MONEY stocks

Has the Bull Market Come to an End?

140806_INV_endofbull_1
Getty Images

As the economy keeps growing, the market will sour on the sunny, putting a damper on stocks.

A version of this article ran in the August 2014 issue of MONEY magazine.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost another 140 points on Tuesday, wiping out Monday’s modest bounce-back from what had been the worst weekly decline in over six months. All told, the index has fallen 4.1% since it hit a record high on July 16.

This happened despite some pretty good (though not really good) economic data, like last week’s Labor Department report that the economy added 209,000 new jobs in July.

So what’s going on? In short, I suspect the bull market has entered its next—and perhaps final—phase.

Why a change of heart is due. While equities should reflect the health of the economy, there comes a time in every business cycle in which earnings growth—the real driver of stock prices—peaks. S&P 500 profit margins are already at all-time highs. A better job market shows the economy is improving now, but it also hints that wages could rise down the road, weighing on future profits.

At the same time, better-than-expected news may lead the Federal Reserve to stop trying to stimulate economic activity. And that’s a big concern in the final throes of a bull when investors are trying to ride that last bit of tailwind provided by cheap credit.

What works during the bull’s final stage. As risk taking and speculation fall out of favor, shares of big, dominant companies tend to grow in popularity. Today, these big blue chips have another advantage: They’re cheap relative to smaller-company stocks, says Jack Ablin, chief investment officer for BMO Private Bank.

Indeed, the price/earnings ratio for stocks in the Vanguard Mega Cap ETF (MGC), which owns only the biggest blue chips in the U.S., is 16.8. By comparison, stocks in the Vanguard Small-Cap ETF sport an average P/E more than 15% higher.

Where to seek shelter. The natural inclination at this stage is to hide in stable but slow-growing sectors like utilities, since these stocks pay dividends and are likely to fall less in a market downturn.

However, economically sensitive sectors such as energy and tech perform surprisingly well in the last 12 months of a bull, according to Ned Davis Research. So take refuge in a fund like Fidelity Large Cap Stock (FLCSX), which has big stakes in both sectors and has beaten at least 90% of its peers over the past three, five, and 10 years.

Related:
Goldilocks Jobs Report Calms Down Wall Street’s Bears—for Now
Don’tBe Fooled by the Everything is Awesome Market

MONEY stocks

Here’s How to Make Money on Our Graying Population

With the fastest-growing segment of the global population aged 60 and over, biotech, medical devices, drugs and health care services all make for a durable investing strategy.

For health care, gray is the new black.

The fastest-growing segment of the global population is aged 60 and over, according to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. That slice of humanity is expected to increase by 45% by 2050.

The surge in the older population has contributed to a wave of new product introductions in biotechnology, medical devices and pharmaceuticals, and expansion of health care services.

In addition, health care is a remarkably durable sector for investors, soldiering on despite periodic market downturns, like the one seen last week when the S&P 500 index had its worst week since 2012.

Overall, there’s a bounty of money being spent on healthcare that’s unlikely to be impacted by other economic trends.

One of the best ways to own the biggest players in the health care industry is through the Vanguard Health Care ETF, which holds global giants like Johnson & Johnson JOHNSON & JOHNSON JNJ 0.2428% , Pfizer PFIZER INC. PFE -0.1728% , and Merck MERCK & CO. INC. MRK 0.9676% .

Charging 0.14% in annual management expenses, the Vanguard fund, which is almost entirely invested in U.S.-based stocks, gained 20% for the 12 months through Aug. 1, compared with 15% for the S&P 500 Total Return Index. Long-term, the Vanguard fund has been a solid performer, averaging 10.5% annually for the decade through Aug. 1. That compares with an average 7% return for the MSCI World NR stock index.

For more non-U.S. exposure, consider the iShares Global Healthcare ETF, which charges 0.48% for annual expenses.

The iShares fund has about 60% of its portfolio in North American stocks, with the remainder in European and Asian-based companies such as Novartis, Roche Holding, and GlaxoSmithKline GLAXOSMITHKLINE PLC GSK 0.9715% . The fund gained 19% over the 12 months through Aug. 1.

For a more focused play on leading-edge biotech and genomic companies, the First Trust NYSE Arca Biotech Index ETF samples some of the hottest companies in that sub-sector. Holdings include industry leaders Gilead Sciences GILEAD SCIENCES INC. GILD -0.4838% , Biogen Idec BIOGEN IDEC INC. BIIB -0.9426% , and InterMune INTERMUNE ITMN -0.7886% .

The First Trust fund was up nearly 25% for the 12 months through Aug. 1; it charges 0.60% in annual expenses.

Good Valuations Available

Since most institutional portfolio managers have seen the merits of health care stocks for years, there are probably few bargains available, although some sectors are pricier than others. Biotech stocks, in particular, are in high demand, although they experienced a sell-off earlier this year.

“On the other hand,” Fidelity Investments analyst Eddie Yoon said in a recent report, “some large-cap, stable growth companies across the [health care] sector continue to appear attractive, based on their stable underlying business fundamentals.”

Unlike other sectors such as consumer discretionary that are directly tied to overall economic conditions, health care is often insulated from broader economic trends. When the S&P 500 index dropped 37% in 2008, the Vanguard fund only lost 23%; the First Trust fund was off 18%. While biotech stocks tend to be volatile, the mainstream health care companies are seen as defensive holdings and more immune to broader market pressures and poised for bankable growth.

Long term, the more volatile biotech stocks of today may be tomorrow’s winners. The growing science of genomics will allow biotech companies to customize drugs to a patient’s genetic make-up. Just three years ago it cost $95 million to sequence a human genetic code. Now it costs about $4,000, with the price dropping every year. That will translate into more precise treatments with fewer side effects.

There are several concurrent waves of innovation in health information technology, diagnostics and delivery of services. More patients can be monitored and treated at home with the improvement in information technology. Diseases are being discovered and treated earlier, which means fewer hospitalizations.

In the United States alone, health care spending is buoyed by the $3 trillion spent annually on Medicare patients. While policymakers say this number is unsustainable and must be reined in, that does not change a key fact: Some 10,000 Baby Boomers are turning 65 every day. They will continue to demand the best drugs and treatments.

MONEY stocks

WATCH: How to Make Better Investing Decisions

T. Rowe Price Chairman Brian Rogers how to be like Warren Buffett and avoid information overload.

MONEY ETFs

Invest Like Warren Buffett—Or at Least Like He Did Two Months Ago

A new ETF seeks to mimic the best ideas of billionaires like Warren Buffett and Carl Icahn based on their public holdings. Trouble is, the fund can't copy them in real time.

Mom-and-pop investors hoping to emulate the investment savvy of Wall Street’s wealthiest like Warren Buffett and Carl Icahn will have a new option on Friday when the latest low-cost exchange-traded fund tracking the stock picks of big-name investors begins trading.

The Direxion iBillionaire ETF, set to trade under the ticker “IBLN,” is the latest in a handful of similar ETFs that have come to market in recent years, all packaging the holdings disclosed quarterly by top investment managers into instruments that are more accessible to Main Street investors.

“It democratizes a lot of the information that very wealthy institutional investors have had for a long time,” said Brian Jacobs, president of Direxion Investments, the ETF provider that has partnered with index creator iBillionaire.

At $65 for every $10,000 invested, fees for the new iBillionaire ETF are far lower than the $200 that would be charged by the typical billionaire-run hedge fund, which would also tack on performance fees.

To be sure, the iBillionaire ETF, like the similar Global X Guru ETF launched in 2012, focuses only on the long portion of these billionaire portfolios and does not include day-to-day active management or any shorting of stocks. Furthermore, the practicalities of pulling investment ideas from the quarterly reports filed by these large investors means that the investment ideas often lag by at least 45 days.

The new ETF is based on an index created in November by startup firm iBillionaire. The fund and its underlying index include the 30 top U.S. companies in which a pool of selected billionaire investors have invested the most assets, based on the so-called 13F disclosures the investors must file quarterly with the U.S. Securities and Exchange commission. Top holdings in the index right now include Apple, Micron Technology and Priceline, with about a third of its portfolio in technology stocks.

“Billionaires are more bullish on technology” right now, said Raul Moreno, chief executive officer and co-founder of iBillionaire. “You can see that by their allocation and their strategies.”

The ETF is similar to the GURU ETF and AlphaClone Alternative Alpha ETF, which both launched in 2012. While they had both beat the benchmark S&P 500 index with stellar performances in 2013, they have been more lackluster this year, with GURU up 0.6 percent and ALFA up 0.3%, compared to the S&P 500, up 4.5% through Thursday’s close.

So far, these funds have a niche following – The GURU ETF has amassed about $499 million in assets, while the ALFA ETF has amassed $79 million in assets. So the billionaires being copied need not worry about losing clients to them, said Ben Johnson, an analyst with research firm Morningstar.

For a related story, see:

Inside Warren Buffett’s Brain

MONEY stocks

Goldilocks Jobs Report Calms Down Wall Street’s Bears—For Now

The three bears discover goldilocks asleep in their bed they are not amused...
Chronicle—Alamy

While job growth was tepid in July, this was exactly what the markets needed to reverse Thursday's 317-point decline, as pressure on the Federal Reserve to raise rates subsides.

At first blush, today’s jobs report sure felt underwhelming. The Labor Department said that the economy created 209,000 new jobs in July, not the 233,000 that were expected.

Yet what seemed like disappointing results turned out to be exactly what Wall Street needed.

On the one hand, the economy still managed to produce more than 200,000 jobs in July, which marked the sixth consecutive month in which job creation topped that level. That hasn’t been seen since the late 1990s. “July’s payrolls report helps to confirm the sustainability of the strongest labor market expansion since 1997,” said Guy LeBas, chief fixed income strategist for Janney Montgomery Scott.

On the other hand, the labor market was just tepid enough to cool at least some of the hot debate about how the Federal Reserve needs to stop coddling an economy that’s starting to sizzle and hike rates soon.

Immediately after the jobs report was released Friday morning, investors took a deep breath and calmed down following Thursday’s 317-point drop in the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

Though it seemed as if the markets were headed for another triple-digit down day based on sentiment before the opening bell, the Dow and S&P 500 were relatively flat in early morning trading. By around 11:30 am, the Dow had fallen by around 50 points, but that was pretty much all the bulls could hope for:

^DJI Chart

^DJI data by YCharts

The real question is how long will the bears be kept at bay? A week from now, the government is set to release another batch of data detailing worker productivity and labor costs. And if there’s any whiff of inflation in those figures, the bears are likely to awake once more.

MONEY The Economy

For the Fed, There’s Only One Excuse Left to Keep Rates Low

Aerial view of housing development
David Zimmerman—Getty Images

The economy and inflation have now risen to levels where the Fed has to start thinking about raising rates. The only excuse left: the weaker-than-expected housing market.

The pressure is mounting on the Federal Reserve to start raising interest rates — and Fed chair Janet Yellen is running out of excuses.

On Wednesday, the Fed announced that it would keep short-term interest rates near zero and would continue to gradually taper its stimulative bond-buying program as the economy improves. No surprise there.

But the chatter for the Fed to stop coddling the economy really heated up Wednesday morning.

That was when a new government report showed that, after hitting a speed bump in the snowy first quarter, the economy really sped up between April and June. Gross domestic product grew at an annual rate of 4.0% in the second quarter.

What’s more, the government went back and revised some of its estimates for prior quarters. Uncle Sam now believes the economy grew well above the normal 3% rate in three out of the past four quarters.

“With this morning’s GDP release,” says James Paulsen, chief investment strategist and economist at Wells Capital Management, the “is-the-Fed-behind-the-curve fears among investors are increasingly evident.”

The GDP report included preliminary measures of inflation that might not sit well with Wall Street’s inflation hawks.

In the second quarter, the so-called personal consumption expenditure index, which is the Fed’s preferred measure of inflation, grew 2.3%. If you strip out volatile food and energy costs, core PCE still rose 2%. UBS economist Maury Harris notes that this represents a big jump from the 1.2% pace of core inflation in the first quarter. Plus, 2% is the target that the Fed has openly set for inflation.

While the actual level of inflation today may not be so worrisome, the ability to fight inflation after the fact is, says Guy LeBas, chief fixed-income strategist at Janney Montgomery Scott. “The challenge with inflation is that there’s a very long lag between policy and price pressures, so a Fed concerned with inflation 12 to 24 months down the road needs to start acting now to protect against the prospect.”

Three years ago, the Fed drew another line in the sand. The Fed back then said that it would not think about raising rates until the national unemployment rate fell to 6.5%. Back then, policy makers thought that this would not transpire until around 2015. However, the unemployment rate fell below this level in April and is threatening to fall below 6%.

US Unemployment Rate Chart

US Unemployment Rate data by YCharts

In recent months, as the Fed has tried to explain why it won’t hike rates soon despite rising inflation and falling unemployment, Yellen introduced a new reason altogether: housing.

In mid July, in a monetary policy report delivered to Congress, Yellen said:

The housing sector has shown little recent progress. While it has recovered notably from its earlier trough, activity in the sector leveled off in the wake of last year’s increase in mortgage rates, and readings this year have, overall, continued to be disappointing.

Later on in the report, Yellen noted that the lack of traction in the housing sector is probably preventing the labor market from reaching its full potential:

Even after rising noticeably in 2012 and the first half of 2013, real residential investment remains 45 percent below its pre-recession peak. The lack of a rapid housing recovery has also affected the labor market: Employment in the construction sector is still more than 1.6 million lower than the average level in 2006.

In announcing its rate decision on Wednesday, the Fed’s Federal Open Market Committee reiterated that while economic growth in general appears to be returning, “the recovery in the housing sector remains slow.”

The irony is that the two things that are likely to get the housing market on track are low mortgage rates and an improving job market.

To achieve the latter, the Fed is keeping rates low. Yet to achieve the former, the Fed needs to show the bond market that it is serious about combatting inflation. And the worst way to do that is keep rates low.

There, in a nutshell, is Janet Yellen’s conundrum.

MONEY tech stocks

Twitter Jumps on Strong Earnings. Trouble Is, It’s Still Not Profitable.

Person using Twitter on iPhone
James Davies—Alamy

The social media company blew past expectations—using an unofficial measure of profits. Based on generally accepted accounting principles, Twitter is still in the red.

When you get used to receiving complicated messages in a short amount of space — in, say, 140 characters — you grow accustomed to overlooking key details.

That was evident late Tuesday, when investors reacted to Twitter’s earnings announcement by sending shares of the social media company soaring more than 30% in after-hours trading.

TWTR Price Chart

TWTR Price data by YCharts

Investors pounced on some better-than-expected results found high up in Twitter’s earnings release. This included the fact that revenues in the second quarter jumped 124% to $312 million, and that the company earned $0.02 a share, slightly stronger than what analysts had been expecting.

Nevermind that those profits were based on an adjusted, alternative method of measuring earnings that critics have come to criticize. Using generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP), Twitter TWITTER INC. TWTR -0.0665% actually lost $145 million in the quarter, or $0.24 a share.

What’s more, Wall Street analysts tallied by Zacks.com still expect Twitter — based on GAAP standards — to lose $0.98 a share in 2014 and another $0.87 a share in 2015. So it’s probably premature to regard the second-quarter results as a breakthrough for the profitless company.

User Growth Rebounds

To be fair, there were promising developments in the second quarter. Twitter reported that so-called timeline views, which are the company’s equivalent of page views, hit a record 173 billion in the quarter.

This was an important point, as timeline views in the prior quarter fell short of the company’s peak performance in 2013, despite the fact that there are more Twitter users than ever.

In the second quarter, the Twitter’s so-called average monthly active users (MAUs) rose an impressive 24%. Active users who use mobile surged even more, by 29% in the past year to 211 million.

By comparison, timeline views grew a relatively modest 15%, which means the company still needs to work on converting Twitter account holders into truly active users.

This morning, three research firms changed their rating on Twitter stock in the wake of the company’s earnings results. Bank of America upgraded its recommendation on the stock to a “buy”. UBS upgraded its rating to a “neutral”. And Pivotal Research downgraded the shares to a “sell” as Thursday evening’s surge pushed the stock above analysts’ target price.

That pretty much sums up the still-cloudy picture at Twitter.

MONEY stocks

The Market’s New Message: Show Me the Money Now!

Investors lost patience last week, punishing companies like Amazon that aren't generating profits while rewarding those such as Facebook that are delivering on their promise.

The stock market has a reputation for looking ahead.

That’s why equity prices tend to predict shifts in the economy six to nine months before they happen. It’s also why investors recently punished shares of the credit card giant Visa VISA INC. V 0.5581% after the company posted solid earnings but hinted that revenues later in the year would fall short of expectations.

Still, there are times when Wall Street adjusts its perspective and focuses on the here and now. And Friday was one of those occasions.

In what turned out to be a rather brutal end of the week, investors gave companies—including some of the market’s darlings of the past few years—an extremely short leash. Those that lived up to their promise came out relatively unscathed, but those that fell short got hammered.

Just ask Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg.

For years, Bezos’ Amazon.com AMAZON.COM INC. AMZN 0.194% soared as it posted robust sales growth while promising strong earnings were just around the corner. The e-commerce giant delivered the exact same message (and results) when it announced its quarterly earnings last week. This time, though, investors responded by erasing $16 billion of market value from the company in half the time it takes the company to deliver packages to its Prime membership customers.

Other examples of companies that couldn’t deliver on growth and earnings now were the streaming music service Pandora Media PANDORA MEDIA INC. P -1.6894% and Dunkin’ Brands DUNKIN BRANDS GROUP DNKN 1.3394% , the parent company of the Dunkin’ Donuts chain, which is struggling to fight off Starbucks and McDonald’s in the coffee wars.

DNKN Price Chart

DNKN Price data by YCharts

On the flip side, Zuckerberg’s Facebook FACEBOOK INC. FB -0.6375% not only blew past Wall Street’s revenue and earnings expectations in the recent quarter, it proved that it was making big strides in mobile advertising, the area the social network giant’s investors were most worried about in recent years.

Not surprisingly, shares of Facebook—and other companies firing on all cylinders, such as Starbucks STARBUCKS CORP. SBUX -0.1152% —defied the market’s end-of-the-week sell-off and are at or near their all-time record highs.

Here’s a closer look at the week’s winners and losers:

Amazon and Pandora Slammed by Wall Street for Weak Earnings

Dunkin, Mickey D’s, or Starbucks? The Surprising Winner of the Coffee War

Facebook’s Next Battle is Wrestling Your Credit Card Number from Amazon

MONEY tech stocks

Amazon and Pandora Shares Tumble After Reporting More Losses

Sad Danbo
Luke Baldacchino—Flickr

Amazon.com and Pandora Media learn the hard way that potential profits just won't cut it anymore in this market. Take note, Twitter.

Updated 7/25/14 4:15 pm

Investors sent a loud message to e-commerce and social and streaming media companies on Friday: profit-less potential just won’t cut it anymore.

Nowhere was this clearer than at Amazon.com, which seems to be able to deliver everything these days — tablets, streaming video, even food — with the exception of earnings.

After the company announced a wider-than-expected loss Thursday, the stock fell nearly 10% Friday, helping push the entire market lower at the end of the week.

AMZN Price Chart

AMZN Price data by YCharts

In what sounds like a broken record, the e-commerce giant reported another robust quarter of sales — up an impressive 23% versus the same period a year ago — yet still can’t seem to turn a profit.

As costs rose in the recently ended quarter — as the company invested in new areas such as its recently announced Fire smartphone and a new unlimited e-book rental service — Amazon AMAZON.COM INC. AMZN 0.194% reported a net loss of 27 cents per share. That was nearly twice the loss that Wall Street analysts had been bracing for.

Even worse, the e-tailer warned investors that the third quarter won’t be much better. Amazon officials forecast that net sales would likely grow between 15% and 26% in the current quarter but that the company would probably suffer an operating loss of between $410 million and $810 million.

For more than a decade, Amazon shares trounced the broad market, as company leaders managed to convince investors not to focus on short-term losses, but rather the long-term potential for this company to dominate retail and consumer electronics.

They tried to do the same on Thursday, pointing to the company’s entry into the smartphone market. “Customers all over the U.S. will begin receiving their new Fire phones — including Firefly, Dynamic Perspective, and one full year of Prime,” said CEO Jeff Bezos, in announcing his company’s results. “We can’t wait to get them in customers’ hands.”

Investors shot back: “We can’t wait until we start seeing some profits in shareholders’ hands.” By Friday afternoon, it was clear that investors have had it with Amazon’s just-you-wait attitude with earnings.

For the year, Amazon shares have lost nearly a fifth of their value.

AMZN Chart

AMZN data by YCharts

Amazon wasn’t the only tech stock that got hit on Friday. Shares of Pandora Media PANDORA MEDIA INC. P -1.6894% fell more than 10% on Friday on news of another profitless quarter.

The streaming music company reported a loss of 6 cents, which was worse than the 4-cent a share loss that investors were expecting.

The company tried to spin the news in a positive light by stressing its relative success in mobile advertising, a hot topic in tech these days.

“Our better-than-expected second-quarter results demonstrate success and continued business acceleration as a result of our investments in mobile and local advertising,” Pandora’s chairman and CEO Brian McAndrews noted in the company’s press release. “Mobile advertising reached a record 76% of total ad revenue and local grew at 144% year-over-year.”

Wall Street would have none of it.

P Price Chart

P Price data by YCharts

As second-quarter earnings season gets underway, the market’s stance should worry other profit-less tech companies that are set to report their results next week.

On deck for Tuesday is Twitter TWITTER INC. TWTR -0.0665% . The social media company, whose shares have already fallen 39% this year, is expected to report a loss of 29 cents a share when it announces its results next week.

MONEY stocks

Dunkin’, Mickey D’s, or Starbucks? The Surprising Winner of the Coffee War

Coffee spilling
Gazimal—Getty Images

McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts' push into premium coffee was supposed to hurt Starbucks. Turns out, the two chains may be firing on one another, leaving Starbucks unscathed.

When Dunkin’ Donuts began selling lattés and other premium coffee drinks around a decade ago, it was viewed as a direct attack on StarbucksSTARBUCKS CORP. SBUX -0.1152% , the nation’s leading specialty coffee chain.

Then five years ago, another front broke out in the java wars when McDonald’s formally launched its McCafé line of premium coffee drinks. At the time, Mickey D’s entry into this brewing battle was called “a game changer” — and not in a good way for Starbucks.

The pincer moves were seen as a real threat to the Seattle-based java juggernaut, especially given the economics of the time. In 2009, the economy was still mired in a recession stemming from the global financial crisis. And with unemployment hovering near 10%, conventional wisdom said that cost-conscious consumers were likely to make a shift away from Starbuck’s pricey menu toward more cost-conscious offerings found at McDonalds or Dunkin’.

Research, in fact, showed that while coffee purchases were relatively recession proof — if you have to have your morning fix, you have to have your fix — the amount of money consumers were willing to spend per visit was likely to fall in economically troubled times. Hence, McDonald’s and Dunkin’, which both cater to working- and middle-class households, saw an opening.

Yet if the past five years have taught us anything, it’s that conventional wisdom was wrong.

As the chart below shows, over the past five years, Starbucks’ same-store sales — that is, revenues at locations that have been open for more than a year — accelerated and far outpaced those of Dunkin’ BrandsDUNKIN BRANDS GROUP DNKN 1.3394% , parent company of Dunkin’ Donuts.

Starbucks vs Dunkin

This point was reinforced when Starbucks announced its latest quarterly results on Thursday, which showed better-than-expected profits, and an 11% jump in overall revenues versus the same period last year.

What gives?

Well, class may indeed be playing a role in the coffee wars — but not in the way that you may have assumed. Earlier this year, Ted Cooper at The Motley Fool made an astute point:

McDonald’s may be able to sell coffee, but it will never come close to replicating Starbucks’ menu. McDonald’s best shot at becoming a coffee destination is to go after the price-conscious coffee crowd…

And who owns that crowd? Dunkin’ Donuts, of course, which despite its name generates nearly 60% of its revenues from coffee and beverage sales, not doughnuts.

The fact that Dunkin’s same-store sales growth pace has sunk precipitously ever since McCafés hit the market — even as the economy improved — is likely due to McDonald’s marketing push for bargain-seeking coffee drinkers. In many markets, in fact, McDonald’s is offering any size hot coffees for $1, which is more than half off what Dunkin’ charges for a hot regular cup of Joe.

Not surprisingly, investors have caught onto the fact that McDonald’s and Dunkin’ may be hurting one another — and not Starbucks — as evidenced by recent moves in Starbucks (SBUX), Dunkin’ (DNKN), and McDonald’s shares:

SBUX Chart

SBUX data by YCharts

The Economy Strikes Back

Meanwhile, the premium status that Starbucks maintains is likely to work to its advantage as the economy improves.

For instance, Dunkin’ Donuts recently announced that it will have to raise its prices slightly to address skyrocketing coffee bean prices in the commodity market. It remains to be seen how those price hikes will affect its consumer’s purchasing habits.

At Starbucks, it’s already known how consumers will react. When the company announced a price hike in 2013, comp-store sales remained strong as consumers cherished the brand enough to pay up, even in a so-so economy. The company announced another price hike in June, which is likely to add to overall revenues going forward.

The Empire Strikes Back

Ironically, the difficulties that McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts have run into in their attempts to strike at Starbucks has created an opening for Starbucks to attack those competitors where they live — in food sales.

Starbucks’ chief financial officer Troy Alstead noted that in the company’s recently ended quarter — when same store sales rose 6% globally and 7% in the U.S. — two percentage points of those comp sales growth was attributable to food sales.

Starbucks’ momentum in food has recently been driven by increased lunch offerings, but going forward, the full effects of the company’s 2012 purchase of La Boulange bakery should start showing their effects.

In a conference call with analysts Thursday, CEO Howard Schultz noted that La Boulange branded baked goods are now available in more than 1,000 Starbucks stores in California and the Pacific Northwest. By the end of this summer, that number should jump to more than 2,500 stores, he said, as La Boulange food items will be sold in stores in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston.

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