MONEY stocks

Here’s What Happened After CVS Stopped Selling Cigarettes

How it's making up for billions in lost sales.

Last fall, CVS Health Corp CVS HEALTH CORPORATION CVS 0.25% made national news when it announced that it would no longer sell cigarettes and other tobacco products in its 7,850 stores. CVS Health’s decision to opt out of these products cost it $2 billion in annual sales, but does that mean CVS Health’s decision was the wrong one? Let’s take a closer look.

Tough call
The company’s tobacco exit took a toll on its fourth-quarter financial performance. In the quarter, sales at the front of CVS Health’s stores took a drubbing. Typically, steady prescription volume means that foot traffic leads to sales throughout the rest of the store that climb a few percentage points per year. However, without tobacco, CVS Health reports that front-end revenue tumbled 6.1%. If you take out tobacco’s impact on results, then front-end sales would have grown by about 2%. That means exiting the tobacco business lopped off more than 8% from what would otherwise have been steady results.

Looking at the tobacco drag another way, CVS Health reports that lost tobacco sales caused retail operating profit to slip by 1.3% in Q4. If not for tobacco’s weight, operating profit would have increased by 1.7%.

Long-term gain?
Walking away from $2 billion isn’t an easy choice, but the sting of losing those sales was lessened by the fact that CVS Health generates tens of billions of dollars per year from employers and health-insurance companies that contract with it to manage their prescription drug plans.

Those healthcare payers hate that they have to pay out a tremendous amount of additional money every year to care for people suffering from tobacco-related illnesses, such as lung cancer.

Since CVS Health’s pharmacy benefit management, or PBM, business generated a whopping $23.88 billion in revenue last quarter, up from $20.2 billion the year before, it’s far more important to the broader picture than the cigarette business. That suggests that if the company can leverage the elimination of tobacco products from its stores to win additional employers and insurers for its PBM segment, its anti-tobacco stance will prove to be brilliant.

In due time
It’s going to be a while before we know whether that will end up being the case. The company admitted in its first-quarter earnings conference call that the benefits it’s seeing from its anti-tobacco stance are more qualitative than quantitative.

Although it’s nice to hear that the company is getting positive feedback from clients regarding the decision, investors need to see top- and bottom-line deals that can fuel future growth. In the meantime, investors will need to be OK with knowing that tobacco headwinds will weigh down results, at least until we get at least a year beyond the decision to stop marketing them.

Fortunately, CVS Health’s other businesses are growing fast enough to make up for the tobacco shortfall. In the first quarter, same-store sales in its back-of-store pharmacies grew 4.2% versus a year ago. Most of that growth has come from an aging and increasingly-insured America, but some is thanks to the company’s Minute Clinic in-store healthcare clinics. The company opened 15 new clinics last quarter, bringing the total number of clinics to 986, and leading to Minute Clinic revenue growth of 21% from last year.

Looking ahead
Exiting the cigarettes business came at a price, but a good argument can be made that the lost tobacco business, which is low margin, will prove to be a short-term speed bump and that over time, long-term gains in other parts of its business will more than make up for the decision. Overall, I think the various puts and takes associated with CVS Health’s cigarette decision will prove to be a bit of a wash. Instead, I think it makes more sense to focus on the fact that script growth is likely to go much higher over the coming decade because of aging baby boomers. After all, that’s the trend that will move the needle for shareholders over the long haul.

Todd Campbell has no position in any stocks mentioned.

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MONEY stocks

Carl Icahn Was Way Off on His Apple TV Set Projections

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Victor J. Blue—Bloomberg via Getty Images Billionaire activist investor Carl Icahn

The activist investor predicted that an Apple-designed TV could bring in $37.5 billion

It’s time to call it. The mythical Apple APPLE INC. AAPL 0.88% TV set is dead. Well, it’s dead to the extent that it was ever alive to begin with. While Apple has never officially acknowledged that it was interested in jumping into the hyper competitive TV market (how often does Apple tell you directly that it’s working on something?), there has been plenty of evidence over the years that the Mac maker seriously considered it.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the company has abandoned its plans to build a high-definition TV set. To be clear, Apple did think long and hard about making such a product, reportedly researching the idea for almost 10 years. Technically, the project wasn’t killed, but let’s be realistic. Apple isn’t making a TV.

R.I.P. Apple TV set. We hardly knew thee.
When Apple enters a market to disrupt the status quo, it needs a breakthrough innovation that differentiates itself while giving it stronger pricing power than incumbents. These innovations typically come in the form of interface paradigm shifts, like the iPhone’s capacitive touchscreen.

However, the TV market is notorious for slim margins and rapid commoditization since TVs are inherently little more than large displays. There’s simply not a lot of room to innovate or differentiate on the platform level. TV user interfaces absolutely have room for improvement, but there are some unavoidable limitations with trying to create a truly revolutionary TV interface.

Apple supposedly researched a wide range of display technologies that could potentially allow it to stand apart, and the company also considered adding FaceTime capabilities to the product. But video calling on a TV isn’t a “killer app.” It’s not like people rush out to buy Microsoft’s Xbox One primarily so they can Skype with friends and family.

Lacking any powerful differentiators and considering the high level of risk, Apple shelved the plans over a year ago, so says the WSJ.

Carl Icahn sees 85% upside
Incidentally, the report came out just hours after activist investor Carl Icahn published his latest open letter to Apple. Every few months, Icahn pens a letter to Tim Cook to applaud Apple’s ongoing aggressive capital returns and to continue to speculate about Apple entering new markets. In February, Icahn believed that Apple could build a $37.5 billion TV business in just 2 years.

Icahn now believes that Apple will enter not one, but two new markets in the coming years: the TV market and the car market. For the latter, Icahn thinks the Apple Car will be launched by 2020, in line with prior rumors. For this reason, he does not include any estimates in his model, which only goes through fiscal 2017. For what it’s worth, Icahn now pegs Apple’s valuation at $240 per share.

 

Saying “no” is one of Apple’s greatest strengths
Apple has said numerous times that TV remains an “area of intense interest” and that it feels that it can contribute to the space. But the thing is that Apple can accomplish those strategic goals and reap the benefits without getting too deeply into the hardware side. Consumers are now willing to buy set-top boxes beyond the ones that cable operators provide, a stark contrast to how the market was just five years ago as Steve Jobs observed.

That increased propensity opens up the door for opportunities to innovate, and that’s precisely what Apple is doing. The company is expected to release a new Apple TV set-top box next month at WWDC and is reportedly putting together its own slimmed-down subscription TV package. Who needs an Apple TV set?

MONEY financial advisers

Cleaning Up After Another Financial Adviser’s Bad Advice

broken piggy bank fixed with tape
Corbis—Alamy

Explaining to clients that another financial adviser has given them bum advice can be awkward. Here's how I do it.

Average Americans have a poor opinion about financial advisers, and with good reason. Too many “advisers” are just salespeople for products that generate commissions for the adviser but rarely deliver the promised investment returns to the client.

As a financial adviser myself, I often see unsuitable investments in prospective clients’ portfolios. I can’t just badmouth those clients’ current adviser. If I point out how this adviser has abused their trust, how are they going to trust me? What can I tell the prospect about another adviser’s bad advice without dragging myself down to his or her level?

Recently I reviewed the investment statements of a prospect family who owned about $1 million in assets in joint taxable accounts and IRAs. The IRAs were invested primarily in variable annuities. The family had already shown me that their retirement income needs were covered by pensions. Their primary interest was in asset transfer to their children.

There’s nothing wrong with variable annuities if used for the proper purpose. For example, clients may have already maxed out 401(k) contributions but still want to set aside additional cash in tax deferred investments. However, there is no reason, in my opinion, why you would ever put a variable annuity inside an IRA. There is no additional tax benefit, but there is an extra layer of cost and complexity and there is a loss of liquidity due to surrender charges. If you don’t like the investment returns of the annuity, it could cost you up to 11% or up to 11 years to get out.

There’s a wrong way and a right way to deliver bad news. The wrong way is a declarative statement along the lines of, “You idiots were totally taken advantage of.” The prospects tend to grab their papers and stomp out the door.

The right way is to engage the prospect in a series of questions and answers; that educates clients without making them feel stupid.

“Tell me about your thought process when you purchased these annuities,” I asked.

“Our broker explained that the annuity would grow tax-free with the stock market, and then at a certain point we could convert to a term annuity which would pay out a level payment for the rest of our lives.”

“Did he note that your assets are already in an IRA?” I asked. “Where growth is tax-free already?”

“No,” they replied.

“Did he tell you that you could also achieve growth by investing in a basket of mutual funds?”

“No.”

“Did he advise you that once you convert to a fixed annuity, there’s no residual value for your children?”

“No.”

“Did he explain that, because of the various fees loaded onto your investment, you were likely to have sub-par returns?”

“No.”

“Did he explain what the surrender charge is?”

“Sure!” they replied. “That’s the insurance company’s way of making sure we stay committed to the annuity.”

“That’s the marketing department’s answer to what a surrender charge is,” I said. “What the insurance company doesn’t tell you is that they paid a commission of up to 11% to your broker on the sale, which the insurance company amortizes over the next 11 years at one percentage point a year. So if you exit in year five, there’s still 6% of that 11% commission to recover, hence the 6% remaining surrender charge.”

By this point, the couple was looking distinctly uncomfortable.

“Look,” I said, “there may have been some other reason why he recommended this strategy. All I can say is that for the needs that you have described, I would have invested you in a plain vanilla basket of fixed income and equity mutual funds. We would have complete flexibility to adjust the asset allocation over time. If for some reason you weren’t happy, you could cancel your relationship with me with an e-mail, no surrender charge. We apply a monthly advisory fee to the assets in this plan, which is 1/12 of 0.75%. The fees you pay me are computed and disclosed to you in our monthly report. As your assets rise in value, so does our monthly fee, so no mystery about my incentives.”

Nobody likes to find out that their current adviser isn’t focused on their best interests — that is, a fiduciary. I provide information, let the prospects draw their own conclusion.

We turned to other topics, and I followed up with a formal investment proposal a few days later. I was not surprised that the family decided a few weeks later to move their accounts to my firm, nor was I surprised that the annuity accounts would trickle in only after the surrender charges had expired. Even though the family had concluded that they had received a raw deal from their current adviser, those annuities still were locked in for a few more years.

———-

David Edwards is president of Heron Financial Group | Wealth Advisors, which works closely with individuals and families to provide investment management and financial planning services. Edwards is a graduate of Hamilton College and holds an MBA in General Management from Darden Graduate School of Business-University of Virginia.

MONEY bonds

The Weird Reason You Should Buy Treasury Bonds Right Now

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Henglein and Steets—Getty Images/Cultura RF

New research shows sunshine matters to the market.

Market timing is never a great strategy, but if you’ve been thinking about buying Treasury bonds to diversify your portfolio, the sunny spring days we are currently enjoying may be a great time to start.

Why’s that?

A surprising new study finds that seasonal affective disorder (SAD) doesn’t just affect individual investor’s decisions: It actually affects the market as a whole.

University of Toronto researcher Lisa Kramer and her team found that monthly returns on Treasury bonds swing 80 basis points on average between October and April, peaking in the fall and bottoming out in the spring.

“That kind of a systematic difference is huge,” says Kramer.

The variation seems to be caused by SAD, a seasonal mood disorder that affects up to 10% of the population.

Even after controlling for other explanations—like Treasury debt supply fluctuations and auction cycles—the study found that the bond return differences could be explained best by the increase in seasonal depression during dark winter months.

Kramer has also found similar effects of SAD on the stock market: Specifically, equity investors are more risk-averse as nights become longer (leading to lower returns) and then start becoming more open to risk as winter gives way to spring.

MONEY Warren Buffett

This is How Much Warren Buffett Spends on Haircuts

Squawk Box - Season 20
CNBC—NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway in an interview on May 4, 2015.

The Oracle of Omaha has been going to the same barber for more than 20 years.

Warren Buffett, the 84-year-old head of Berkshire Hathaway, may be a billionaire. But he doesn’t spend like one.

He famously still lives in the Omaha, Nebraska, house he bought in 1958 for $31,500.

And, according to a new story by Market Watch, he’s a long-time patron of Omaha barber Stan Docekal—who charges him $18 (tip not included) for a hair trimming every two or three weeks.

Docekal, who has cut Buffett’s hair for about 23 years, is also in his early 80s. Desperate to pick up tidbits about the Oracle of Omaha, journalists have interviewed the barber many times over the years. Apparently Buffett’s activities during haircuts include listening to oldies music, watching CNBC, and reading his mail, a newspaper, or an annual report.

Is $18 a good deal?

Technically it’s higher than the national average of about $14 for a men’s cut, according to a recent study. But it’s pretty darn cheap for the third richest person in the world.

Read more: This Is How Much It Costs to Live Next Door to Warren Buffett

MONEY hedge funds

Mind-Blowing Tool Used by Hedge Funds Costs Just $10

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Colin Anderson—Getty Images/Blend Images

It's a total game-changer

If you’re a hedge fund looking to crunch massive quantities of data, it’s generally cheaper to pay for space a la carte on Amazon’s cloud than invest in million-dollar hardware.

That’s the premise behind a spate of new finance-focused data shops turning out software that runs on the cloud. Ufora, a company profiled in Bloomberg Business, designs software that can process a trillion data points in minutes for the cost of a sandwich.

The technology is complex and involves a type of machine learning, or artificial intelligence, but computing power has become cheap enough that Ufora founder Braxton McKee can analyze a big market data model using only $10 worth of capacity on Amazon Web Services.

Ufora’s hedge fund clients—like all hedge funds today—have good cause to want to keep costs low.

These privately-offered investments, which typically court only those who can invest at least $1 million, are having a tough time holding investors’ interest these days.

That’s partly because their high fees have become harder to justify given that recent returns have actually trailed those of cheap index fund-based portfolios, and performance is increasingly in step with that of benchmarks, meaning that mangers aren’t adding as much value or diversification.

Read more: Why Should I Invest?
Investment Advice From a Nobel Prize-Winning Economist

MONEY footwear

Why Skechers Is Suddenly Beating Adidas and New Balance

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

No, they still don't tone the buttocks.

With consumers increasingly choosing walking and “fashion-casual” over running sneakers, California-based Skechers has pulled into second place in the sports footwear market, according to a new report by retail tracker NPD Group.

Nike and its Jordan brand still command a dominant 62% of the sneaker market. But Skechers grew to 5% market share last quarter. Third-place Adidas accounted for 4.6% of the market.

Though running shoes are still by far the most popular type of sneaker in the U.S., the growth in Skechers’s sales—up 29% last year—has mostly come from its casual and walking segments.

“Walking has been relatively dormant for a number of years, and they’ve kind of reignited it,” NPD Group analyst Matt Powell told the Wall Street Journal.

This hot streak follows choppier performance in the early 2000s, and amounts to a turn-around for a company that in 2012 was forced to pay $40 million in fines after the Federal Trade Commission found it falsely claimed its “Shape Ups” shoes could tone the buttocks.

SKX Chart

SKX data by YCharts

One trend that’s helped the company? Men are increasingly driving the shift to sneaker-as-fashion staple.

MONEY fiduciary

If Humans Can’t Offer Unbiased Financial Advice to the Middle Class, These Robots Will

Wall Street says it can't be a "fiduciary" to everyone who wants financial advice. But the new breed of "robo advisers" is happy to take the job.

Fast-growing internet-based investment services known as robo-advisers have already begun to upend many aspects of the investment business. Here’s one more: Potentially reshaping the long-standing debate in Washington over whether financial advisers need to act in their clients’ best interests.

If you work with a financial adviser you may assume he or she is legally obligated to give you unbiased advice. In fact, that’s not necessarily the case. Many advisers—the ones who are technically called brokers—in fact face a much less stringent legal and ethical standard: They’re required only to offer investments that are “suitable” for you based on factors like age and risk tolerance. That leaves room for brokers to steer clients to suitable but costly products that deliver them high commissions.

The issue is especially troubling, say many investor advocates, because research shows that most consumers don’t understand they may be getting conflicted advice. And the White House recently claimed that over-priced advice was reducing investment returns by 1% annually, ultimately costing savers $17 billion a year.

Now the Labor Department has issued a proposal that, among other things, would expand the so-called fiduciary standard to advice on one of financial advisers’ biggest market segments, Individual Retirement Accounts. A 90-day comment period ends this summer.

Seems like an easy call, right? Not so fast. Wall Street lobbyists contend that forcing all advisers to put clients first would actually hurt investors. Their argument? Because advisers who currently adhere to stricter fiduciary standards tend to work with wealthier clients, forcing all advisers to adopt it would drive those who serve less wealthy savers out of the business. In other words, according to the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a fiduciary standard would mean middle-class investors could end up without access to any advice at all.

(Why, you might ask, would anyone in Washington listen to business rather than consumer groups about what’s best for consumers? Well, that is another story.)

What’s interesting about robo-advisers, which rely on the Internet to deliver automated advice, is that they have potential to change the dynamic. Robo-advisers have been filling this gap, offering investors so-called fiduciary advice with little or no investment minimums at all. For instance, Wealthfront, one of the leading robo-advisers, has a minimum account size of just $5,000. It’s free for the first $10,000 invested and charges just 0.25% on amounts over that. Arch-rival Betterment has no account minimum at all and charges just 0.35% on accounts up to $10,000 when investors agree to direct deposit up to $100 a month.

Of course, these services mostly focus on investing—clients can expect little in the way of individual attention or holistic financial planning. But the truth is that flesh-and-blood advisers seldom deliver much of those things to clients without a lot of assets. What’s more, the dynamic is starting to change. Earlier this month, fund giant Vanguard launched Personal Advisor Services that will offer individual financial planning over the phone and Internet for investors with as little as $50,000. The fee is 0.3%.

The financial services industry says robo-advisers shouldn’t change the argument. Juli McNeely, president of the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors, argues that relying on robo-advisers to fill the advice gap would still deprive investors of the human touch. “It all boils down to the relationship,” she says. “It provides clients with a lot of comfort.”

But robo-adviser’s growth suggests a different story. Wealthfront and Betterment, with $2.3 billion and $2.1 billion under management, respectively, are still small but have seen assets more than double in the past year.

And Vanguard’s service, meanwhile, which had been in a pilot program for two years before it’s recent launch, already has $17 billion under management.

Vanguard chief executive William McNabb told me last week that, although Vanguard had reservations about the specific legal details of past proposals, his company supports a fiduciary standard in principle. Small investors, he says, are precisely the niche that robo-advisers are “looking to fill.”

 

 

 

 

 

MONEY Economy

5 Reasons Cheap Gas Isn’t Fueling Consumer Spending

Getty Images/Tom Merton

Why you're just not feeling that confident.

The American consumer is difficult to figure out these days.

We currently enjoy substantial, if not strong, tailwinds. Despite a recent hiccup, employment numbers are improving, and wage growth has (kinda sorta) started to kick in. While gas prices have crept up a bit lately, drivers will most likely spend hundreds less at the pump this year than last. And a strong dollar has improved our purchasing power overseas.

Nevertheless, Americans are not translating these positives into more spending—except perhaps at bars (more on that below). And readings of how people feel about the economy and their stake in it are all over the map.

To demonstrate, here’s a snapshot of how consumers are behaving in five key areas:

Spending Is Flat

Last week the Commerce Department announced that retail sales were flat in April, and up only 0.9% from the year before. That’s the smallest year-over-year increase since the fall of 2009. The economy struggled in the first few months of 2015, with GDP increasing by just 0.2%, which economists blamed on, among other things, severe winter weather. But the poor retail figures in April make the bad weather theory a bit less compelling.

One area of the economy that’s seeing lots of cash? The service sector. Spending at bars and restaurants has boomed lately. “It is clear that this is the place where U.S. consumers are spending some of the money they are saving by buying cheaper gasoline,” per Wells Fargo Securities senior economist Eugenio Alemán.

Saving Is Up

In the years leading up to the financial crisis, Americans’ personal savings rate—a ratio of savings to disposable income—bounced between 2% and 3%. These days it’s up to 5.3%. Moreover, household debt relative to GDP has fallen dramatically since the end of the recession. My spending is your income, and vice versa, so more savings and less debt can limit wage growth for workers.

Confidence Is Iffy

All of the above has led to a lot of noise when it comes to gauging the economy’s animal spirits. Consumer sentiment recently hit a seven-month low, as the initial cheap gas sugar high faded. Gallup’s economic confidence index has dipped lately, too, and rests in negative territory. That said, surveys show substantial improvement from a year ago. A recent Bankrate poll, for example, found that only 16% of Americans say their financial situation has deteriorated over the past 12 months, down from 35% in August 2011.

And while you’re paying more at the pump than a couple of months ago, prices are still much lower than last year. The Energy Department estimates that you’ll spend almost $700 less in gasoline, making this summer look to be the least expensive for car travel since 2009. That should boost household confidence a bit.

More People Are Quitting

Though the quit rate has held relatively steady this year, people are quitting their jobs at much higher rates than in the years following the recession, which suggests they are feeling good about their ability to land a new gig. With good reason: The jobs picture is pretty healthy despite a lackluster report in March. Employers have added roughly a quarter-million jobs a month since 2014, and the unemployment rate has dropped to 5.4%. Still, for many people there’s one major thing holding them back.

Wages Are Stagnant

What’s missing is wage growth. Median household income is still well below pre-recession levels, and wage increases have hovered around 2%, which is only slightly more than inflation. That’s pretty abysmal, so it’s not difficult to see why households might be cautiously optimistic in the face of good news—i.e. lower gas prices.

One silver lining can be found in a gauge called Employment Cost Index, which measures benefits as well as salary. The ECI rose 2.6% in the first three months of 2015 compared with 12 months ago. Per the Labor Department, that’s the best showing since the end of 2008. While it’s still in the early days, workers may be in for the raises they so desperately need.

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