A slowing economy is showing up in corporate earnings reports this week. DuPont was particularly hard hit, reporting a sales decline of nearly 10% from a year ago, evident in all six of its business units and across all regions. Procter & Gamble also reported sales down 9% from a year ago, although it managed to boost earnings.
Even mighty Apple is suffering. Despite the company’s $18.4 billion profit – one of the most profitable quarters for any company ever – the company reported iPhone revenue that was up less than 1 percent from the same quarter a year ago. The company projected sales in the current quarter could be down from a year earlier. That suggests the meteoric rise of iPhone sales may be over. FORTUNE’s Philip Elmer DeWitt captures the company’s slowdown in four compelling charts.
Apple blamed its difficulties on a slowing Chinese economy. Meanwhile, the Chinese are blaming George Soros for their troubles. The 85-year-old investor, who has retired from the day to day operations of his family hedge fund, made some bearish comments on the Chinese economy in Davos last week, prompting a variety of “official” Chinese sources to attack him for declaring war on the Chinese economy.
As a side note, Apple said on its earnings call that it will be taking on new debt in order to fund shareholder buybacks and dividends. That’s a strange announcement from a company that is supposedly sitting on $216 billion dollars in cash – an amount equal to the Gross Domestic Product of Algeria. Trouble is, that money is in securities sitting overseas, and Apple can’t bring it home without huge tax consequences.
More news below. Enjoy the day.
• U.S. shale oil firms cut spending plans
Three major U.S. shale oil companies have slashed their 2016 capital spending plans more than expected, as they angle to survive in a tough climate where barrel oil prices sit at around $30 – making it increasingly difficult to turn a profit. The cuts from Hess, Continental Resources and Noble Energy ranged from 40% to 66%, and importantly, this marks the second consecutive year of pullbacks by those three companies. It also indicates that budgets may shrink more this year than in 2015, when spending fell between 20% and 50%.
• Weight Watchers gains as Oprah loses
A media mogul’s recent weight loss has helped Weight Watchers look good to investors. Oprah Winfrey tweeted a video of herself proclaiming she had lost 26 pounds on a Weight Watchers diet, news that sent shares of the diet company up more than 20% on Tuesday. This isn’t the first time that Winfrey has helped the stock: after announcing a 10% stake in the company this past October, shares of Weight Watchers more than doubled.
• Brazil to move to boost economy
Bloomberg has reported that Brazil is planning to announce as much as $12.3 billion in loans as the government aims to boost growth in its struggle with an economic downturn. South America’s biggest economy is facing significant woes: double-digit inflation and what economists forecast will be the worst recession since 1901. Some of the steps being considered include credit lines for small companies and for the purchase of construction goods and home renovation.
• AIG CEO dings Icahn’s breakup plan
AIG announced a plan to slim down the company slightly in a bid to counter activist investor Carl Icahn, who has a 2.5% stake in the insurance giant and is calling for a breakup. AIG CEO Peter Hancock talked to Fortune about the proposed plan, saying it was a way to reshape AIG because “we don’t think the company is perfection.” Hancock says the changes, which include a pledge to return $25 billion of capital to shareholders over the next two years, were already in place – AIG was now adding specificity and urgency to them. Hancock also explained that if the company were to split the way Icahn has suggested, AIG wouldn’t be able to return nearly as much capital to investors.
Around the Water Cooler
• Activist investors meet their match
New York Times‘ DealBook makes an interesting observation about how the turmoil on Wall Street makes it particularly challenging for activist hedge funds to use their clout to inspire change. Activist investors tend to jump into stocks that are more volatile than the overall market, but in a down market, that can be a tough strategy to implement. Takeover activity, if it follows historical patterns, will slow if the recent stock market volatility continues. “And if the downturn persists, we’re likely to see a sharp drop in activism,” the Times argues.
New York Times (subscription required)
• Big Soda thinks smaller to succeed
There’s a growing movement in the indulgent aisles of the grocery store aisle to combat sales woes with a simple marketing trick: charge more for less. The Wall Street Journal points to a stat for U.S. sales of soda, which fell in terms of volume in 2015 but dipped a mere 0.1% to $26.59 billion on a dollar basis. The sturdier performance than in recent years comes in part by an effort by Pepsi and Coke to steer Americans to smaller cans and bottles. There’s been a broad movement among big food brands to offer tinier indulgences and in the case of soda, those smaller servings also come at a higher cost per ounce.
Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
• Money can’t buy love in Iowa
As the candidates wind down the final days of the presidential campaign before the Iowa caucuses on Monday, it is becoming increasingly clear that pumping the Hawkeye State with cash is no way to guarantee success. As Fortune points out, the heavy spending by the campaigns and super PACs supporting former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio have little to show for it, compared to the relatively meager investments so far made by the leading candidates, businessman Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. This isn’t unusual for Iowa: in 2012, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum spent less than a dollar on television ads for every vote he won, yet still claimed victory in the state over Rick Perry, who spent more than $350 per vote but finished fifth.