Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Motorola says to cut 4,000 more jobs (Reuters)

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Motorola Inc. (MOT.N), the world's second-biggest mobile phone maker, said it expects to cut an additional 4,000 jobs, bringing the total to 7,500 this year, as it works to reduce costs to return to profit.

Motorola, which posted a first-quarter loss on weak phone sales, said it expects restructuring charges of about $300 million, or about 8 cents per share, over the rest of 2007 as a result of the additional job cuts.

The latest cuts, which will be made by the end of the year, bring the total reductions to more than 11 percent of Motorola's work force of 66,000 at the end of 2006.

The company, which expects to complete its previously announced 3,500 job cuts by June 30, forecast $600 million in annual cost savings in 2008 as a result of the additional job cuts, other spending controls and site rationalization.

Motorola said it was on target to save $400 million from the lay-offs announced in January.

It said there would be no adverse effect on customer service or product quality as a result of the cuts.

Motorola, which has been losing market share to rivals such as market leader Nokia (NOK1V.HE) due to a lack of advanced phones and tough price competition, said in April that it would announce additional cost-cutting plans by June.

The company has said in recent months it was shifting its priorities to improving profitability from gaining market share at all costs.

Motorola stock rose to $18.46 in after-hours trade following the news, up 1 percent from its close of $18.28 on the New York Stock Exchange.

Euro slightly lower against U.S. dollar (AP)

FRANKFURT, Germany: The euro was down slightly against the U.S. dollar Wednesday following an unexpected rise in U.S. consumer confidence.

The 13-nation euro bought US$1.3434 in morning European trading, down from US$1.3453 in New York late Tuesday.

The slip came after the New York-based Conference Board said Tuesday that its Consumer Confidence Index rose to 108.0 in May, up from a revised 106.3 in April. Analysts had expected the reading to fall to 104.5.

"Without doubt ... the better than expected U.S. consumer confidence figures are helping," said David Jones, chief market analyst at CMC Markets in London.

U.S. economic data are being watched closely for pointers to the Federal Reserve's future interest rate course. The Fed has left its rates unchanged over recent months, even as the ECB has raised the cost of borrowing.

Higher interest rates, a weapon against inflation, can bolster a currency by making investments denominated in it more attractive.

In other trading, the British pound slipped to US$1.9783 from US$1.9800, while the dollar edged up to 121.59 Japanese yen from 121.55 yen.

Williams-Sonoma Posts 21% Fall (WSJ)

By KEVIN KINGSBURY

Williams-Sonoma Inc.'s fiscal first-quarter net income fell 21% and the retailer trimmed its second-quarter earnings forecast due to potential markdowns by competitors to clear growing inventories.

The San Francisco owner of home-products chains such as Pottery Barn reported net income of $18.2 million, or 16 cents a share, for the period ended April 29, compared with $23.1 million, or 20 cents a share, a year earlier. The latest quarter's results included a one-cent impact from adopting new income-tax accounting.

Revenue climbed 2.7% to $816.1 million from $794.3 million, as comparable-store sales dropped 0.8%. The revenue increase would have been 5.2% excluding sales from the since-shuttered Hold Everything chain.

Two months ago, Williams-Sonoma projected net income of 11 cents to 15 cents a share on revenue of $812 million to $830 million. The firm forecasted comparable-store sales excluding the small West Elm and Williams-Sonoma Home chains to be down 1% to 3.5%.

Gross margin fell to 37% from 38.5%, below the company's March forecast of 37.4% to 37.7%, amid increased markdowns at Pottery Barn and Pottery Barn Kids, and increased liquidations at the firm's outlet stores.

Chairman and Chief Executive Howard Lester said that despite the home-furnishing sector's macro-environment continuing to be "very challenging, we aggressively managed the rapid changes in our business and delivered better than expected earnings for the quarter. What we were particularly pleased with during the quarter was the performance of our emerging brands and our progress to date on our strategic initiatives."

Pottery Barn, which with Pottery Barn Kids has slightly more stores than the Williams-Sonoma brand, has had a tough time recently due to fewer home sales, which has reduced the number of homeowners making large purchases, and a home-furnishing field crowded with competitors. Revitalizing the brand has been Williams-Sonoma's most-important effort, Mr. Lester said.

He went on to say that executives are "remaining cautious in our guidance -- particularly in the short-term. We continue to see higher inventory levels among our competition, and are concerned about the ongoing pressure of industry-wide markdowns and rising raw material costs." Both could cut profit margins.

As such, the company lowered its earnings second-quarter forecast by two cents a share to 14 cents to 18 cents. But Williams-Sonoma reiterated its fiscal-year target of $1.76 to $1.84 a share due to the first-quarter results. The firm also backed its second-quarter revenue forecast of $855 million to $873 million and still sees comparable-store sales being flat to down 2%. Williams-Sonoma cut its gross margin forecast to 36.2% to 36.5% from 36.9% to 37.2%.

U.S. Home Prices Drop for the First Time in 16 Years (Bloomberg)

By Shobhana Chandra

May 29 - Home prices in the U.S. dropped last quarter for the first time in almost 16 years, as 13 out of 20 cities reported declines in March. The value of a house dropped 1.4 percent in the first three months of the year from the same period in 2006, according to a report today by S&P/Case-Shiller. Prices last fell during the third quarter of 1991. The retreat may deter owners from tapping into home equity for extra cash, economists said. Combined with record gasoline prices, lower home prices raise concern consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of the economy, will slow. ``We don't see a big rebound in economic growth,'' said Scott Anderson, a senior economist at Wells Fargo & Co. in Minneapolis. The housing slump has yet to shake sentiment. An index of consumer confidence rose to 108 this month from a revised 106.3 in April, a five-month low, the New York-based Conference Board reported today. The private research group's index averaged 105.9 last year. The decline in prices may not be large enough to concern the majority of home owners, economists said. The drop in prices in the 12 months ended March pales in comparison to the 157 percent gain over the previous 15 years. Sellers are reducing prices to lure buyers as the supply of properties on the real-estate market grows. Rising foreclosures as subprime borrowers default on loans may add to the glut of unsold homes, delaying a recovery from the housing slump, economists said.

`Too Many Homes'

``The bottom line is, there are just too many homes on the market,'' said Christopher Low, chief economist at FTN Financial in New York. ``The pressure on prices is not going to ease any time soon.'' Declines in home prices in 20 U.S. metropolitan areas accelerated in the 12 months ended in March, the report also showed. Home values dropped 1.4 percent in March from the same month in 2006, after declining 0.8 percent in the year ended February. This ``is a reaffirmation of the pullback in the U.S. residential real estate market,'' Robert Shiller, chief economist at MacroMarkets LLC and a professor at Yale University, said in a statement. Shiller and Karl Case, an economics professor at Wellesley College, created the home-price index based on research from the 1980s. Shiller's 2000 book ``Irrational Exuberance'' predicted the stock market would slump and a second edition, published in 2005, said housing was in the midst of the biggest speculative boom in U.S. history.

Home-Price Futures

Chicago Mercantile Exchange last year began offering futures contracts based on the S&P/Case-Shiller index covering 10 metropolitan areas. The March index covering transactions in 20 metropolitan areas, showed home prices dropped 0.3 percent from a month earlier, following a 0.4 percent decline in February. The figures aren't adjusted for seasonal effects, so economists prefer to focus on year-over-year changes instead of month to month. Thirteen cities showed a year-over-year decrease in prices for the month, led by a 8.4 percent drop in Detroit home values and a 6 percent drop in San Diego. Home values rose 10 percent in Seattle and 7.4 percent in Charlotte. The group started keeping year-over-year records for the index in 2001.

10-City Index

S&P/Case-Shiller's 10-city composite index, which has a longer history, decreased 1.9 percent in March from a year earlier. The National Association of Realtors said last week that the median price of an existing home fell 0.8 percent in April from a year earlier to $220,900. Prices for new homes are also under pressure. Commerce Department figures on May 24 showed the median price of a new home dropped 11 percent last month from April 2006, the biggest decline since 1970, to $229,100.

The S&P/Case-Shiller index and another by the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight track the same home over time and more accurately reflect price trends, economists said. The gauges from Commerce and the Realtors group can be influenced by changes in the types of homes sold. Higher sales of cheaper homes relative to more-expensive properties will bias the figures down.

Subprime

A recovery in housing is being held back by a wave of subprime mortgage defaults, which is throwing homes back onto the market and prompting banks to tighten lending standards for borrowers with poor or limited credit histories. ``These data are probably only just beginning to reflect the impact of problems in the subprime mortgage market,'' said James O'Sullivan, a senior economist at UBS Securities LLC in Stamford, Connecticut, in a report to clients. ``Further declines seem likely.'' Builders are struggling. Toll Brothers Inc., the largest U.S. luxury home builder, last week reported a 79 percent plunge in profit in the quarter ended April 30 as customers canceled orders and the company wrote down property values. Earlier in the month, Chief Executive Robert Toll said that while fewer than 2 percent of the company's buyers use subprime loans, stricter lending standards are making houses at all price levels less affordable. ``This, in turn, can impact the entire housing food chain, including some of our potential customers' ability to sell their existing homes,'' he said.

Swift jumps into a global merger (Salt Lake Tribune)

Brazilian company buys out the raids-plagued meatpacker to consolidate into world's beef giant

Tribune Staff and Wire Services

Meatpacker Swift & Co., the target of huge immigration raids at plants in Utah and elsewhere last year, is being sold to a Brazilian company in a $1.4 billion deal that will create the world's largest beef processor.
J&F Participagues S.A., owner of 77 percent of Brazil's JBS S.A., Latin America's largest beef processor, will acquire Swift for $225 million in cash. J&F will assume approximately $1.2 billion in Swift's debt plus all transaction-related expenses.
Swift, the country's third-largest processor of beef and pork, is owned by private equity firm HM Capital - formerly Hicks, Muse, Tate & Furst - and ski resort mogul George Gillett's Booth Creek Management. It has reported only one profitable quarter since November 2004, when U.S. beef exports to Asia fell after cases of mad-cow disease were found in some American cattle.
There is little overlap in the operations of the Brazilian company and Swift - the latter will retain its identity and employees - so officials don't expect the buyout to affect Swift's plants in Hyrum or five other states.
"Swift is still owned by HM Capital and the deal won't be completed until late July. But based on what we know today, there is no reason to believe there will be significant operational changes at Swift," Swift spokesman Sean McHugh said from company headquarters in Greeley, Colo., north of Denver. "These are assets that don't come around very often."
Those assets are not as valuable as they once were, however.
In December, federal immigration authorities rounded up nearly 1,300 workers at Swift plants in Colorado, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Texas and Utah. The six plants represented all of Swift's domestic beef processing capacity and 77 percent of its pork processing capacity.
Swift initially estimated the financial effect of the raids at $30 million but has raised that estimate to as much as $50 million because it took longer than expected to return the beef plants to full production, which caused higher costs and led to lost business opportunities.
Although the company said last month that it has refilled positions left vacant as a result of the raids, the Hyrum plant has struggled to replace the 150 undocumented workers arrested in December. McHugh said the Utah operation employs 1,000 workers, compared with 1,100 before the raids. McHugh said the company's "desired" staffing level is 1,050.
"Our Hyrum operation is well on its way to recovery. But we still are hiring," McHugh said, adding that Swift has the baseline staffing necessary to carry out day-by-day operations.
The sale of the E.A. Miller meatpacking plant, as Swift's operation is known in Hyrum, was met with shrugs by some employees Tuesday afternoon, who had been hearing rumors of a possible sale for at least a year.
"As long as they don't cut my paycheck, it doesn't matter," said one employee, who declined to be identified because a company memo advised workers not to talk with the media.
Employees in Hyrum said they were told to expect no substantial changes.
Industry analysts note that with Japan and South Korea having eased some of the restrictions against U.S. beef, and the U.S. government pushing to eliminate remaining barriers, the global merger between the two meat-processing giants comes at an opportune time.
Swift spokesman McHugh said, ''Exports are down, but you have a buyer in JBS that is a very strategic player and has taken a long-term view of the global industry.''
The acquisition will give JBS access to the United States, the world's top consumer of beef, and open Asian markets, which ban imports from Brazil. The combined company will have annual revenues of about $12 billion.
The announcement comes about four months after Swift said it had hired banker JPMorgan to help consider a potential sale.
Many of the workers swept up in the December raids - 1,282 in all - had phony identification. Swift said it complied with the law and checked identification before hiring employees.
The raids had nothing to do with the sale, said Edward Herring, a partner in Dallas-based HM Capital.
''We had been approached by a number of strategic parties about a year ago and engaged in dialogue last summer and fall,'' Herring said. ''We viewed the immigration issues as a temporary blip, nothing structurally that the company and the industry can't get over.''
Herring wouldn't discuss other bidders for the company, but Cargill Inc., Smithfield Foods Inc., National Beef Packing Co. and Seaboard Corp. had all reportedly been interested.
The deal is better for American livestock producers than a sale to a U.S. company, which would have reduced competition for pork and beef, said Steve Kay, editor of Cattle Buyers Weekly. ''This is the best possible news for livestock producers because, far from any consolidation of ownership in the U.S. industry, we have added a brand new owner.''

Amsterdam - Some 19,000 jobs would disappear if banking consortium Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), Fortis and Santander take over Dutch ABN Amro bank

Amsterdam (Deutsche Presse)- Some 19,000 jobs would disappear if banking consortium Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), Fortis and Santander take over Dutch ABN Amro bank.

In the Netherlands alone, 7,500 jobs would be lost, the consortium told Dutch unions during a meeting Tuesday evening.

On Tuesday, the banking trio made a 71.1-billion-euro (95.6- billion-dollar) bid for ABN AMRO. Royal Bank of Scotland, Belgian- Dutch Fortis NV and Spanish Santander want to split up the company.

Led by RBS, the consortium trumped a rival 63-billion-euro offer launched by Britain's Barclay's Bank plc.

The consortium had said earlier Tuesday that its offer would lead to fewer employees losing their jobs than under the Barclays proposal, which envisaged a cut of about 11,000 jobs if a merger should go ahead.

Microsoft Surface Confirmed: Touch-Sensitive, $10k, Minority Report Table (Gizmodo)

Project Milan is in fact a touch-sensitive table as you guys speculated and we reported earlier. Dubbed "Surface" and five years in the making, it's set to establish a paradigm of what Microsoft calls "surface computers" which use touch as the sole method of input.

Painting with surface sounds particularly intuitive (and fun): you can use a paint brush or simply dip your fingers into virtual paint cups. Photo resizing and stacking works much like the iPhone's zoom gestures. Also cool is the capacity for multiple users.

Such sweet tech comes at a price, naturally, with the units running $10,000 a pop. But, Microsoft expects prices to plummet over the next three to five years to the point they'll be in your homes. In the meantime you'll be able to play with them at T-Mobile stores, Harrah's and Sheraton hotels. Got more questions? Hit the jump for a FAQ and (naturally) a boatload of pictures. Update: And a video!