Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Pru Is Done Doing Your Research

Joshua Lipton (Forbes)

Prudential Financial told Wall Street on Wednesday that it's slimming down, cutting away its equity research business as it concentrates on its core divisions of life insurance and asset management.

The company announced that it's closing down Prudential Equity Group, its equity research, sales and trading business. Effective immediately Prudential Equity Group will drop coverage of the sectors and companies it covers.

Prudential Financial (nyse: PRU - news - people ) didn't spell out why it's choosing to discontinue the division, which is a small part of the company's business. Last year the group reported revenues of $260 million. To put that in some perspective, the company as a whole generated revenue of $32.49 billion.

Prudential has been slimming down its operations over the past several years. Back in 2003, it combined its securities unit with Wachovia (nyse: WB - news - people ). Under that arrangement, Wachovia owns a majority stake and runs the joint venture, now known as Wachovia Securities. Wachovia Securities has 10,600 advisers in 2,700 locations around the world. (See " Wachovia Snatches Up A.G. Edwards.") Jeffrey Schuman, an analyst at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, said the decision to ditch the equity group wasn't particularly surprising. "There have been rumors of the company selling or closing down the operation for some time," Schuman told "The unit hasn't been making money, even under good market conditions. So it wasn't surprising that they would get out of the business."

Also, Schuman noted, the division was simply, at this point, outside of the company's core businesses. "They are now really focused on retirement savings products and insurance protection products," he said. "Brokerage business isn't a part of their future."

Schuman added that Prudential maintains sizable life insurance operations and asset management operations. And he argued that the company continues to run those divisions quite well. He pointed out that the when the company went public in 2001, it had a return on equity of 6%. Last year, the return on equity was 15%.

"That is a heroic improvement," the analyst said. "They have done some successful acquisitions and managed capital well." He rates the company "outperform." Standard & Poor's analyst Tanjila Shafi wrote to clients that Prudential's departure from its equity research business is in line with the company's overall cost-cutting strategy.

The analyst maintained his 2007 operating estimate of earnings per share, $7.16, but increased the 12-month target price by $2 to $118. Shafi maintained a "strong buy" opinion on the company. In afternoon trading, shares of Prudential deceased 1%, or 97 cents, to $99.60.

UPDATE: FTC Challenge To Whole Foods Could Hurt Deal, Operations

NEW YORK (Dow Jones) -- The government challenge to Whole Foods Market Inc.'s takeover of smaller rival Wild Oats Markets Inc. is a setback for the deal, analysts said Wednesday.

The Federal Trade Commission on Tuesday approved a complaint challenging the $ 565 million tie-up of the natural-foods grocers, citing concerns that the reduced competition in the category could prompt Whole Foods to raise prices and cut its quality and services.

The FTC also said it would seek a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to halt the deal.

Whole Foods, for its part, said the competitors include traditional supermarkets, which have boosted their offerings of natural and organic products.

Both companies said they would fight the FTC decision.

Morgan Stanley analyst Mark Wiltamuth cut his rating on Whole Foods to equal- weight from overweight,

"For a stock already struggling with poor core earnings performance, uncertainty over the merger only adds to near-term investment risks," Wiltamuth wrote in a note to clients. "While we believe Whole Foods has a valid argument that the FTC should look at the broader grocery market, we believe risks are greater for no deal, significant store divestitures and a delaying timing if a deal is allowed, and management distraction caused by the dispute."

Shares of Whole Foods were down 3.6% at $39.01 in morning trading, while Wild Oats shares slipped fractionally to $17.05.

In February, Whole Foods (WFMI) announced a plan to acquire Wild Oats (OATS) for $18.50 a share. In March, the companies received a second request for additional information from the FTC.

UBS analyst Neil Currie cut his price target on Whole Foods to $50 a share from $60 and said that he has to assume that the deal won't go through.

"While we are somewhat bemused by the FTC's ruling, we feel that its lawsuit, aimed at blocking the deal, is a major obstacle that could prove difficult to overcome," Currie wrote in a note to clients.

The popularity of organic and natural foods, personalized service and ready- made meals has helped drive shoppers to so-called supernaturals Wild Oats and Whole Foods, but competition has come from several directions -- such as the expansion of the Trader Joe's chain; evolving product lineups at conventional supermarkets such as Safeway Inc. (SWY) , Supervalu Inc. (SVU) and Kroger Co. ( KR) ; and the efforts of discount giants Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) and Costco Wholesale Corp. (COST) to expand market share in groceries.

"The FTC has failed to recognize the robust competition in the supermarket industry, which has grown more intense as competitors increase their offerings of natural, organic and fresh products, renovate their stores and open stores with new banners and formats resembling Whole Foods Market," Whole Foods Chairman and Chief Executive John Mackey said in a statement.

Goldman Sachs analyst Simeon Gutman said the FTC challenge is a "moderate setback" for Whole Foods as the FTC is focusing on the store format and customer base rather than on the product category.

"We regard this development as a setback for Whole Foods, in that the transaction may well take 6-9 months longer to complete (if at all) during which time Oats' business, not that strong to begin with, could weaken further, thus necessitating incremental investments in labor/price to restore top-line health, " Gutman told clients.

The traditional supermarket category has seen its share of turbulence in recent years, with dozens of chains folding and a string of takeovers. Most recently, Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. (GAP) , also known as A&P, in March said it would acquire Pathmark Stores Inc. (PTMK) for $1.3 billion in cash, stock and debt, to increase its footprint in the competitive Northeastern grocery-store market.

Productivity Revised Lower As Unit Labor Costs Rose


WASHINGTON -- U.S. productivity in the first quarter grew at a rate lower than originally estimated, while unit labor costs rose more than expected and were also adjusted higher for the prior quarter.

Nonfarm business productivity climbed at an unsurprising 1% rate between January and March compared to the prior quarter, the Labor Department said Wednesday, down from an initially estimated 1.7% increase.

Fourth-quarter productivity was unrevised at an increase of 2.1%. Productivity is output divided by hours worked.

Wall Street wasn't surprised by the 1% first-quarter increase. The median estimate of 24 economists surveyed by Dow Jones Newswires was a 1.0% gain.

Unit labor costs -- a gauge of inflationary pressures -- rose by 1.8% in the first quarter, up from the prior estimate of 0.6%. Fourth-quarter costs rose 8.9%, adjusted from a previously estimated 6.2% increase. Economists had forecast a 1.5% climb in unit labor costs for January through March.

Labor is the most important cost to production of goods and services. If not matched by productivity, higher labor costs must be either passed through by a company in the form of higher prices to its customers or absorbed in the firm's profit margins.

The Labor Department report Wednesday said nonfarm business output grew 0.6% during the first quarter compared to the fourth quarter, down from the previous estimate of a 1.4% climb. Hours worked fell 0.4%.

Hourly compensation increased 2.8%. Real compensation, adjusted for inflation, declined 1.0%. Manufacturing productivity increased 2.4% in the first quarter, down from the prior estimate of a 2.7% advance. Nonfinancial corporate sector productivity rose 0.6% in the first quarter.

Anti-Globalization Protesters Block Access to G-8

By Patrick Donahue (Bloomberg)
June 6 (Bloomberg) -- Anti-globalization protesters blocked roads leading to the Group of Eight summit venue in the northern German seaside resort of Heiligendamm today, as they attempted to disrupt the arrival of world leaders and delegates.

Demonstrators avoided roadblocks and crossed through oat fields and forests to approach a 12-kilometer (7.5-mile) barbed- wire perimeter fence surrounding the hotel complex, blocking access to Heiligendamm from the press center 8 kilometers to the west at Kuehlungsborn.

``The organizers are very satisfied because so many people came to join us,'' said Sabine Zimpel, a spokeswoman for the protest groups. Some 15,000 people gathered for two main blockades at the fence -- where at one point both entrances were sealed off -- and around Rostock airport, where G-8 delegations were arriving, she said. ``It was a success,'' Zimpel said.

Police used tear gas and water cannons to quell violent demonstrators. Eight officers were injured in the clashes, which police said did not interrupt German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the summit host, from welcoming leaders including Russian President Vladimir Putin, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the new French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, to Heiligendamm. Leaders arrived by helicopter from Rostock airport.

Riot Gear

In the main blockade at one of the entrances to Heiligendamm, at least six helicopters carrying police wearing full riot gear and wielding nightsticks were deployed as protesters reached a road running beside the fence, according to a Bloomberg News reporter at the scene.

Mounted officers took up positions between the fence and demonstrators, many of whom were dressed as clowns and taunting police. Near the fence, youths clad in black hoods could be seen using clamps and files to cut through a wire mesh, with rows of police nearby.

Later, on a road near the coast, protestors sat in a blockade chanting ``Block G-8'' and ``This is what democracy looks like!'' as police looked on. At one point, a half-built house occupied by demonstrators was stormed by police, infuriating the crowd of about 2,000.

Police vehicles were blocked by logs strewn across roads, while the rail line from Kuehlungsborn to Bad Doberan through Heilgendamm was also blocked by protesters. Russian delegation plans to organize two press conferences in Heiligendamm were thwarted when neither trains nor boats could get through. As many as 7,000 people were still occupying roads tonight, police spokeswoman Jessica Wessel said in an interview.

`Full Support'

``The police have my full support, it's not an easy job,'' Merkel told reporters today, adding that it was ``legitimate'' for heads of government and state to discuss global problems at Heiligendamm. ``We want to shape globalization in a human way.''

As the police and demonstrators clashed, Merkel had lunch with President George W. Bush. The U.S. president arrived late yesterday at Rostock airport and was met by some 500 demonstrators in various locations, according to police, before he flew on to Heiligendamm by helicopter.

``My big concern is that images of violence will overshadow the issues being discussed at the summit,'' Wolfgang Bosbach, a deputy parliamentary leader with Merkel's Christian Democrats and member of the lower house of parliament's interior affairs committee, said in an interview.

Rostock Violence

Several demonstrations against the G-8 meeting have been marred by outbreaks of violence. During a demonstration in Rostock on June 2, police fired tear gas and water cannons on hooded and masked youths throwing stones and Molotov cocktails. Almost 1,000 police and demonstrators were injured. More violence followed two days ago, when hooded rioters ignited a smoke bomb. The authorities have drafted in 16,000 police officers from every state in Germany to patrol the summit.

Police were ``surprised by the size and scope of violence'' in Rostock, Bosbach said.

``The violence, of course it overshadows the event,'' Constanze Stelzenmueller, director of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said in an interview. ``What I find startling is just how organized these guys are. What I would like to know is who these people speak for.''

Seventy-one percent of Germans say they approve of the police tactics in handling the demonstrations, against 21 percent who say the police actions were wrong, according to a poll by research organization Emnid for N24 television channel.

`Strong Forces'

Some 40 percent of respondents said the security measures implemented to protect the G-8 leaders were excessive, while 35 percent said they were sufficient and another 21 percent said they were not tight enough. The poll of 1,000 people was conducted June 4, with a margin of error of 2.5 percent.

``The police are operating with strong forces,'' Frank Scheulen, spokesman for police special forces unit ``Kavala,'' told N-TV television in an interview. ``There can be no talk about police having been surprised by protests.''

Protest organizers, which include anti-capitalist movement Attac, environmental organization Greenpeace, Germany's Left Party, church groups and labor unions, have distanced themselves from the violence, focusing on criticism of policies pursued by industrialized nations that they say benefit the rich at the expense of the poor and the environment.

``It was more a success than I'd suspected,'' Kevin Henry, a member of Committee for Workers International who had made the trip from Belfast, Northern Ireland, said in an interview. ``We were able to get to the barricades of the warmongers.''

The G-8 member states are Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the U.K. and U.S.

Officials Say TD Ameritrade Open to Deal


TD Ameritrade Holding Corp. officials said Wednesday that the company is ready for a possible merger or acquisition as it finishes integrating TD Waterhouse's U.S. retail securities business, amid a push by two hedge funds for the company to merge with E-Trade Financial Corp. or Charles Schwab Corp.

A company spokeswoman said Ameritrade is always in talks with other companies but gave no further comment, citing securities regulations. "It is absolutely accurate to say that we have been and are talking with peers in the industry," said Ameritrade spokeswoman Katrina Becker.

Becker acknowledged that such a deal would fit in with the company's long-term strategy. "We have an organic growth strategy and an external strategy," she said. "We believe there's going to be additional consolidation in the industry."

Becker said reorganization from the January 2006 TD Waterhouse deal would be complete in September.

Shares of Ameritrade jumped Wednesday after the Omaha, Neb.-based company disclosed in a regulatory filing a letter it had received from investment funds Jana Partners and S.A.C. Capital Advisors urging the company to make a deal in the interests of the majority of shareholders.

By Wednesday afternoon the company's shares were up 97 cents or 4.9 percent at $20.92 in heavy trading, reaching a new 52-week high.

Oil prices rise on output drop

From Herald Sun (AU)

WORLD oil prices rose overnight as traders digested news that US refinery production fell last week as the peak-demand season for petrol kicks off.

Investors were also keeping a keen eye on a rogue cyclone in the crude-rich Middle Eastern region.

New York's main oil futures contract, light sweet crude for delivery in July, gained 35 cents to close at $US65.96 per barrel.

In London, Brent North Sea crude for July delivery added 57 cents to settle at $US71.02 per barrel.

The US Department of Energy (DoE) said in a weekly market update overnight that American inventories of motor fuel leapt by an unexpected 3.5 million barrels to 201.5 million barrels in the week to June 1, boosted by strong imports.

That was more than double analysts' consensus forecasts for a gain of 1.6 million.

Such an increase in petrol stock levels would be expected to put downward pressure on prices in normal market conditions, but dealers focused instead on news that refinery production had fallen.

"The larger-than-expected builds in product stocks are the clear bearish element of this week's numbers," said Citigroup analyst Tim Evans.

However, he said: "The bullish aspect - at least for the products - was the drop in the refinery utilisation rate, which will have to rebound sharply in order to sustain or increase current output levels."

Petrol statistics are a key focus for traders amid the US summer holiday driving season which puts peak demand on petrol supplies.

The DoE said that US crude oil reserves advanced by 100,000 barrels to 342.3 million barrels last week. Analysts had pencilled in an increase of 250,000 barrels.

Eric Wittenauer, of AG Edwards, said although the report was "bearish" he expected a stronger refinery output in next week's report.

"But crude went up on the questions that remain with the Cyclone Gonu and also after the information that several thousand Turkish troops had crossed into northern Iraq to chase Kurdish guerrillas," he said.

Media reports of the infiltration were denied by Turkey, then by the United States.

Oil prices found support as Cyclone Gonu lashed Oman overnight, forcing the evacuation of thousands of people in the Gulf state and neighboring Iran in the strongest tropical storm in the region in 30 years.

Oil experts said any impact on world oil prices would be temporary, provided that energy facilities in the area remained intact.

"If shipping is halted through (Strait of) Hormuz, I think there is going to be a panic in world oil markets and prices could shoot to as high as $US80, but of course for a very short period," Kuwaiti oil expert Kamel al-Harami said.

A majority of oil exports from OPEC kingpin Saudi Arabia and Iraq, as well as all exports from Iran, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar pass through the strait.

However OPEC powerhouse Saudi Arabia, which lies west of Oman, said it did not expect the storm to affect the country's oil-producing regions.