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What big companies are saying about consumer spending and inflation as earning season begins

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At what point do consumers say enough is enough when it comes to paying more for goods and services?

The question is top of mind for C-suite executives, regardless of industry, as inflation surges to levels not seen in decades. And as earnings season begins, so are the concerns about balancing the rising costs and the consumer.

“Either businesses are going to make a lot less money or they’re going to raise their prices,” RH CEO Gary Friedman said on the company’s earnings call on March 30. “I don’t think anybody really understands how high prices are going to go everywhere. … I think it’s going to outrun the consumer, and I think we’re going to be in some tricky space.”

Consumer prices rose 8.5% from a year ago in March, according to Labor Department data. That data reflects a rise that the U.S. has not seen since the late 1970s and early 1980s, with core inflation being the hottest since August 1982. The Producers Price Index, which measures what wholesalers are paying, posted its biggest rise year over year on record, up 11.3% in March.

So far in 2022, rising prices haven’t significantly slowed consumers down. Year-over-year retail spending was up 17.6% through February, according to the Commerce Department, and January spending was revised up to an increase of 4.9%, well ahead of the initial 3.8% estimate.

That continued strong demand is providing an opportunity for many companies to offset the increased pricing they’ve seen for materials and supply chain costs by passing it along to customers.

Nike upped its gross margin expectations by at least 150 basis points versus the previous year because of the “benefits of strategic pricing,” CFO Matt Friend said on the company’s most recent earnings call on March 21.

Conagra reported that its organic sales were up 6% in its most recent quarter even as volume declined 2.6% percent. The reason for that? Price/mix was up 8.6%. CFO Dave Marberger said on the company’s April 7 earnings call with analysts that the volume decrease was “primarily due to the elasticity impacts of the price increases.”

A hot job market, low unemployment and a historically high rate of savings have buoyed Americans, making them more willing to pay higher prices for goods and services. But while wages have grown, they have not kept pace with inflation. Real earnings were up 5.6% from a year ago while real average hourly earnings had a seasonally adjusted 0.8% decline last month, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

There are signs the consumer strength is getting more tenuous, starting with a key earnings read from the used car market on Monday.

CarMax saw its used car unit comps drop 6.5% in its most recent quarter even as its used car revenue rose 32.6% due to average selling prices that skyrocketed. The company cited a number of macro factors as to why sales dropped, including “declining consumer confidence, the Omicron-fueled surge in COVID cases, vehicle affordability, and the lapping of stimulus benefits paid in the prior year period.”

Forty-eight percent of Americans said they are thinking about rising prices all the time, according to a CNBC survey released last week. Furthermore, 75% said they are worried that higher prices will force them to rethink their financial choices in the coming months.

To combat higher prices, there are several things that Americans say they are doing. Fifty-three percent said they have cut back on dining out in the last six months, while 35% said they’ve canceled a monthly subscription and 29% were forced to cancel a trip or vacation.

On top of that, 32% said they’ve already switched from a brand-name product to a generic version.

Historically, high earners have been a safe haven for companies when it comes to continuing to spend even through rough times. But even 68% of respondents with incomes of $100,000 indicated they’re worried about higher prices making them change financial decisions.

Chipotle Mexican Grill CEO Brian Niccol said on CNBC’s “Closing Bell” on Friday that while the company “continue(s) to see strength in the consumer,” that he thinks “they’re going to continue to be more discriminate going forward as they decide how to spend their dollars.”

“Our data tells us people are thinking twice about how far they want to drive, how often they want to drive; they’re also thinking twice about whether or not they want to spend their dollar on a restaurant experience or an entertainment experience,” Niccol said. “I just think it’s becoming more of a, I would say, conscious decision on how they’re going to choose to spend their next dollar versus maybe a couple of months ago.”

Niccol said Chipotle, which previously said it raised prices by roughly 6% so far this year resulting in customers paying about 10% more for their orders than a year ago, has “the pricing power to take the pricing when we need to.” However, he also noted that he “would love not to have to keep taking price, but we’ll have to see how everything unfolds going forward.”

CNBC research suggests that S&P 500 companies are expected to show earnings growth of 6.4% in the first quarter of 2022 and 6.8% in the second quarter, ultimately leading to about 10% growth across the second half of the year. But that is largely being driven by the energy sector, which is projected to have earnings growth of 233.5% in the first quarter.

In comparison, the consumer staples and consumer discretionary sectors are estimated to have a 1.9% and -11.9% earnings growth in the first quarter, a harbinger that the consumer spending and demand of the Covid era might finally be hitting a wall.

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Ford CEO says 65% of U.S. dealers agree to sell EVs under company’s investment programs

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Ford F-150 Lightning trucks manufactured at the Rouge Electric Vehicle Center in Dearborn Michigan.

Courtesy: Ford Motor Co.

DETROIT – About 65% of Ford Motor’s dealers have agreed to sell electric vehicles as the company invests billions to expand production and sales of the battery-powered cars and trucks, CEO Jim Farley said Monday.

About 1,920 of Ford’s nearly 3,000 dealers in the U.S. agreed to sell EVs, according to Farley. He said roughly 80% of those dealers opted for the higher level of investment for EVs.

Ford offered its dealers the option to become “EV-certified” under one of two programs — with expected investments of $500,000 or $1.2 million. Dealers in the higher tier, which carries upfront costs of $900,000, receive “elite” certification and be allocated more EVs.

Ford, unlike crosstown rival General Motors, is allowing dealers to opt out of selling EVs and continue to sell the company’s cars. GM has offered buyouts to Buick and Cadillac dealers that don’t want to invest to sell EVs.

Dealers who decided not to invest in EVs may do so when Ford reopens the certification process in 2027.

“We think that the EV adoption in the U.S. will take time, so we wanted to give dealers a chance to come back,” Farley said during an Automotive News conference.

Ford’s plans to sell EVs have been a point of contention since the company split off its all-electric vehicle business earlier this year into a separate division known as Model e. Farley said the automaker and its dealers needed to lower costs, increase profits and deliver better, more consistent customer sales experiences.

Farley on Monday also reiterated that a direct-sales model is estimated to be thousands of dollars cheaper for the automaker than the auto industry’s traditional franchised system.

Wall Street analysts have largely viewed direct-to-consumer sales as a benefit to optimize profit. However, there have been growing pains for Tesla, which uses the sales model, when it comes to servicing its vehicles.

Ford’s current lineup of all-electric vehicles includes the Ford F-150 Lightning pickup, Mustang Mach-E crossover and e-Transit van. The automaker is expected to release a litany of other EVs globally under a plan to invest tens of billion of dollars in the technologies by 2026.

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Who will be Disney’s next CEO? Here are the top contenders to succeed Bob Iger

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Bob Iger, CEO, The Walt Disney Company

Scott Mlyn | CNBC

Disney reappointed Bob Iger as its chief executive recently, abruptly replacing his hand-picked successor Bob Chapek, and giving Iger an early goal — find a new replacement during the next two years.

Iger’s attention has quickly turned to the other part of his mandate from the board — the immediate challenges facing Disney’s business, such as the company’s reorganization, cost structure and the future growth of its streaming business. But that hasn’t quelled speculation about who his successor could be.

Media industry executives and company observers are putting together a roster of potential candidates Iger and the board will likely consider in deciding whom to groom for the role next. The pool of possibilities include former Disney executives who were previously considered the future of the Mouse House before being passed over for Chapek, a few internal rising stars and some sleeper picks who are either close to the creative community or already have ties to the company.

Another possibility some consider is that Iger, whose return was applauded by Wall Street and employees, sticks around longer than his two-year contract.

Here’s a look at some of the people who could be next in line to lead Disney.

Calling up from the bench 

Dana Walden, Chairman of Entertainment, Walt Disney Television speaks onstage during the 25th anniversary of UCLA Jonsson Cancer Center Foundation’s “Taste for a Cure” event at Fairmont Century Plaza on April 29, 2022 in Los Angeles, California.

Rich Polk | Getty Images

Before calling Iger, Disney’s board considered a few internal candidates to replace Chapek, but ultimately decided they were too new to take on the various pressures on the company, CNBC previously reported.

One of the candidates considered was Dana Walden, said people familiar with the matter who were not authorized to speak publicly on the topic. She is the head of general entertainment content and in charge of creating original entertainment and news programming for Disney’s streaming platforms, broadcast and cable networks.

Walden’s been known to have a hands-on role with content creators. In Iger’s first memo to employees following his reinstatement, he mentioned Walden as among the top lieutenants who would work with him on Disney’s new structure, which would put “more decision-making back in the hands of our creative teams and rationalizes costs.” 

“Disney will likely choose a successor that leads with talent relationship capabilities,” said Eric Schiffer, CEO and chairman of Patriarch Organization and Reputation Management Consultants. “The downfall of Chapek is he maimed Hollywood relationships.” 

One of the notable missteps made by Chapek during his quick turn as CEO was his handling of Scarlett Johansson’s pay dispute.

Walden took on her role in June after her boss, Peter Rice, was ousted after clashing with Chapek. Like Rice, Walden came to Disney in 2019 as part of the company’s acquisition of 21st Century Fox’s assets. 

When she was promoted, Chapek had called Walden “a dynamic, collaborative leader and cultural force who in just three years has transformed our television business into a content powerhouse.” At the time, Disney’s board had put its support behind Chapek. Still, Walden lacks experience on business decisions, and has focused her time on the creative side.

Meanwhile, Rice may be interested in returning to the company in some capacity and has remained in contact with Iger, people close to the matter said.

Alan Bergman, Chairman, Walt Disney Studios Content

The Walt Disney Company via Getty Images

Alan Bergman, who’s been with Disney for more than 25 years, is another potential candidate, the people have said. He is the chairman of Disney’s studio content and spearheaded the integration of Iger’s acquisitions into Disney’s overall content pipeline. He also was mentioned in Iger’s first memo.

In addition, Bergman has rapport with many creatives in Hollywood. Disney relies on those relationships, and he might have a softer hand in dealing with talent and agents than what was seen with the Chapek and Johansson dispute. Unlike other top executives at Disney, however, Bergman doesn’t have experience in many other divisions and has focused much of his career on studio content.

Another Disney insider floated as a possible candidate has been Josh D’Amaro, people familiar with the company have said. 

D’Amaro is head of Disney’s parks, experiences and products, the same position Chapek held before becoming CEO. His long track record at the company — he began his career at Disney in 1998 and his positions have mostly centered around resorts — could bode well for him. 

As does his charisma. D’Amaro is generally well-liked by his peers and the cast members at the parks and considered a strong leader. While there have been complaints by guests at Disney’s domestic parks that prices are steep and the ticket-reservation system is flawed, few have blamed D’Amaro. Instead, Chapek has taken the brunt of criticism, with guests and analysts assuming the former CEO was responsible for setting strict guidelines for driving more revenue at the parks and resorts.

Still, D’Amaro doesn’t have the creative experience that Iger is often lauded for. His resume is concentrated on the resorts and parks businesses.

Rebecca Campbell, who’s currently in charge of Disney’s international content and operations, is another candidate that Iger may favor, people familiar with the matter said.

The executive, who has worked in various divisions of the company after starting on the local TV side in 1997, is also well-liked. However, while she also has experience running the streaming business in Disney+’s earlier days, she was removed from the position and may not have the hands-on business experience to make the tough decisions facing the company’s media business.

If Campbell or Walden were to ascend to the CEO position, it would be the first time Disney had a woman in the top job.

A dark horse candidate from within the organization would be Sean Bailey, the president of Disney Studios, one observer said. Bailey, who’s maintained a relationship with Iger, is well-liked by the creative community.

Outside possibilities

Kevin Mayer, co-founder and co-chief executive officer of Candle Media, chairman of DAZN Group, speaks at the Milken Institute Asia Summit in Singapore, on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022.

Bryan van der Beek | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Kevin Mayer and Tom Staggs were former Disney executives who were also in the running for the job before Iger settled on Chapek in early 2020. 

Both left the company after being passed over. Many had pegged Mayer in particular as the likely successor. His name has once again floated back to the top of the list.

“This problem didn’t have to happen,” Engine Gaming and Media Executive Chairman Tom Rogers said on CNBC recently, ticking off the attributes needed for someone in this role, such as understanding the media business, a streaming track record, ability to build up franchise content and being a deal-maker. 

“They had that person, it was Kevin Mayer,” said Rogers, the former president of NBC Cable. “They still have that person, he’s still the right choice. The board made a mistake, I hope they don’t make that mistake again.” 

Mayer had been Disney’s longtime head of strategy, and was involved in deals like the 21st Century Fox acquisition. 

Before Mayer left, he had one of the most important jobs at the company — developing and launching Disney+. Since leaving Disney, he had a short stint as CEO of TikTok and later joined billionaire Len Blavatnik’s investment firm Access Industries and became chairman of sports streamer DAZN.

Mayer and Staggs also run the entertainment startup Candle Media, where they’ve flexed their M&A experience with recent deals like Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine and children’s content maker CoComelon.

For Mayer or Staggs to return to Disney, Iger would likely have to acquire Candle Media. Mayer has outstanding obligations to acquired companies and has no interest in leaving his current job, according to people familiar with the matter. It’s possible Iger could see CoComelon as a good intellectual property fit for Disney+, although Iger said at a town hall Monday he isn’t interested in any mergers or acquisitions for Disney in the near future.

Somewhat outside of the Disney bubble, Mattel CEO Ynon Kreiz could be another contender, the Disney observer noted. Kreiz has sold two companies to Disney: Fox Kids Europe, which sold a majority stake to Disney in 2001, and Maker Studios in 2012.

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Astra chief engineer resigns, CEO shakes up management ‘to execute faster’

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Benjamin Lyon, chief engineer and executive vice president of engineering and operations

Astra

Beleaguered rocket builder Astra is losing its highly touted chief engineer, Benjamin Lyon, the company disclosed in a securities filing Friday.

Lyon resigned from his role as Astra’s chief engineer and executive vice president of operations and engineering on Monday, the company said. Astra said he is leaving to pursue another opportunity and that his last day is expected to be Dec. 27.

Astra CEO Chris Kemp thanked Lyon “for his service and contributions,” but told CNBC the company is making leadership changes following Lyon’s departure to speed up development of its rocket.

“Putting the team that was reporting to [Lyon] under me basically flattens the entire thing, and just allows us to execute faster,” Kemp said.

After disclosing Lyon’s departure, Astra announced four promotions to its management team. The new Astra program leads: Giovanni Greco on Launch System Delivery, Jonathan Donaldson on Spacecraft Engine Delivery, Doug Kunzman on Launch and Test Operations and Bryson Gentile on Manufacturing.

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Lyon joined Astra in February 2021 from Apple, where he had worked in development for products including the iPhone and Mac.

But Astra is facing an uphill battle after the company pivoted away from its Rocket 3.3 vehicle after a mid-flight failure, and decided to pause launches to build a larger, upgraded vehicle, called Rocket 4.0. The company announced a layoff of 16% of its workforce on Nov. 8, as it works to trim operating expenses and moves forward with development.

“[Rocket 4.0] needs to work and it needs to happen next year,” Kemp added.

Kemp said Lyon’s departure “isn’t a blow” for the company, but the move marks another change to the company’s leadership in the past few months. In October, Astra’s vice president of communications, Kati Dahm, left the company, and last month Chief Financial Officer Kelyn Brannon transitioned out of her role, with the company bringing in Axel Martinez as CFO from Virgin Hyperloop One.

Astra stock is down 92% this year as of Thursday’s close. It received a delisting warning from the Nasdaq in October after its stock fell below $1 a share. The company has until April to lift the share price back above the level.

Shares of Astra were little changed in early trading, from its previous close of 52 cents a share.

Correction: Astra announced a layoff of 16% of its workforce on Nov. 8. An earlier version misstated the date.

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