"This sends a message we're in deep doo-doo." --Robert Toll, CEO of luxury-home builder Toll Brothers, on what the Fed's larger-than-expected half-percentage-point interest rate cut says about the economy, as reported by USA Today
It's crunch time for satellite radio: Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin says his goal is to reach a decision by yearend on whether to approve a merger of Sirius Satellite Radio (SIRI) and XM Satellite Radio (XMSR). The verdict can't come too soon for Sirius CEO Mel Karmazin and XM Chairman Gary Parsons. They've spent millions to blunt opposition to the deal. "In this merger, lawyers will make more money than the bankers," Karmazin says.
Leading the charge against the merger is the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), which represents traditional radio and TV stations. It argues that if the only two players in satellite merge, local stations and listeners will lose out. "Monopolists have the ability to raise prices and discriminate," David Rehr, NAB president, told Congress. XM and Sirius argue that together they would control just 3% to 4% of the entire radio market.
XM and Sirius have fielded an army of lawyers to sell Washington on the deal. In recent SEC filings, Sirius said it spent $650,000 on lobbyists in the first half of 2007. XM reported it had anted up $580,000. Together, the two hired 13 lobbying firms. At XM, the Palmetto Group's $70,000 tab is so far the largest. At Sirius, Wiley Rein's $420,000 invoice is the biggest. Those numbers are dwarfed by what the NAB has spent: $4.3 million in the first six months of the year. It has used 10 firms, led by the Ashcroft Group, run by the former Attorney General.
Sirius (where Howard Stern stars) and XM (which offers Oprah & Friends) are a bit surprised by the strong resistance to the merger. Karmazin notes that when AT&T (T) acquired BellSouth for more than $80 billion, there wasn't one congressional hearing. "We've done four," he says, "on two companies that have never made a dime."
Lobbying fees are onlypart of the expense. In a recent SEC filing, XM reported that for the first half of 2007, general and administrative costs were up 93%, to $70 million, a surge driven "primarily by an increase in consulting fees and legal fees" associated with transactions "such as the pending merger with Sirius." An XM spokesman says the merger-related part of this came to $12 million. Sirius' merger expenses over the same period were $19 million. Combined, that works out to roughly $170,000 a day.
With a merger, Sirius and XM stand to save a lot of money. "There are billions of dollars--billions with a 'B'--that could be saved," says Karmazin. And failing to merge could be costly. On their own, they might be tempting targets for a satellite TV company such as Directv Group (DTV) or a cable provider such as Comcast (CMCSA). At Sirius, there's also speculation that Stern might bolt in search of a bigger audience. But Karmazin says the shock jock cherishes his freedom from FCC constraints. "Howard will never go back," he says.
Automatic enrollment has become the hot thing in 401(k)s. About a third of companies automatically deduct retirement savings from paychecks unless workers opt out. Almost all of them also partially match workers' contributions. The intriguing question: Could they stop chipping in and still get high participation levels?
The answer seems to be yes. Economists analyzed 401(k) plans at nine companies with automatic enrollment and various matching schemes, including one that stopped matching. Their conclusion: Dropping the match would lower participation rates by a mere 5 to 11 percentage points. That's important, since under federal pension rules the more lower-paid workers participate, the more higher-paid employees can contribute to the tax-sheltered plans.
Will some of the 98% of companies that match now think it's safe to stop? "I'm worried about people drawing that conclusion," says David Laibson, who wrote up the study with Harvard colleagues Brigitte Madrian and John Beshears and Yale's James Choi. Laibson says it's still in the interest of most companies to contribute. It's a recruiting tool, he notes. And, says Pamela Hess, retirement research director at Hewitt Associates, employers don't want older workers clinging to jobs just because their nest egg is too small.
Those supersize returns at McDonald's (MCD) have its investors looking savvy. As market indexes struggle to maintain year-over-year gains of 15% or so, the company's stock is up about 48%, hitting a high of 55.41 by Sept. 19. The latest igniters: a 50% bump in the annual dividend and a plan to dish out at least $15 billion in buybacks and bigger dividends.
Some former Mickey D investors, however, may have reason to be even smugger. Last fall, as McDonald's was completing its spin-off of Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG), it gave stockholders a chance to swap Big Mac holdings for shares in the soon-to-be-independent burrito unit. Some 16.5 million Chipotle shares were distributed in the exchange. Since then they rose more than 120%, hitting 112.88 on Sept. 14. Why? The company's growth rates are reminiscent of those turned in by McDonald's when it was 14 years old, as Chipotle is now. Revenues are up 34% in the latest quarter, with profits surging by 85%.
Ed Thorp's moment is coming--again. Thorp is an investor, mathematician, and crack blackjack player whose winning system got him expelled from Reno casinos in the 1960s. Now his 1967 work, Beat the Market: A Scientific Stock Market System, has been named one of the most sought-after out-of-print books of the past year by BookFinder.com.
Beat the Market, which sells for up to $750 on Amazon.com (AMZN), describes his investing system, a precursor of the Black-Scholes formula. Why is the book so hot now? Perhaps it's rising interest in the relation between gambling and investing. Thorp also gets mentions in recent books, including Nassim Nicholas Taleb's best-seller on probability, The Black Swan. Another attention-getter: publicity about a cigarette-pack-size computer co-invented by Thorp in the '60s, to be exhibited next spring at Germany's Heinz Nixdorf computer museum. "It could predict where a roulette ball would land," he says.
Impulse buying at the checkout counter may not add much to your shopping tab. But your waistline's a different matter.
As part of an independent study, IHL Consulting Group, a research and advisory firm in Franklin, Tenn., recently polled 1,000 adult shoppers nationwide on the items they grab while waiting in the cashier's line--everything from high-calorie chocolates and snacks to no-calorie purchases like water, magazines, and batteries.
Taking into account the caloric count of items typically found on those shelves, the researchers then equated each item with 200 calories--a conservative figure, they say.
Here's the skinny: The items women typically buy from checkout displays add up to about 14,300 calories every year--enough to pack about four pounds onto the average American woman, using the standard conversion of 3,500 calories to one pound.
The average man buys about 11,100 calories annually at checkout--enough to gain about three pounds. And males under 25, who are the biggest consumers of impulse calories, pick up enough snacks to add eight pounds.
The most tempting items? For women under 25, it's nonchocolate candies. For all other women it's chocolate--the favorite of men in all age groups as well.
Former fed chief Alan Greenspan may have a high profile and command high speaking fees (up to $150,000 a pop). But as he tours to publicize his new book, The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World (page 100), he's low-maintenance, according to some of his handlers and hosts. Greenspan lays down no ground rules for interviews. And he has eschewed formal media training or wardrobe advice in preparation for interviews on 60 Minutes, The Today Show, and The Daily Show, they say. (He told 60 Minutes staffers he gets "pointers" from his wife, NBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell.) For his 60 Minutes segment, he showed up with an entourage of one--and arranged and paid for his own hotel. But what really impressed the staff: For refreshment, he accepted a cup of "newsroom coffee."
Reacting to higher gas prices, buyers are increasingly eyeing small cars. But some new models have gotten less fuel efficient as carmakers like Toyota (TM) and Volkswagen (VLKAY) go for more vroom and room. Not everyone is backsliding on fuel economy, though. U.S. brands, often bashed for lagging behind Asian models, have been making strides in small-car fuel economy. Saturn is importing General Motors' Opel Astra from Europe, where fuel economy has long been a priority, to replace its Ion. Ford (F) pared weight from its 2008 Focus and improved its aerodynamics. "We used to look at fuel economy corporatewide," says Ford product development chief Derrick Kuzak. Now "the mandate is to improve each model's fuel economy at every opportunity."
Are you really in good hands with this hombre? In a stark departure from its staid mainstream ads--the ones starring the deep baritone voice of actor Dennis Haysbert--Allstate Insurance (ALL) is going after the growing motorcycle market by featuring some of its real-life biker agents.
"Bikers don't necessarily think of Allstate first when it comes to insuring their 'rides,'" says Lisa Cochrane, Allstate's vice-president for integrated marketing communications. "So we thought, who better to talk to riders than folks who really understand them?" The motorcycle market is growing, thanks to increased interest from boomers, with 1.2 million sold in 2006, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council, up 40% over the past five years.
Allstate's new print campaign, which launched on Aug. 6, took shape after market researchers at Leo Burnett, the insurer's ad shop since 1957, found that more than 600 of the insurer's 14,800 independent agents were bikers. Showcasing them was the obvious approach for a motorcycle campaign, says Mikal Pittman, creative director at Burnett. The competition sells on price, he says, and "has customers just dial direct--we have real people." (Progressive is a major player in motorcycle insurance).
Burnett put out a casting call to Allstate agents, asking those close enough to Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles to ride their bikes to photo shoots in those cities. Photos of 15 agents were chosen--some for the ads, some for mailings.
To bolster its new campaign, Allstate is heading to six motorcycle rallies this year, offering workshops on how to keep bikes running safely and smoothly. The company also is teaming up with Rolling Stone to sell downloads of what the magazine deems the top 10 motorcycle songs of all time (Midnight Rider by The Allman Brothers Band is No. 1.)
SOME THINK the biker-agent ads will miss their mark. Allstate is "clearly grappling with how to get at this hard-to-reach customer," says Dean Crutchfield, senior vice-president with brand consultancy Wolff Olins. Crutchfield says the ads will alienate bikers outside the Harley crowd who ride BMWs or Yamahas. "And the weekend cowboy, don't forget, wears suits five days a week," he adds. "Insurance is insurance, and even for hard-core bikers, the response will be 'I want to be insured, not condescended to.'"
Allstate says it's too early to gauge results. But it maintains that the ads stay true to its reliable, community-focused brand image. Consider Dean Akey, the agent pictured here. He has two kids and a background in finance. (He was a commodities trader for 20 years before moving into insurance.) And he agreed to pose on his bike only after "one of the guys at corporate" said it would help out Allstate. He's also the founder of Rescue Riders, a volunteer first-responder group, and Biker4Biker, which helps riders in need. Not such a bad guy to have in your corner, if you can get past the scowl.
Employees now pay an average yearly premium of $3,281 to cover a family of four under company-based health insurance plans. That's $1,500 higher than in 2001--an increase of almost 85%, according to the latest survey by the nonprofit Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Wages, by comparison, grew 19% over that period, and inflation 17%. (The total premium cost, shared by employer and employee, is now $12,106 for that four-person family, a 78% rise over six years.) And next year? The survey suggests that co-pays and deductibles will rise along with premiums.