Tuesday, February 25, 2014

WWE looks to break its own mold with new network

With a new network, World Wrestling Entertainment is grappling with its own longtime business model and entering the busy world of streaming TV ready to rumble.

WWE Network launches Monday morning (9 a.m. ET), and instead of being a traditional ad-supported cable network or a Netflix-like on-demand subscription service, its immediate goal is to be both for its rabid pro-wrestling fan base.

The NFL and Major League Baseball have networks, "so why wouldn't we have our own?" WWE CEO Vince McMahon says. "You just need to be able to do it at the right time and in the right way, and I think we have that."

Priced at $9.99 per month (with a six-month commitment), younger fans of such current stars as John Cena and Daniel Bryan who are savvy in social media, as well as older viewers from the days of Ric Flair and Harley Race, will have more than 1,000 hours of digitized content to dive into, including high-profile matches and pay-per-view events going back more than 30 years, including the first WrestleMania from 1985.

"With your work done in the ring, you have the ability to live as long as the network is around," Cena says. "It hopefully immortalizes some of these superheroes we've had in (the) past, present and future."

WWE Network delivers, especially for "our fans who really want to go back in time in those moments that are really iconic for them," says Perkins Miller, WWE's executive vice president of digital media.

The network will also carry a 24/7 live feed of programming, including the in-ring WWE NXT show with up-and-coming talent, pre- and post-shows for its Monday Night Raw programming on USA Network, and series focusing on past story lines and personalities.

Starting Monday, WWE Network is available via app on a variety of devices at launch, including Roku, PlayStation 3 and 4, Amazon Kindle Fire, Xbox 360, Android and iOS devices. A second phase later this year will expand to Xbox One, smart TVs and streaming Blu-ray players.

All the connectivity fits! with the WWE's emphasis on social media, too. A "second-screen experience" via the WWE app will allow fans to tweet and interact with others while watching live content in addition to other features, such as "pop-up" historical factoids and background information on wrestlers.

One major goal of the network: persuading lapsed fans to return to the fold. To get them, WWE is bringing back 1980s icon Hulk Hogan to be a host at WrestleMania 30 on April 6 and have a role in the WWE Network, plus presenting shows such as WWE Legends' House in April — with such former stars such as "Rowdy" Roddy Piper and "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan — and digging into its 130,000 hours of "legacy" material that dates to the 1950s.

The boldest move overall, however, is WWE's plan to include monthly pay-per-view events as part of the network subscription price and air them on the live feed, starting with WrestleMania XXX. It's a huge cost savings for fans — Sunday's WWE Elimination Chamber event alone on various cable and online providers ranged from $44.99 to $54.99.

Between Raw on USA Network, Syfy's Smackdown, E! channel's Total Divas and other programs, 15 million fans watch WWE content every week, but only a small subset are watching the pay-per-views, says Michelle Wilson, WWE's chief revenue and marketing officer.

"The economics were just tough. Not enough of our fans want that on their monthly cable or satellite bill," she says. "We believe that our most premium live content will now get to a much bigger base."

Since an average 800,000 to 1 million homes will buy two to three pay-per-views a year — generating $50 million to $60 million domestically in revenue — WWE Chief Strategy and Financial Officer George Barrios figures the break-even point compared with the old model is 1 million subscribers.

If that number ends up being 2 million or 3 million, he says, there's potentially as much as $150 million in incremental OIBDA profits . "It's a game-changer for us if it works," Barrios ! says.(OIB! DA stands for operating income before depreciation and amortization.)

Financial analyst Robert G. Routh, director of equity research for National Alliance Capital Markets, thinks WWE is conservative with those numbers. Given the price point and fan base, he says, "ultimately, they could have close to double-digit subscribers."

The biggest risk is if the network's launch is "flaky," Routh adds. Otherwise, live attendance won't be affected, sales of ancillary products could increase, and countries internationally where WWE has never played before will now be exposed to it.

"It expands the market way above the 53 million estimated United States fans of the WWE to a global fan base and gives them access to this content that they never really had."

It's a no-brainer for even casual viewers from a consumer standpoint, but some are having issues wrapping their heads around the network.

In January following the announcement of the WWE Network, DirecTV released a statement: "Clearly, we need to quickly re-evaluate the economics and viability of their business with us."

Dish Network decided not to offer Elimination Chamber this past weekend, stating on its Facebook page that "we need to refocus our efforts to support partners that better serve Dish customers."

The company has fans who will sign up, but "WWE cannot run this profitably and prosper with these events unless they have their normal traditional TV partners," says Phil Swann, CEO of TVPredictions.com.

"If you're bringing money in the front door through streaming but it's going out the back door through pure opportunities to sell to cable and satellite guys, what have you gained?" Swann says.

McMahon is quick to point out that he's not advocating "cutting the cord" with any of WWE's TV partners. (Its current network deal with NBC Universal is up at the end of September, and WWE is currently negotiating with "interested parties," Barrios says.)

The network "shouldn't be a threat to anyone whatsoev! er. It sh! ould be an addition," McMahon says. "There might be a threat in terms of, hey, if WWE's successful, what else is coming down the pike?"

It could be a "trailblazing" moment for WWE and one of cultural significance, says David Shoemaker, who writes about wrestling for Grantland.com and is author of The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling.

"It really can open up WWE to a whole range of fans," Shoemaker says. "Who knows what the media landscape's going to look like in 10 years, but the notion of a lot of different companies on WWE's level having this sort of network as their primary point of access is definitely likely."

What's most important to McMahon in all of this is giving the fans their money's worth and earning their respect, be it the WWE faithful or someone who hasn't watched wrestling for decades.

"Other than being a doctor or a scientist who cures some dreaded disease, when you put smiles on people's faces the globe over, this is the best thing in the world," McMahon says.

With WWE Network, "our younger audience is going to find out the Bruno Sammartinos and the Ivan Koloffs," McMahon says. "It's such a rich experience, it's going to be difficult pulling people off this channel."

Adds Cena: "It's pretty much the library of the history of everything. It really is the way WWE was meant to be enjoyed."

Monday, February 24, 2014

What's safer: Individual bonds or funds?

A common misconception is that bond funds are more exposed to interest-rate risk than laddered individual bond portfolios. The truth is that they have identical exposure.

The logic for the standard view basically starts and ends with the observation that an investor can hold individual bonds to maturity while bond funds don't necessarily hold all bonds until they mature. Most bond fund managers trade their assets periodically.

Because you can hold individual bonds until they come due, as the conventional logic goes, it doesn't matter if their prices go up or down in the interim. But if you compare laddered individual bond portfolios and bond funds with similar-maturity holdings, you run virtually the same risk if rates change. Yet the incorrect viewpoint is all too common and can lead investors to take excessive interest rate risk in individual bond portfolios without understanding the implications.

When interest rates change, so does the price of your bond. Bond prices and rates move inversely. The great fear of bond investors is that rates go up and the value of their portfolio diminishes. If they sell their old bonds to buy higher-yielding paper, they take a loss.

For that reason, many smart investors construct a bond ladder. This is a collection of bonds that mature at regular intervals, so when one portion matures, you can invest it easily in issues paying higher rates.

To illustrate my point, I compare the returns and volatility of a laddered bond portfolio with a hypothetical bond fund portfolio. My laddered bond portfolio allocates equal investment dollars to bonds maturing from one through 10 years. At the end of each year, the portfolio effectively invests the proceeds from the one-year bond that matured into a 10-year bond and repeats this process each and every year. This is a good proxy for how bond ladders are actually constructed in practice.

Separately, I construct a bond fund portfolio using three-, five- and 10-year bonds, with this portfolio construc! ted to match the duration and convexity of my laddered bond portfolio. Duration and convexity are the two primary measures of the interest rate risk in a fixed-income portfolio. Duration gauges the sensitivity of a bond to rate moves; the higher a bond's duration, the more rate shifts affect its price. Convexity measures how duration changes as rates do.

Each year, my bond fund portfolio reallocates among its three choices to match the duration and convexity of the laddered bond portfolio. Note that none of the positions in this second portfolio ever mature.

If laddered bonds are truly safer than bond funds, these two portfolios should have significantly different risk-adjusted returns. I calculated the average annual returns and volatility – quantified by a number called standard deviation – of both portfolios from 1993 through 2013.

The average returns for the laddered bond and bond fund portfolios are 6.4% and 6.5% respectively. The average volatility is 6.5% for both portfolios. This is the longest data set available.

As the data show, the returns and volatility are virtually identical. At the end of the day, that's basically all that matters.

Note, however, that individual bonds can still have advantages relative to bond funds. It's just that those potential advantages have nothing to do with individual bond portfolios having less interest rate risk than bond funds. I covered the potential advantages and considerations in a previous article.

For both the bond ladder portfolio and the hypothetical bond fund portfolio, I used Barclay's Capital Interest Rate Swap Index series. These are zero-coupon securities that are very analogous to zero-coupon Treasury bonds. The reason I like to use this data is that this is a very liquid fixed income market and data are available for maturities ranging from one-year to 30-year securities in one-year increments.

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Jared Kizer is the director of investment strategy for The Bam Alliance and is a member of the AdviceIQ Adviser Network, which is a USA TODAY content partner offering financial news and commentary. Its content is produced independently of USA TODAY.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Jim Cramer's 6 Stocks in 60 Seconds: VMW PCLN EW SEAS AOL FB

Check out Jim Cramer's latest trading recommendations on "Action Alerts Plus".

(Updates from 10:46 a.m. ET with closing information.)

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Here's what Jim Cramer had to say on CNBC's "Squawk on the Street" Thursday.

Citigroup upgraded VMware (VMW) to buy from hold. Cramer agreed saying it's an exciting company and "a very good stock." VMW rose 1% to $99.33.

Priceline.com (PCLN) is one of Cramer's favorite stocks. "This is how people get great bargains," he explained. It's "part of the new frugality." PCLN rose 1% to $1,184.65. Cramer said Edward Lifesciences (EW) is "worth a great deal" after it found a way to implement its heart valve devices without breaking open the patient's chest cavity. It was also awarded $392 million from Medtronic (MDT) due to patent infringements. EW was 1.1% higher at $72.67. Wells Fargo had a positive note on SeaWorld Entertainment (SEAS). Cramer called it "nutty" because the positive comments stem from the Blackfish documentary failing to be nominated for an Oscar. Blackfish portrayed SeaWorld in a very negative manner. SEAS jumped 8.4% to $33.59. Shares of AOL (AOL) are higher on Thursday after it announced Hale Global would take over the operations of its Patch local news sites. This is what investors were looking for and "it's a strong delivery" by AOL, Cramer said. AOL soared 11.2% to close at $52.54. Raymond James was positive on Facebook (FB). Cramer said expectations for the quarter don't seem to be very good, meaning the company could surprise to the upside. FB closed nearly 1% lower at $57.19. To sign up for Jim Cramer's free Booyah! newsletter, with all of his latest articles and videos, please click here. -- Written by Bret Kenwell in Petoskey, Mich. Follow @BretKenwell

Stock quotes in this article: VMW, PCLN, EW, MDT, SEAS, AOL, FB 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Unexpected Slow Growth Extends Unlimited Loans

First came Europe's promise to support the euro, then the US pledge to keep interest rates low, and yesterday it was announced that Japan's extending its unlimited loan program for another year, writes MoneyShow's Jim Jubak, who shares what gained off of the news.

The euro had Mario Draghi's pledge to do whatever it takes to support the currency. The dollar had Ben Bernanke's pledge to keep short-term interest rates extraordinarily low for an extended period.

And now the yen has an "unlimited" loan program from the Bank of Japan that is looking more truly unlimited.

With Japanese GDP growth unexpectedly slowing to an annual 1% rate in the fourth quarter and with the Japanese consumer facing an increase in the national sales tax to 8% from 5% in April, Japan's central bank, yesterday, extended its unlimited loan program for another year. The program, which had lent 5.1 trillion yen ($49.8 billion) in low-interest cash to banks since December, had been scheduled to expire at the end of March. At the same time, the bank loosened a limit on how much "unlimited" money a bank could borrow. Previous rules restricted a bank to borrowing cash equal to its net increase in lending. Now banks will be able to borrow twice the amount of any increase in lending.

The central bank also slightly increased the size of its monthly purchases of Japanese government bonds to a range of six trillion to eight trillion yen, from a target of approximately seven trillion yen a month.

Yesterday in Tokyo, the Nikkei 225 stock index (NKY:IND) closed up 3.13%. Financial and real estate stocks were the big winners. In the financial sector, Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group (MTU) rose 5.03% and Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group (SMFG) climbed 5.0%. (Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group is a member of my Jubak's Picks portfolio.) In the real estate sector, Heiwa Real Estate (8803:JP) gained 4.13% and Mitsui Fudosan (8801:JP) advanced 3.31%. The yen fell against the dollar by 0.4% to 102.34 yen to the dollar.

Full disclosure: I don't own shares of any of the companies mentioned in this post in my personal portfolio. When in 2010 I started the mutual fund I manage, Jubak Global Equity Fund, I liquidated all my individual stock holdings and put the money into the fund. The fund may or may not now own positions in any stock mentioned in this post. The fund did own shares of Mitsui Fudosan as of the end of December. For a full list of the stocks in the fund, see the fund's portfolio here.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Why La-Z-Boy (LZB) Is Tanking After Hours

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- La-Z-Boy (LZB) is tanking in aftermarket trading after reporting third-quarter earnings and revenue lower than analyst consensus.

After the bell, shares took off 9.6% to $24.50 after closing the regular session 1.2% lower.

The furniture maker, known for its trademark reclining sofa chairs, recorded per-share earnings of 32 cents in the three months to January. Analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters had expected net income of 35 cents a share.

Revenue of $350.4 million fell short of consensus of $378.74 million, but were up 3% on the year-ago quarter if results excluded Bauhaus, a discontinued operation in La-Z-Boy's upholstery segment. "Weather conditions did have some impact on sales, production and deliveries," said CEO Kurt L. Darrow in a statement. "While markets in the northeast and Midwest were challenged during the period, written sales in warmer climates and in those markets not impacted by severe weather conditions continued to exhibit strength." Same-store written sales for the company's Furniture Galleries store network increased 3.6% but came in far lower than the 11.8% increase in the third quarter 2013. Must Read: La-Z-Boy Signs Agreement to Sell Bauhaus USA TheStreet Ratings team rates LA-Z-BOY INC as a Buy with a ratings score of A. The team has this to say about their recommendation: "We rate LA-Z-BOY INC (LZB) a BUY. This is based on the convergence of positive investment measures, which should help this stock outperform the majority of stocks that we rate. The company's strengths can be seen in multiple areas, such as its compelling growth in net income, revenue growth, largely solid financial position with reasonable debt levels by most measures, solid stock price performance and good cash flow from operations. Although no company is perfect, currently we do not see any significant weaknesses which are likely to detract from the generally positive outlook." You can view the full analysis from the report here: LZB Ratings Report

Stock quotes in this article: LZB 

Monday, February 17, 2014

Cisco Systems, Inc. (NASDAQ:CSCO): What Cisco May Add To Next-Gen UCS?

The year 2014 could be significant for Cisco Systems, Inc. (NASDAQ:CSCO), particularly for its unified computing system (UCS) business.

Cisco Unified Computing System (UCS) is a x86 architecture data-center server platform. It unifies computing, networking, management, virtualization, and storage access into a single integrated architecture.

The unique architecture enables end-to-end server visibility, management, and control in both bare metal and virtual environments and facilitates the move to cloud computing and IT-as-a-Service with Fabric-Based Infrastructure.

It seems that the Cisco's UCS plan for next year will include an expansion of the Whiptail Flash storage acquisition to integrate Hard Disk Drives (HDD) for application data capacity (implying a mix use of Flash and Disk). Cisco expects Data Center/UCS business to grow 20-25 percent over the next 3-5 years.

[Related -Cisco Systems, Inc. (CSCO) Dividend Stock Analysis]

Sterne Agee analyst Alex Kurtz views that the potential HDD addition is a likely sign of Cisco's move deeper into Tier 0/1workloads and positive for its Total Addressable Market (TAM), which over time could create tension with existing partners like EMC Corporation (NYSE:EMC) and NetApp Inc. (NASDAQ:NTAP).

[Related -Cisco CSCO Shares Shatters Support Into Open Air Pocket]

With the $415 million acquisition of Flash storage vendor Whiptail in October, Cisco has indicated its intent to capture storage dollars among Tier 0/1 workloads. At its recent analyst day, Cisco was increasingly focusing on the Business Intelligence/Analytics market with UCS, indicating the potential addition of Hard Disk Drive capacity as part of the UCS evolution.

Cisco positioning would likely remain focused on high Input/Output (IO) driven applications with this new UCS platform and would not represent a push into the broader storage market. Yet, the presence of HDDs would suggest the intent to capture larger pools of application data.

Kurtz said the high-end IO intensive Storage market is potentially 10-15 percent of the overall $26 billion Networked Storage market. He views this as an incremental opportunity for Cisco's Data Center practice (5 percent of revenue but a key longer-term growth driver).

Cisco needs a more integrated selling approach than the company has had to execute against historically (sell to both Business Intelligence/Analytic admins as well as the Compute/Storage team - often separate groups that have siloed relationships with EMC, NetApp, Oracle and SAP).

Cisco's potential moves would mean a complex set of scenarios for EMC and NetApp, dependent on the extent of HDD capacity in the UCS chassis. It would be closely watched how Cisco's potential platform would work extensively outside bare metal environments.

Kurtz said there would be some friction EMC over the next several years against XtremIO in the All Flash Array market. NetApp's FlashRay has yet to reach general availability in 2014, but he suspects some potential overlap here, as well.

Moreover, the introduction of HDD capacity into UCS could also complicate a longstanding market thesis of Cisco acquiring NetApp.

Meanwhile, how this (UCS+HDD) integrates, if at all, into virtualized environments compared to bare metal remains a key outstanding question. California-based Cisco makes Internet Protocol (IP) networking and other products to the communications and IT industry worldwide. Shares of Cisco have gained about 8 percent in the last one year.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Stocks: Looking for a spark

sp 2 14 NEW YORK (CNNMoney) Investors may not be giving the markets much love Friday with little in the way of major corporate or economic news to provide a spark.

U.S. stock futures were little changed, with only the Nasdaq edging higher after six straight days of gains.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics will release data on import and export prices at 8:30 a.m. ET Friday. The Federal Reserve publishes its monthly report on industrial production at 9:15, while the latest edition of the consumer sentiment index from the University of Michigan and Thomson Reuters is out at 9:55.

In corporate news, firms including Campbell Soup (CPB, Fortune 500) and Hyatt Hotels (H) are set to release quarterly results before the opening bell.

U.S. stocks finished higher Thursday.

Kraft Foods (KRFT, Fortune 500) shares rose in after-hours trading Thursday following quarterly results that beat expectations.

European markets were firmer in morning trading, drawing some support from slightly stronger than expected fourth quarter growth figures. GDP data for the eurozone as a whole will be released at 5 a.m.

Asian markets ended mixed, with gains in Shanghai and Hong Kong but another hefty fall on Tokyo's Nikkei. To top of page

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

McDonald's Sales Drop, Apple Ends a War, and Hasbro Earnings No Fun to Play With

While we're still aggressively waiting for a cupcake ATM to finally open up near us, investors are getting pumped up for new Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen's big first official speech on Tuesday -- And the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES: ^DJI  ) inched up 8 points Monday in eager anticipation.

1. Winter freezes McDonald's sales
Ronald is frowning, because McDonald's (NYSE: MCD  ) monthly report showed that U.S. sales fell 3.3% in January and restaurant traffic is down 1.6% over the last year. McD's is blaming two culprits: (1) Americans are still being frugal as the economy only slowly improves, and (2) the unhealthy servings of polar vortexes this past winter are keeping warm-blooded customers out of cold plastic seats at McDonald's restaurants.

It's all about the Dollar Menu. Or is it? McDonald's reintroduced its famed Dollar Menu just three months ago in the U.S. as the fancy new "Dollar Menu and More," but the publicity stunt hasn't had any impact on sales. In fact, the McDouble and small fries both now cost more than a dollar, resulting in some unhappy and confused McDonald's patrons walking into stores with four quarters in their pocket.

The takeaway is that investors didn't freak out like someone stole their Happy Meal toy. That's because McDonald's overall global sales were pretty greasy (in a good way) -- Europe has overtaken America as the chain restaurant's largest market and Asian sales rose nearly 6%. Although Ronald warned investors in its recent earnings report that January would be a tough month, the growing foreign appetite for Big Macs saved the Golden Arches Monday.

2. Carl Icahn gives up fight with Apple
Apple's (NASDAQ: AAPL  ) battle with famous superinvestor Carl Icahn is over. The stock titan who is known and feared by all on Wall Street wrote an open letter to Apple shareholders Monday, indicating he will stop fighting for Apple to give shareholders more of its massive $100 billion-plus cash pile. The stock rose 2% now that the Real-Housewives-of-Wall-Street-style feud is over.   What's wrong with too much cash? Icahn's firm owns about $4 billion worth of Apple shares -- and with shares come power. He has insisted that Apple stop wasting its cash reserves generated from years of iPhone and iPad sales and return the moola to shareholders. He's begged for share buybacks (Apple purchases shares, reduces the number out there, and makes the rest all the more valuable). In fact, Icahn wanted $50 billion of buybacks -- and he's going to get $38 billion this year.   The man is satisfied. Plus, an advisory firm reported that Icahn's crusade was not helping the company, it's just creating lots of cheesy headlines for E! and The New York Post. CEO Tim Cook is pumped to have one less Wall Street shark to worry about.  
3. Hasbro got Christmas coal for sales
Hasbro's (NASDAQ: HAS  ) earnings just aren't as fun as the products they make. The toy-creating legend reported Monday that sales nudged down from $130 million to $129 million from a year ago, after its classics My Little Pony and Transformers didn't make it into enough stockings this year. Companies like Hasbro are known to make up to 40% of their annual revenues during the holidays, so bad Christmas news made investors less than jolly.

The takeaway is that Hasbro isn't the only toy company that Santa's elves ignored this year -- rival Mattel (NASDAQ: MAT  ) had a poor holiday season, too, after Barbie and Fisher-Price toy demand shrank. Plus, Hasbro revealed that while physical toys weren't on kids' Christmas lists, games did enjoy a nice 2% sales increase from last year. Time for Monopoly.

Today: New Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen gives her first speech on the job The NFIB Small Business Survey Fourth-quarter earnings reports: CVS Caremark, Sprint MarketSnacks Fact of the Day: Lego is the world's largest producer of rubber wheels -- more than car tire makers Goodyear or Bridgestone.

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Sunday, February 9, 2014

Construction spending up 1% in November

WASHINGTON — U.S. construction spending rose in November at the strongest pace in more than four years, driven by solid gains in home construction and commercial projects.

The Commerce Department said construction spending increased 1% in November to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $934.4 billion. That's the fastest rate since March 2009 and a slight improvement on the revised 0.9% gain in October.

MANUFACTURING: Expands at a solid pace

GOOD HIRING SIGN: Jobless claims slip

Residential construction rose 1.9% in November, after falling in October. Homebuilding last exceeded the November pace shortly before the 2008 financial crisis. Spending on single-family homes has increased 18.4% year over year, while spending on apartment buildings is up 36.3% during the same period.

Those gains are a positive sign for the overall economy. More than two-thirds of the residential construction market comes from single-family homes.

Each new home creates an average of three jobs for a year and generates about $90,000 in tax revenue, according to National Association of Home Builders. The new construction suggests that builders expect buying to continue picking up in 2014.

The construction gains might restart some of the momentum for home sales that has stalled in recent months. Increasing mortgage rates and home prices have hurt affordability. Mortgage rates are nearly a full percentage point higher than in the spring, even though they are close to historic lows.

Rates rose in May when the Federal Reserve first signaled that it might slow its $85 billion in monthly bond purchases, a move Fed officials made after made after a December meeting.

The higher rates have also helped to encourage apartment construction.

5 Best Cheap Stocks To Buy For 2014

As homes become less affordable, more people choose to rent, increasing the demand for apartments and causing bui! lders to begin new residential projects.

Commercial projects also increased 2.7% in November. Spending on offices, communication projects and transportation projects contributed to the increase.

Government construction spending fell 1.8% after strong gains in October. Declines in expenditures on roadways, health care facilities and sewer systems led much of the decrease.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Rieder: A major bet on print journalism in LA

Aaron Kushner, whose enthusiastic commitment to investing heavily in print journalism in the digital age gives new meaning to the term "counterintuitive," is making his boldest bet yet.

The budding newspaper mogul, who got into the newspaper business in July 2012 when he acquired Freedom Communications and its flagship Orange County Register, says he's about to launch a new paper in Los Angeles.

Simply buying a newspaper at a time when print circulation and ad dollars are declining and executives are frantically struggling to plot a future in the digital world is an act of courage. Fresh from buying the Register, Kushner doubled down in November when he acquired the Press-Enterprise in Riverside, which like the Register is based in Southern California, from A.H. Belo Corp.

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Challenging an existing paper on its home turf, even in much headier times, is a whole other level of audacious. Hardly anyone tries it, and virtually no one pulls it off. Yet Kushner showed his eagerness to do just that in August when he started up the Long Beach Register to challenge the Long Beach Press-Telegram in that Southern California city.

But that's child's play compared with starting up a paper in the nation's second-largest city, sprawling, complex L.A. And taking on the Los Angeles Times — which remains one of the nation's best dailies despite years of devastating budget cuts and the massive financial problems of its parent Tribune Co. — doesn't make things any easier. Not to mention the presence of MediaNews' Los Angeles News Group and its nine dailies.

Longtime newspaper analyst John Morton makes clear the enormity of the challenge Kushner is undertaking.

"The newspaper graveyard is full of start-ups that attempted to establish a competitor for an entrenched daily, especially in cases where the established daily is of reasonably high quality, like the Los Angele! s Times," he says.

Morton says start-ups in competitive markets that have endured "usually have done so because their owners have great financial resources and are willing to lose money indefinitely for reasons of ideology or some other compulsion; The Washington Times is an example."

In one rare instance, the insurgent Anchorage Daily News put the lackluster Anchorage Times out of business, but only after years of bleeding tens of millions of dollars.

Despite the grim history, the irrepressible Kushner downplays the immensity of his latest foray. He portrays it rather as a natural evolution of what he has done so far.

After buying the Register, Kushner opened up his wallet, adding an astonishing 200 journalists to the roster and significantly beefing up the size of the print paper. He says his papers are all about community building. And he believes that if you have a strong product, readers and advertisers will come.

While many legacy news outlets have cut back on their print offerings to concentrate on their digital operations, Kushner sees that as a mistake, given that the lion's share of revenue continues to come from the retro old print product.

The next step was launching the new paper in Long Beach, about 20 miles from the Register's home base in Santa Ana. And, significantly, located in Los Angeles County. Soon, all of Los Angeles County will targeted by the new Los Angeles Register.

"We're in growth mode," Kushner says. "We look forward to bringing our political perspective and model of community-building journalism to Los Angeles County." The Register's editorial page philosophy is all about free markets and personal freedoms and is well to the right of the Times'.

Kushner plays down the possibility that his ambitious plans could seriously overextend his empire.

"We have a very strong core in Orange County," the former greeting-card magnate says. "Building on that foundation is how you build a business."

The Register has a bit of a ! head star! t since it already covers the L.A. sports teams. But to wage a serious battle in a market as large and diverse as the City of Angels will require a substantial commitment of firepower. Asked how big a staff he anticipates, Kushner responds that the "logistics" remain to be worked out. The invasion force will be a mix of current staffers and new hires.

But one thing's for sure: A guy who has added 200 journalists to the staff of an existing newspaper is not addicted to small ball.

John Paton, the CEO of Digital First Media, which oversees the operations of the Long Beach Press-Telegram and the rest of the Los Angeles News Group, is an outspoken skeptic when it comes to Kushner's approach.

When I asked him what he thought about Project L.A., Paton responded via e-mail with pointed questions.

"What are the strategic and operating principles that make Mr, Kushner believe he can produce a product in Los Angeles County with more penetration than the Los Angeles Times and all of our dailies combined?" he asked. "Does Mr, Kushner think he can out-cover all of the very distinct communities that make up LA County better than the established and trusted players?"

He added dismissively, "If print first worked, everyone would be doing it."

And that's they key question: Will it work? Kushner's approach is so radically different than what pretty much everyone else is doing. It's refreshing, an exciting gamble. But does it make any sense?

Kushner's company is private, so he doesn't have to release a lot of financial specifics. And while he says "I like the trajectory," he concedes the paper isn't meeting the aggressive budget targets it set for itself. He recently told a town hall meeting that the revenue picture would be brighter in 2014 and the paper will become "permanently profitable."

The Register began charging for digital content in April. A spokesman says there's no word yet on whether a similar approach will be taken in Los Angeles.

As for how it will al! l play ou! t, newspaper analyst Morton says Kushner has two big things going for him: "his enthusiasm and his deep pockets."

"We'll have to wait and see," he adds, "how long the former lasts as the latter get shallower."

Thursday, February 6, 2014

ArcelorMittal Doing More With Less

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- For the past two-plus years, investors have been told they needed guts of steel to invest in the steel industry. Either that or they have to have first developed an extremely high frustration threshold.

ArcelorMittal (MT) investors have certainly been tested. But management has tried to put the pedal to the metal to deliver.

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Unlike commodity markets like aluminum and copper, where oversupply has become a legitimate concern, I've become a little less jittery about the future of steel. This is not because there are still no risks. I just don't believe the so-called "end times" for this industry is accurate, if not entirely exaggerated.

The recent results from AK Steel (AKS), for instance, demonstrated what is possible with competent management. The company went from posting a $230 million loss in one year to a fourth-quarter profit of more than $35 million last week. Clearly there are opportunities, if these companies know how to maximize value. In the case of ArcelorMittal, which has enjoyed a solid reputation as the premier name in integrated steel, the company has done more than a decent job overcoming to weak prices and slumping demand. Management has established a two-year plan to take out upwards of $3 billion in incremental costs in what the company calls a "cost optimization program." This is an initiative geared more towards variable cost reductions than fixed cost savings, which makes sense seeing as how unpredictable the steel industry has become. Since the start of this program, ArcelorMittal has posted better-than-expected results, particularly in from an EBITDA perspective, which stands for earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization. EBITDA is the standard metric used to measure performance in the steel industry. It's true EBITDA is still lower than the company's historical standard, but it has steadily risen over the past couple of quarters and has met estimates. Plus, investors continue to discount that these operational improvements coincide with sequential increases in steel shipments.

Stock quotes in this article: MT, AKS 

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All told, ArcelorMittal management continues to do more with less. And whether the Street wants to give this company the credit it deserves, the company's restructuring efforts are beginning to pay dividends. And investors who want to house their faith in steel should look at this company a little bit closer.

ArcelorMittal will report its fourth-quarter and full-year earnings results on Friday. Given the dire state of the industry, not much is expected this quarter. In fact, analysts aren't projecting a profit at all. The company is projected to report earnings of $0.00. That's not a typo. And that's good news. It would reverse a year-ago loss of $2.58 per share.

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Revenue, on the other hand, is projected to be up slightly above 4% year over year to $20.1 billion. While this does support the notion that steel demand has picked up, the more interesting aspect of the report will the extent to which management has benefited from higher ASPs (average selling prices). AK Steel just reported a 2% year-over-year increase, measuring at $1,031 per ton.

And this is where ArcelorMittal's heavy exposure to Europe and North America, which accounts for more than 60% of its revenue, should serve as a benefit. Brazil, where the company also has a large presence, will be a factor. In past reports, management cited Europe, in particular, as a having been a major growth obstacle due to weak shipments and slumping prices in raw materials. The extent to which these regions are able to rebound will determine the stock's near-term trend. But don't hold your breath. Management's guidance for the year will dictate the level of confidence they have in any potential recovery and where this company is heading. For now, with earnings expected to come in at zero, investors should (at least) take solace in the fact that the worst is finally over and there's no longer an issue of decelerating growth. The thing to remember here is that even though ArcelorMittal's production and profitability are still not back to historical levels, these shares are nonetheless attractive at around $16 a share on the basis of growing steel demand and higher APS. At the time of publication, the author held no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Follow @saintssense This article was written by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

Stock quotes in this article: MT, AKS 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Brace yourself for a big heating bill

heating bills

Snow blows! High heating costs are another headache this winter.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) Millions of Americans could be in for a surprise when they get their next heating bill.

Some of the nation's largest utilities say energy bills will be significantly higher in February following a string of big snow storms that blanketed the Northeast and Midwest last month.

Con Edison (ED, Fortune 500), which supplies gas and electricity to 3 million people living in New York City and surrounding areas, expects February heating bills for the typical household to increase more than 16% from last year.

And it's not just heating bills that are going up.

Con Ed said the recent price surge in natural gas, which is used to generate power, will lead to a 22% spike in electricity bills this month.

In Michigan, DTE Energy (DTE, Fortune 500) said gas bills will be up 13% for the November through January period for its roughly 1.2 million natural gas customers. Nicor Gas in Illinois said its customers should expect to see a 30% rise in their heating bills.

The jump in heating bills is entirely due to increased demand, according to the utilities. The companies say their rates haven't changed, but customers have been running their heaters more than usual because of the brutal weather.

Last month, extreme cold, strong winds and snow pummeled communities from New York to Massachusetts to Maine. Chicago was hit with 33.7 inches of snow in January, making it the "third-snowiest" on record for the Windy City, said CNN meteorologist Dave Hennen.

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Demand for natural gas hit an all-time high during the first week of January, when a Polar Vortex brought record low temperatures to a large swath of the United States, according to according to research from Bentek Energy.

While prices for natural gas have surged to record highs in the wholesale market, most utilities buy their winter supply when prices are lower during the summer, said Katie Teller, an analyst at the Department of Energy.

What's more, natural gas prices are subject to a variety of state and federal regulations.

"Con Edison does not control the price of natural gas or electricity and makes ! no profit on either commodity," the company said.

Still, it's shaping up to be one of the coldest winters in recent memory and demand for heat is unlikely to fall any time soon.

With a pair of storms already this week, forecasters are looking ahead to a third round of nasty winter weather for the weekend. To top of page

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Here's The Real Reason Markets Are Diving

Stocks are falling because of brewing troubles in emerging markets. And those troubles are the result of economic ignorance: too many central bankers don't know how to defend their currencies, which are under attack. If they don't get their act together, we could have another big financial crisis like that which hit in Asia in 1997-98. The danger is that the Fed, the IMF, the European Central Bank, the Bank of England and the Bank of Japan are just as clueless as their developing country counterparts on how to quickly put a stop to a potentially devastating currency crisis that will hit banks hard everywhere.

Putting out these flames before they become a conflagration is easy; emerging countries just need to know how to keep their currencies afloat.

Here's what they need to do. An important first step involves public relations : announce that keeping your currency stable is paramount and the government will do everything it can to defend it. That means defining a benchmark, which could be a narrow range vis-a-vis the dollar or Euro or some other major currency; or a basket of currencies that encompass most of your trading partners. (We're still a few years away before gold resumes its historic place as the global measure of currency value.)

Then raise interest rates. It doesn't have to be a lot, just enough to let markets know you are serious.

These two steps are foreplay for the biggest, most important move by far: Central banks must be willing to aggressively buy their currencies in foreign exchange markets. They can use their foreign reserves; most countries have ample amounts for the immediate task at hand. A slumping currency means that at the moment there is too much of it out there. Thus the need to temporarily reduce the supply until the crisis abates.

Simple? Yes. But here we get to something that is so astonishing as to defy belief, on a level with doctors suddenly proclaiming that germ theory is bunk: When central banks buy their currency to fight speculators, they all too often turn around and re-issue that money back into their domestic economies via open market operations! What they take with one hand, they give back with the other. In other words, the money supply–or more precisely, the monetary base, which central banks can control directly–remains the same!

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The exercise is thus fruitless. (Economists call this self-destructive nonsense sterilization.) But it's even worse: countries run down their reserves to no effect.

Sadly, countless examples abound of this self-defeating exercise. Thailand in 1997 had reserves several times the monetary base. Yet the country engaged in sterilization, running down reserves and then throwing in the towel and letting its currency, the baht, fall to pieces. Thailand's folly was then immediately replicated by Indonesia, South Korea and others. Mexico did the same thing in 1994 and Brazil several years later.

Occasionally countries get it right. The Russian ruble was assaulted by speculators in 2008-09. The country's central bank, after absorbing the advice of noted monetary expert Nathan Lewis in an op-ed he had written, reduced its monetary base by buying rubles and keeping them out of circulation, instead of reissuing them via domestic open market operations. The ruble was saved. Hong Kong, whose dollar has been fixed to the US dollar for many years, beat back a fierce attack during the so-called Asian Contagion that felled Thailand and other countries.

If countries don't wish to use their foreign exchange reserves, they can achieve the same result domestically by having their central banks sell assets–primarily government bonds–thereby reducing their monetary base. What is exasperating is that there is virtually no learning curve: Russia now wants to "gently" devalue the ruble against the dollar to gin up its sluggish economy.

Sadly Russia is not the only state enticed by the toxic siren of easy money. The Australian government, whose dollar is already down 15% against the US dollar, wants its currency to slump even more to boost weakening activity in the wake of the downturn in mining. Japan is determined to have the yen fall further against the greenback. And, of course, new Fed head Janet Yellen would, if she had her way (which thankfully she does not), gleefully debase the dollar to oblivion.

One thing nations should not get caught up in is obsessing about their current accounts. Conventional unwisdom has it that the current account is a critical factor in evaluating a currency's worth. This leads to counter-productive acts like trade and currency restrictions. In gauging a country's actual economic health, the current account is useless.

We got a foretaste of this emerging market crisis several months ago when outgoing Fed boss Ben Bernanke hinted at tapering. The currencies of Brazil, India, Indonesia , Turkey, South Africa and others came under pressure. Global trouble was averted after the Fed temporarily backed down on tapering.

What now? We will see which countries reduce their monetary bases and avoid a currency collapse. We will also see which countries rev up internal economic reforms. Brazil and India, for example, are ripe for restructurings to lessen smothering rules and restrictions.

For the moment, expect turbulence. Brace yourselves for an unnecessary stomach-turning experience and hope that enough nations stumble on to the monetary base cure to make this storm short-lived.