"There's plenty of winter still left." — Jeremy Batstone, head of research at Charles Stanley, on speculation that unseasonably warm weather in the U.S. Northeast has helped send oil prices tumbling, as reported by Reuters
Has housing hit bottom? Not if history is any guide, says Hugh Moore, a partner at Guerite Advisors, a money manager in Greenville, S.C. Using data from the seven previous housing cycles since 1959, Moore concludes that the sector will fall further—and land hard. Take housing starts. In the past, they fell an average 51% from peak to trough. So the current downturn, with housing starts off about 30% from the January, 2006, peak has further to go. And it may meet recession on the way. That's because in six of the seven cycles, when starts fell more than 25% from their most recent peaks, the economy tanked.
Another gloomy stat: In the same seven cycles, the amount people spent on new housing as a percent of gross domestic product fell an average 28% from market peak to trough. Worse, in six cycles, recession kicked in when the ratio fell more than 10% from its most recent peak. In this slump, Moore says, that ratio has fallen 10.5% from its fourth-quarter peak.
History also shows housing corrections take an average 27 months. Thus, the current doldrums may linger a year or more. "It's just going to be this slow, grinding drain on the economy," says Moore, who adds that month-to-month housing stats producing relief rallies are "just noise."
When the NASD, which regulates NASDAQ (NDAQ), and NYSE Regulation, its New York Stock Exchange (NYX) counterpart, announced a merger on Nov. 28 after years of fruitless talks, the deal was expected to sail through. Instead, the plan to create a single oversight body for brokers and dealers—meant to eliminate costly redundancies and to align rules—has hit a snag. As a Jan. 19 vote on the merger nears, a group of small NASD members is campaigning hard to stop the union. Financial Industry Assn. co-founder John Busacca is rallying his small-brokerage members to vote against the consolidation, saying that the new regulatory entity would marginalize small and midsize brokers by eliminating the one-member, one-vote rule that now regulates elections to the NASD board of governors.
The NASD is taking Busacca & Co. seriously. In a Jan. 8 e-mail it urged members not to sign over their proxies to Busacca, and it has been buying banner ads in Web publications to promote the benefits of having a single oversight body. It has also enlisted industry leaders like the Financial Services Institute, a trade group of independent broker-dealers, to rally support for the merger. Busacca, who holds several hundred proxies in addition to an unknown number of nay votes already cast by his allies, says the outcome is too close to call. The NASD, which is tracking the voting, won't say who's ahead.
Shareholder activist Carl Icahn, interviewed in the January issue of Avenue, a magazine covering New York's social Establishment:
"I have my anti-Darwinian metaphor: The CEO is the fraternity brother type who is great to have a drink with. He's a survivor and maybe not all that smart, but he works his way up the ladder in the corporation. And if you're a survivor you never have someone beneath you who's smarter than you. So you eventually work your way to CEO. You have someone a little dumber than you underneath, and eventually we'll have morons running everything...which we're getting closer to."
Will Billy Beane, the do-more-with-less general manager of the Oakland Athletics, lend NetSuite some of the magic he brings to his baseball team? On Jan. 4, Beane became a director of the San Mateo (Calif.) company, which makes Internet-delivered business software. Naming an outside director signals the intention of nine-year-old NetSuite to go public this year. In 2006, it grew 60%, with $70 million in revenues, 7,000 customers, and a positive cash flow. Still, it has yet to edge out crosstown rival Salesforce.com, which, with 27,000 customers, is the "damn Yankees" of the Internet software industry.
Beane's connection to NetSuite is with CEO Zach Nelson, whom he met a decade ago when McAfee Associates, Nelson's former employer, bought naming rights to the A's stadium. Nelson is "a little nervous" about having on his board a shake-'em-up GM like Beane, who was profiled in Michael Lewis' Moneyball. "But it will be a great experience to have somebody like that pushing me," he says.
Wal-Mart is falling for the sun. The retail behemoth last month put out a request for proposals to install solar panels at stores and distribution centers in five states, according to people who have seen the RFP. The project could take into account as many as 300 buildings and produce 150 megawatts of power, making the Wal-Mart (WMT) installation the largest in the world, according to a solar industry executive who is one of the bidders.
Wal-Mart has confirmed it made the call for bids, but it won't comment on the details. The company is exploring solar energy as a component of CEO Lee Scott's goal, announced a year ago, of eventually converting Wal-Mart's operations to 100% renewable energy. Among other things, the RFP asks vendors to outline how Wal-Mart could own its solar energy systems, lease them, or simply buy power from Wal-Mart roof panels owned by the solar company.
The company plans to notify the winner at the end of February. Once it graduates from the exploratory phase and sees the capital costs involved, it might wind up balking at the ambitious project. But given Wal-Mart's sheer size, says the solar industry executive, installing panels on just 40% of company buildings would still dwarf other corporate solar installation efforts, including the biggest in the U.S.: Google's (GOOG) 1.6 megawatt project.
From an application to trademark a sound for use in slot machines, received by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office in mid-December:
"...a yell consisting of a series of approximately ten sounds, alternating between the chest and falsetto registers of the voice, as follows - 1) a semi-long sound in the chest register, 2) a short sound up an interval of one octave plus a fifth from the preceding sound, 3) a short sound down a Major 3rd from the preceding sound, 4) a short sound up a Major 3rd from the preceding sound, 5) a long sound down one octave plus a Major 3rd from the preceding sound, 6) a short sound up one octave from the preceding sound, 7) a short sound up a Major 3rd from the preceding sound, 8) a short sound down a Major 3rd from the preceding sound, 9) a short sound up a Major 3rd from the preceding sound, 10) a long sound down an octave plus a fifth from the preceding sound."
Filed by Fross Zelnick Lehrman & Zissu of New York, named by the Patent Office on Jan. 10 as the most prolific filer of trademark applications among all U.S. law firms. That was cause for a little chest-thumping at the firm. Still can't guess the sound sequence being described? It's for the Tarzan yell, already owned as a registered trademark by Fross Zelnick client Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc. for use in a Tarzan doll.
Because She Can, a novel written by a former ReganBooks editor, rode a prerelease wave of publicity back in December when renegade HarperCollins (NWS) publisher Judith Regan was fired. Now Warner Books is pushing up the publication date by a week, to Feb. 5, apparently to capitalize on the buzz surrounding Regan's downfall, legal battles, and putative comeback following her foiled plan to publish O.J. Simpson's If I Did It.
First-time novelist Bridie Clark worked for Regan for about a year in 2004. At the center of her book is one Claire Truman, a young book publishing hopeful with a "notorious tyrant" of a boss, Vivian Grant. Industry insiders have pegged Regan as the inspiration for the ego-driven character with a taste for glamorous (and sometimes unsavory) authors. Warner says it pushed up the pub date to exploit "media interest" in the book, not the Regan connection. "It's not about Judith per se," says Karen Kosztolnyik, the book's editor. "It's about anyone who's ever had an overly demanding boss." Reviewers (and Warner publicists) compare the book to the 2003 best-seller and 2006 film The Devil Wears Prada. Does Because have the same franchise potential? Kosztolnyik says movie rights are still being shopped around.
Come 2009, Dubai may be drawing iPod aficionados from across the globe. That is the expected completion date for the iPad, a 23-story, $800 million apartment building shaped like an iPod and tilted an iPod-like six degrees for anchoring in a "docking station" (the building's base). The building, developed by Omniyat Properties in Dubai and designed by Hong Kong architectural firm James Law Cybertecture International, will have a futuristic glowing facade and apartments with high-tech devices built in, says firm Chairman James Law (who won't yet reveal those features). It won't be "just a piece of architecture," Law says, "but an integrated piece of technology and architecture."
Management turnover was way up in 2006. Exec-level churn—from directors down to VPs—rose 68% in 2006, to 28,058 changes. CEOs came and went at a 30% higher rate. CFO churn rose 23%. The drug/biotech industry saw the most CEO and CFO turnover. In biotech, these posts are often filled first by people able to handle "the initial development of the company," says Richard Jacovitz, a senior vice-president at Liberum Research, which did the study using SEC filings and press releases of North American publicly traded companies. But as biotech firms enter the marketing phase, he says, many "need a different sort of talent."
It might soon be time to redefine MRI machines as "market research imaging" devices. At Harvard's McLean Hospital not long ago, six male whiskey drinkers, ages 25 to 34, lined up to have their brains scanned for Arnold Worldwide. The Boston-based ad shop was using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fmri) to gauge the emotional power of various images, including college kids drinking cocktails on spring break, twentysomethings with flasks around a campfire, and older guys at a swanky bar. The scans "help give us empirical evidence of the emotion of decision-making," says Baysie Wightman, head of Arnold's new, science-focused Human Nature Dept. The results will help shape the 2007 ad campaign for client Brown-Forman (BF.B), which owns Jack Daniels (BF.B).
The idea of peeking into the brain for consumer insights isn't new. More than a dozen universities have been using fmri to study how people respond to products (prompting Ralph Nader's Commercial Alert group to assert that "it's wrong to use a medical technology for marketing, not healing"). But now a few agencies like Arnold —whose clients also include McDonald's (MCD) and Fidelity—and Digitas (DTAS), another Boston-based shop, are offering fMRI research. "Neuromarketing" consultants, like Los Angeles-based FKF Applied Research, are springing up, too, to link companies with hospitals seeking to lease time on their pricey MRI machines.
Advertisers look to the scans to help tweak their messages. "If you're going to spend $50 million on an ad campaign, wouldn't you want to know if the ad even gets out of the starting gate?" asks Joshua Freedman, M.D., who co-founded FKF. Because scans for 10 to 20 subjects can cost $50,000 to $100,000 (vs. $4,000 for a focus group),FKF arranges fMRI time shares, allowing clients to show 10 subjects a 30-second ad for $3,000, for instance.
Even that's too much for skeptics. "Just knowing the area of the brain where something fires doesn't tell you anything about why it fires," says Eric Du Plessis, author of The Advertised Mind. But Wightman argues that consumers often can't articulate what they like best. At McLean, she notes, the spring-break images sparked the most brain activity, even though the camping scenes were the spoken favorite. (Similarly, high-fat-food images fired up the brain of this reporter, despite her stated preference for photos of healthy snacks.) Since the McLean fMRIs were Arnold's first, the agency itself paid for them. (Brown-Forman says it might fund a future round.) Wightman concedes that responding to an ad while in an MRI device differs from shopping in a store. That's why she's also considering doing research with a sensor-equipped shirt, originally developed for medical tests, that records rises in sweating or heartbeat as the wearer responds to a product.
Toyota (TM) is poised to become the world's No. 1 carmaker. Should the U.S. do more to support Detroit's Big Three? If so, how?
"If the goal is to create jobs, why should Washington prioritize Americans working for Ford in Kentucky over Toyota's Americans in Kentucky? Are those who work for Toyota less American than those working for Ford(F) or GM (GM)?" — Jim Press, president, Toyota Motor NA
"I wouldn't base my plans on expecting change. But if I had a wish, it would be for the government to pass health-care policy that would place far less of the burden on companies." — Dieter Zetsche, chairman, DaimlerChrysler(DCX)
"Health-care reform. But, politically, that's like trying to boil the ocean. So I'd like Washington to invest much more to help with our plans to make more fuel-efficient vehicles." — Mark Fields, president of the Americas, Ford Motor