Archive for Sunday, May 19, 2002

The Motley Fool

May 19, 2002


Last week's question and answer

I'm a global giant, reeling in some $7 billion in sales annually. Brands in my big plastic bin include Sharpie, Paper Mate, Parker, Waterman, Rubbermaid, Blue Ice, Calphalon, Little Tikes, Graco, Levolor, Kirsch, Shur-Line and Eldon. Based in Freeport, Ill., I employ roughly 50,000 people worldwide. The two merged companies that make up my name began by selling curtain rods and toy balloons. I'm one of the most diverse injection-molding and blow-molding companies in the world. My biggest customer is Wal-Mart. Named the most powerful brand in the home products industry in 2001, I'm "how life gets organized." Who am I? (Answer: Newell Rubbermaid)

Know the answer? Send it to us with Foolish Trivia on the top and you'll be entered into a drawing for a nifty prize! The address is Motley Fool, Box 19529, Alexandria, Va. 22320-0529. Send questions for Ask the Fool, Dumbest (or Smartest) Investments (up to 100 words), and your Trivia entries to

Multiple eggs and baskets

I retired in 1998 from Ford Motor Co. with three-quarters of my 401(k) in Ford stock. In March 2001, I rolled it over into my Schwab IRA and put it all into several mutual funds. When I sold my Ford stock, it was at $28 per share. Today it's trading around half of that. I sure am glad that I did what I did when I did. Joe F. Carlton, Eagleville, Tenn.

The Fool Responds: You did well. Many people have most of their financial eggs in too few baskets often through company retirement plans. Enron employees learned in the most painful way that it's risky to concentrate your investments on one company even one that seems solid and healthy. Some retirement plans give you little choice, but lawmakers in Washington are working to help get employees more access to investment guidance and to permit them more diversification. Be careful to spread your moolah over at least a handful of investments. With individual stocks, we recommend aiming to hold between eight and 15.

Amazon's amazing race

Dot-com survivor (Nasdaq: AMZN) recently posted healthy first-quarter results, featuring a 21 percent year-over-year increase in sales and a narrower-than-expected net loss of $23 million, down from a $234 million loss last year. For 2002, Amazon is expecting pro forma operating profits to top $100 million, with revenue at least 15 percent higher than last year.

It's not all rosy, though. Most of the e-tail bellwether's growth has come from its expansion overseas. Amazon's European customer base increased by 45 percent in the past year, to nearly 7 million. Sales in Britain, Germany, France and Japan grew by 71 percent, with Britain and Germany operating profitably. The company's core "books, music and video" stronghold climbed by just 8 percent. Newer units, such as "electronics, tools and kitchenware," put up similar gains.

Amazon has recently lowered book prices again, with 30 percent off most books priced at $15 or more. It's also offering free shipping for orders over $99. For the holiday season, the company will give customers the option of picking up book, music and DVD orders at Borders bookstores.

While it's anyone's guess as to whether Amazon will ever be able to achieve the juicy profit margins that e-commerce pioneers once envisioned, the company is further cementing its status as a legitimate retailer. Reports of its death may have been exaggerated.

Here's a guide on how to prepare for emergencies

Unpleasant surprises, such as layoffs and major medical expenses, do occasionally rear their ugly heads. That's why you need to have some emergency funds available. Conventional wisdom suggests that you sock away three to six months' worth of living expenses. Here's a short guide to emergency planning.

First off, don't park emergency money in the volatile stock market, as anything can happen in the short term. Bank savings accounts aren't so hot, either, because they pay paltry interest. For better interest rates, stash your cash in a money market fund. You might also park it in short-term certificates of deposit (CDs) or bonds, perhaps staggered so that a portion is always close to maturity.

You have some unconventional options, too. If you have little or no credit card debt, you might plan to charge emergency expenses on your credit card, up to a certain amount. Be very careful with this approach, though. If you're charged a steep interest rate on a large balance, a bad situation can get worse quickly.

Loans are another possibility. If you have family members or close friends who could easily lend you enough to cover your temporary needs, that could work out well.

You might also be able to borrow what you need from your brokerage, on margin, with your portfolio as collateral. People usually borrow on margin to buy additional stock, but you can borrow for pretty much any purpose. Just be careful if you borrow a lot and your stocks suddenly plunge in value, you'll be hit with a "margin call" and may end up losing some of your stocks. Use margin sparingly, if you use it at all.

As a last resort, you might be able to take out a home equity loan or borrow against your 401(k) account at work.

Unconventional alternatives can help you avoid keeping a sizable chunk of money tied up where it's not earning much for you.

But a more conventional approach, such as investing in CDs and money market funds, might be best for you, helping you sleep better, too.

Learn more about short-term savings at /savings/savings.htm.

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