"I'm patient, but enough is enough." -- Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, Citigroup's largest shareholder, recommending that investors sell their stock if the company doesn't rein in costs
General Mills (GIS) has become the latest company to agree to disclose its political donations -- and the sixth this year. It joins Amgen (AMGN), Bristol-Myers Squibb, Staples, Southern Co. (SO), and McDonald's (MCD) in yielding to shareholders' demands for more transparency in this area, especially in state and local politics.
Such investor resolutions are gaining momentum. Some 21% of stockholders supported them this past proxy season, up from 11% last year, according to the Center for Political Accountability. Last year five blue chips agreed to the disclosures, up from one (Morgan Stanley (MS)) in 2004, when the resolutions started surfacing.
The disclosures, typically posted on company Web sites, can make for compelling reading. (Corporate gifts to PACs are already made public in Federal Election Commission filings.) While Morgan made no political donations in 2005, Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) made quite a few, including $9.8 million to PhRMA California Initiative Fund, an industry group opposing a state proposition to create a drug discount for low-income families. The proposition failed.
"Political spending has consequences," says the center's co-director, Bruce Freed. In a post-Abramoff, post-SarbOx world, he adds, "investors are sending a message that they want accountability."
So it has come to this. The once mighty Bethlehem Steel plant in Bethlehem, Pa., whose furnaces forged girders for the Empire State Building and cannons for U.S. battleships, may have a future as a casino-hotel complex, complete with retail outlets. The $900 million project is being proposed by casino owner Las Vegas Sands (LVS) and BethWorks Now, an investor group that bought the 126-acre site for $4 million in 2004.
The investors have been hosting tours of the shuttered factory. And a $200,000 model of the planned development sits at City Hall. Still, the project faces some opposition from local residents worried about traffic. To win support, the partners have cast themselves as preservationists, vowing to maintain many of the plant's buildings. The elevated rail system that once carried iron ore will become a people mover. The No. 2 machine shop? It will house a shopping mall. And by donating space, the developers may jump-start the long-delayed National Museum of Industrial History, to be created with the Smithsonian Institution on the site. "These are America's ruins," says Barry Gosin, a New York developer who is a lead investor. The furnaces near the mall, he promises, will be dramatically illuminated.
From "A message to American citizens in Lebanon," on evacuation plans, posted on the Web site of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, July 15:
The Department of State reminds American citizens that the U.S. government does not provide no-cost transportation.... For the portion of your trip directly handled by the U.S. Government we will ask you to sign a promissory note and we will bill you at a later date.
From the State Dept.'s Web site, July 18, following criticism of the reimbursement policy by congressional Democrats:
In this extraordinary case, Secretary Rice has directed the State Department to waive the requirement for American citizens departing Lebanon to reimburse the United States Government for their travel costs.
Women perch and men slouch, according to a study by Canada's University of Waterloo on how we sit. Kinesiology researchers, commissioned by Toronto chairmaker Keilhauer, studied 16 students as they worked at PCs for 45-minute sessions. Women sat near the front edge, backs arched. Men slumped against the backrests. Keilhauer says its new chair, the Sguig, developed with Vienna design firm EOOS, has a backrest that can accommodate both postures to help prevent problems (upper back pain for women, lower back pain for men). For the restless, the chair also bounces up and down (like an exercise ball) and pivots side to side.
Sony's (SNE) Walkman brand mobile phone may be giving the iPod a run for its money, especially in cell-phone addicted Europe. Handsets carrying the Walkman name and equipped with built-in digital music players helped raise Sony Ericsson's second-quarter phone sales by 33%, to 15.7 million units. Apple's (AAPL) doing just fine; iPod sales grew 32%, to 8.1 million units. But for the first time, "music-optimized" phones like, Nokia's (NOK) N91 and the Walkman phones that can hold thousands of songs, are gaining traction.
Sony Ericsson doesn't expect its Walkman to stomp the iPod. "I see it as opening up a new segment of the market rather than toppling iPod," says Steve Walker, product marketing VP at Sony Ericsson in London. And analysts see continuing growth for both types of devices.
The new music-capable phones offer features not found on iPods, such as the ability to record a tune sample, then find the song on the Web for downloading. Meanwhile, Apple CFO Peter Oppenheimer all but confirmed talk of Apple's entry into the phone market in a July 19 call with analysts. "We don't think the phones that are available today make the best music players. But over time that may change -- and we're not sitting around doing nothing."
WHY READ IT
If you weren't among the glitterati at TED, the invitation-only Technology, Entertainment & Design confab that each winter collects some of the world's leading thinkers in these fields, you can catch up on the event's blog, which just added podcasts of speeches from the gathering. Some of the blog posts point readers to cutting-edge ad ideas and new books by design and tech luminaries such as information display artist Edward Tufte, whom The New York Times called "the Leonardo da Vinci of data."
Oil isn't the only fuel setting price records these days. Prices for uranium, the source for nuclear power, are up, too. Way up: They've jumped to a high of more than $45 a pound on the spot market, from $10 in 2003.
Such prices may be here to stay, as demand outpaces production. Some 27 reactors are under construction in Asia and Europe (with 38 more planned), as those regions seek alternatives to coal-fired generators. No one is building nukes in the U.S., but even here uranium demand is rising, thanks to capacity-expanding plant upgrades. For now, big atomic energy operators such as Chicago-based Exelon (EXC), which uses 8.5 million pounds of uranium annually, are largely insulated from the price spikes because they locked in supplies under long-term agreements years ago. But Merrill Lynch (MER) forecasts that as such contracts expire, uranium's fixed price will rise to $29.55 a pound next year, and to $45 in 2010, from $8.70 in 2001. As utilities seek rate hikes to cover rising coal and gas prices, high-priced uranium will add fuel to the fire.
Baseball cards have been in a sales slump for years. But there are signs that the losing streak could be snapping. While industrywide figures aren't available, Topps (TOPP), which had about 40% of the sports-card market last year, recently announced that its card sales rose 27% in the quarter ended May 27. And now some retailers are reporting shortages. "We haven't been able to get cards in over a month," gripes a shop owner just outside New York City.
To revitalize the hobby among kids, the Major League Players Assn. and the cardmakers recently launched a $9 million TV and print ad campaign. At the same time, Major League Baseball and the Players Assn. tightened supplies by granting licenses to only two cardmakers this year instead of four. The idea, they say, is to make card collecting less confusing by eliminating some of the esoteric series that appeal mainly to collectors. "We wanted to start marketing cards to kids again," says Evan Kaplan, category director of trading cards and collectibles at the Players Assn. This year Topps and its only remaining rival, privately held Upper Deck, are producing a total of 40 lines of cards, compared with the 90 sold by all makers last year. All this may not be enough to get kids trading players again. And it may not help Topps fend off a pair of hedge funds that want the company to "enhance stockholder value" by putting all or part of itself up for sale. But shortages aren't a bad way to generate buzz.
How do you want those fries fried? Under fire for cooking with trans fats (linked to heart disease and obesity), some big restaurant chains -- including Chili's Grill & Bar (EAT), Ruby Tuesday (RI), and Panera Bread (PNRA) -- are dropping the offending fats. The latest to do so: Wendy's International (WEW), which in August will start using a corn- and soybean-oil blend at its 6,400 U.S. and Canadian outlets. The switch will eliminate trans fats from its fried chicken and cut trans fat levels in a serving of fries to 0.5 grams.
Finding a substitute has been tough. Trans-fatty shortenings are stable, so they can be used in high-temp fryers for days. Wendy's began its oil hunt in 2004, testing six formulas and then secretly trying out two of them at hundreds of outlets before finding a winner. The blend is a bit tricky to use, says Lori Estrada, Wendy's senior vice-president for R&D. (It must be filtered on schedule.) But customers can't detect the substitution.
Taste is the big issue. Four years ago, McDonald's (MCD) said it would halve the trans fats in its fried food within five months and eliminate them soon after. But its vats still bubble with the same oils. Alternatives, says James Skinner, who became CEO in 2004, altered the taste of fries and Chicken McNuggets. Yum! Brands (YUM), too, has yet to find the right oil substitute for its KFC chicken or Taco Bell fare. But if Wendy's scores with consumers, the heat will be on its rivals to try harder.