Somebody get our good friend Reed Hastings over at Netflix ( NFLX) a compass because it's clear he has no idea which direction he is taking the movie rental service. Yes, barely a month after announcing his Solomonesque plan to split the company in half, the company's less-than-wise CEO revealed on Monday that Netflix has decided to keep its DVD-by-mail and its streaming services under the Netflix umbrella. In September, Hastings came under heavy fire for the not-so-sagacious move of renaming its DVD business "Qwikster". "It is clear that for many of our members two Web sites would make things more difficult, so we are going to keep Netflix as one place to go for streaming and DVDs," said Hastings in a blog post. Well, so long Qwikster. That was, well, quick. Anybody want to buy a domain name real cheap? Of course, Netflix subscribers are all wondering 'what's in a name' anyway because the July price hikes that initiated all this madness -- and a 60% drop in the stock price -- are staying put, even if the name Qwikster is on its way out. So while Hastings may think that nixing Qwikster and possibly adding new episodes of TV cult hit Arrested Development will appease his irate clientele, the bottom line is that Netflix users will continue to seek alternatives until he appeals to their bottom lines. And Netflix customers are not the only folks that Hastings needs to suck up to. He also needs to regain some credibility on Wall Street ahead of the company's quarterly release on October 24th. In September, Netflix backtracked on its previous domestic subscriber outlook, shaving about 1 million customers off its total, mostly defections from the DVD-by-mail plan after the price hike announcement. Now this lightning fast backtrack has investors and analysts wondering just how bad the subscriber losses may have gotten. Put simply, Hastings better find his way soon, or else he's going to find Netflix up the creek without a paddle.
4. Hesse's Messes
If Sprint ( S) CEO Dan Hesse is trying to win a race to the bottom then he is sure is off to a flying start. Shares of the wireless operator sank 20% last Friday to close at $2.41 after the company failed to allay analyst concerns about its cash position at an investor meeting. Sprint's stumble also dragged down its affiliate Clearwire ( CLWR) which tumbled 32% and learned the hard way not to hitch your wagon to a falling star. Sprint's CEO got off on the wrong foot when he told the crowd that the company would spend more cash than it brings in to upgrade its network. And things just snowballed from there as Hesse gave muddy answers to clear questions about how long a business can operate when it is burning more cash than it is making. In other words, they were posing the same types of questions our friends in Greece are now contemplating. Although in Athens they are doing it while brandishing pitchforks and placards in the streets, as opposed to Apple ( AAPL) iPhones and Google ( GOOG) Androids in a hotel ballroom. And speaking of the iPhone, one big question left unanswered was where Sprint would find the bread to pay Apple a reported $20 billion for the right to sell the must-have gadget when it's clearly running out of dough. Not to worry, says Hesse, who promised the crowd the iPhone would be "quite accretive" to Sprint's profits over time, while not fully understanding that he has the luxury of neither. Of course, the analysts covering Sprint proved their comprehension of the problem the following Monday when they downgraded the stock in droves leading to another 8% shellacking. Nevertheless, even though Hesse was lacking answers to the most pertinent inquiries, he still had something to say. At the meeting he outlined a plan to spend $7 billion on a network upgrade that he wants to complete by the end of 2013, two years earlier than previously suggested. The company said that upgrade would save it $10 billion to $11 billion. The company also said its liquidity would improve starting in 2014. Whether the company will reach that finish line is now under debate judging from this week's spike in the cost to insure Sprint's debt. And the same goes for Hesse, who may be forced to pass the baton sooner than he thinks if he doesn't pick up the pace.
3. Volcker Rule Ridiculousness
As it pertains to the so-called "Volcker Rule," we'll just borrow Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's famous line about pornography and say, 'We'll know a proprietary trade when we see it.' Or maybe we won't. We have no idea. Nevertheless, one thing we do know after thumbing through the 300-plus page monstrosity federal regulators released Tuesday is that the Goldman Sachs ( GS) legal team has undoubtedly already devised ways to hop through the loopholes in this ridiculous regulation so the bank's vaunted prop desks can continue to bet the house. Or bet somebody else's house. Or whatever vampire squids bet on these days. Sadly, it was all supposed to be so simple. Respected on both sides of the aisle, former Fed chief Paul Volcker put forth the proposition that big financial companies be restricted from trading their own accounts, thereby eliminating an element of the moral hazards that led to the massive government bailouts at places like AIG ( AIG) and Bear Stearns. But then the Treasury Department, Federal Reserve, Comptroller of the Currency and the FDIC took over and this committee turned this supposedly simple horse into one cock-eyed camel. Regulators have a mind-numbing 400 questions about the material and the comment period has been lengthened to accommodate all the parties seeking to skewer it to bits. The majority of those questions will most certainly involve the trading "exemptions" from the Volcker Rule and what "short term" actually means. And it's this timing issue which will determine whether Wall Street's biggest banks will need to seriously restructure themselves and excise their profitable in-house casinos. The authors of the rule kept the terminology vague when it comes to the duration of a trade, realizing that one firm's hedge is another bank's high frequency trade. Unfortunately, by wording the document so ambiguously, it becomes easier for a bank to argue that a trade is not in violation of the Volcker Rule, and harder for a regulator to contend that it is. You know, it's kind of like when another famous government employee once said: "It depends upon what the meaning of the word 'is' is." Boy, that guy really had a way with words.
2. MagnaChip's Shopping Spree
Will the folks at MagnaChip ( MX) make up their minds already? Do they want to be a public company or not? The South Korean semiconductor company, which launched its IPO this past Spring, announced a stock repurchase program of up to $35 million on Tuesday, sending the shares up 6% to $6.56. According to the company, the buyback will be funded with cash beginning Oct. 27 and the authorization will last for a year, although MagnaChip won't specify a minimum number of shares to be bought back. The company also said its subsidiary repurchased $11.3 million in outstanding 10.5% senior notes due 2018. Sang Park, MagnaChip Chairman and CEO, commented on his stock shopping spree saying, "We believe the share repurchase program and bond repurchase we are announcing today represent an effective use of our cash and demonstrate the confidence we have in MagnaChip's financial strength." Or it could represent that fact that Sang has absolutely no idea how to grow his company in this crummy market, so after years of desperately trying to sell his shares, his only hope is to buy them back. And we aren't kidding when we say years. It's taken these guys forever to get their shares into public hands. MagnaChip first filed for an IPO back in 2007, seeking to raise $575 million, but the company was forced to yank the offering due to unfavorable market conditions. MagnaChip's public debut was pushed back again in June 2009 when it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy relief. Eventually, the chip maker was bought out by Avenue Capital Group and a few other private equity investors. In March of 2010, MagnaChip filed with the SEC to raise up to $250 million in an IPO, before pricing it more modestly at $130 million in June 2010. Unfortunately, the June IPO was also abandoned due to "adverse market conditions." Finally, this past March, those big-hitting funds reaped their rewards when MagnaChip made its debut. The investing group sold 8.55 million shares when MagnaChip priced its IPO at $14, below the proposed range of $15 to $17. The company itself sold less than a million shares, barely benefiting from the $133 million raised in the offering. Oh yeah, the stock popped a penny on its first day out of the box, finishing at $14.01. Yep, all that trouble for a single cent. Big freaking whoop! Okay, to be fair, the stock's less than stellar debut can be attributed to the Japanese earthquake, which hit that very day, a tragedy that leveled the prices of a number of semiconductor manufacturers. That said, it's hard to excuse the stock's behavior since its coming out party, down more than 50%. At last check the company has a public float of 16 million out of 39 million total shares outstanding. If the company is buying back stock at its current market value, then we say it may as well just keep on buying until there are no shares left for the investing public. Then maybe the stock can pop two cents on MagnaChip's next IPO. However many years from now that may be.
1. Dollar Thrifty's Soap Opera
After more than a year and a half of cliffhangers, hookups and breakups, the Dollar Thrifty ( DTG) soap opera finally reached its conclusion this week. And (sniff), we just don't know how we're going to live without it (sob). Dollar Thrifty said Tuesday it plans to go it alone, sending its stock down around 2% to $59.19. The shares ran up last week on the slim hope that the company would finally choose a mate, thus ending a long, drawn-out courtship process. Alas, it was not to be (sigh). Neither Hertz ( HTZ) nor Avis Budget ( CAR) made a proposal that Dollar deemed worthy enough to pass antitrust muster. Okay, Avis allegedly took itself out of the running in mid-September leaving Hertz the sole bidder, but us hopeless romantics never really said goodbye. We always thought those two would be so good together (snort). "The purpose of setting a deadline for submission of bids was to bring clarity to the next steps for the company. As we said all along, continuing uncertainty is in no one's interest," said Dollar Thrifty CEO Scott Thompson said in a statement. Oh, get off it Scott. Don't talk to us about "uncertainty". You spent the last 18 months as the belle of the ball, sucking up all the attention not stolen by Zipcar's ( ZIP) April IPO. You were Luke and Laura and you loved it. The tug-of-war between Hertz and Avis over Dollar Thrifty sent the stock above $84 this past June. Now it trades below $60. And while Thompson says he's fine staying solo, even going so far as to announce plans to buy back $400 million worth of stock over the next year, we can't say for sure if his shareholders won't soon be pining for a pairing should the shares falter. And no, we're still not giving up hope about Erica Kane and All My Childrencoming back either! (Will somebody get us a tissue already?!?) -- Written by Gregg Greenberg in New York.