Kohl's (KSS) and Target. But they say they're not interested in selling.
Why have other retailers sold? They get deadbeats off their books and eliminate a potential drag on their valuations. Sears shares rose 14%, to $40, in the five trading days after it announced the sale of its card portfolio. That alone may not be enough to inspire deals, but it certainly can't hurt. Want your 15 minutes of fame but can't get on Survivor? Would you settle for a postage stamp?
On July 23, as part of an effort to help the U.S. Postal Service tackle its $92 billion in debt, liabilities, and obligations, the President's Commission on the U.S. Postal Service recommended that the Service sell personalized stamps.
With e-mail eating into mail volumes, the stamps could make snail mail more attractive. The Commission envisions parents mailing cards with photos of their newborns on the stamps. "Allowing mailers to personalize stamps would add value to sending materials by mail," says Harry Pearce, co-chairman of the Commission.
Canada got this ball rolling in 2001. Canadians can send a picture to their post office, which turns it into a stamp. Celebrity photos, or pictures the sender doesn't own, aren't allowed. Aside from that, a dollar -- 52 cents more than a first-class stamp in Canada -- lets you put pretty much whatever you want on your mail. So maybe junior's first word could be "cheese," eh?