Archive for Sunday, June 20, 2004

The Motley Fool

June 20, 2004

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Last week's question and answer

I operate more than 300 department stores in dozens of states, occupying more than 34 million square feet. Many are regional names, while some are national. My brands include Parisian, Proffitt's, McRae's, Younkers, Herberger's, Carson Pirie Scott, Bergner's, Boston Store and the mall-based chain of Club Libby Lu specialty stores. Sixty-two of my stores carry my own name, which evokes a ritzy Manhattan address. Headquartered in Birmingham, Ala., I ring up about $6 billion in sales annually and can boast of having the No. 1 or No. 2 market share position in 90 percent of my trade areas. Who am I?

(Answer: Saks Inc.)

Teens and credit

More than half of all U.S. residents have a cell phone -- and youngsters are doing a lot of the talking, while parents pay. About one-third of children ages 11 to 17 have a cell phone of their own. A Telephia Teen Study done last year found that 30 percent of parents who have a teen on their wireless plan report that they often run out of minutes and end up paying extra.

It's pretty easy to guess where this is going -- just look at the credit card industry. According to Cardweb.com, 80 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 20 are packing plastic. Many of them are courted quite heavily in college, and by the time they're sophomores, 92 percent of coeds carry at least one card and more than $2,000 in credit card debt. And that's before they have a credit file -- or a career, for that matter.

The answer isn't to deny children access to plastic. After all, a credit card helps young people build that all-important credit record, and it can be valuable when money is needed in a pinch. But easy access to credit also is the very reason so many young people start their lives digging out from under a mountain of debt.

Cell phones are a similarly dangerous temptress -- and one that's wooing a younger audience than lenders would dare approach. Just like a credit card, a cell phone offers convenience, an emergency line and the opportunity to get in way over your head.

What's a parent to do? The best option may be to play it dollar-by-dollar and minute-by-minute, via credit card-based prepaid cell phone plans such as Virgin Mobile's at www.virginmobileusa.com/familyplan. Growing in popularity, these offer the convenience of traditional cell phone plans but with strict spending limits set by the cardholder.

Learn more and get tips on managing and optimizing your credit at www.fool.com.

Who's who?


Can you explain the roles of a company's chairman of the board, chief executive officer and president? -- James Hughes, Houston

The typical public company's board of directors provides its top level of oversight. The board is elected by the company's shareholders and should be looking out for the interests of the shareholders -- who own the company. The board oversees the company's management, which it hires and compensates. Some board members are company executives, such as the CEO and chief financial officer, while others are outsiders and more independent.

The chairman of the board has the uppermost position in the company. He or she will generally be in close contact with the CEO and other bigwigs, planning company strategy and representing the company to the outside world. The CEO is the top manager, who runs the company. While he or she often concentrates on big-picture issues such as strategy, the chief operations officer will focus on day-to-day matters.

Under the CEO are presidents, executive vice presidents and senior vice presidents, and so on. You'll often see some people sharing two or more titles at a company, such as chairman and CEO, CEO and president, CFO and executive vice president.

How can I look up the rate of home value appreciation in an area? -- T.B., Walnut Creek, Calif.

One good resource is mortgage giant Freddie Mac. At its Web site, www.freddiemac.com/finance/cmhpi, it provides its Conventional Mortgage Home Price Index, measuring typical price inflation for houses within the overall United States, within each state, and within more than 160 metropolitan areas.

You also can get some information from good real estate agents in your area.

Kraft rethinks portions

As Kraft Foods (NYSE: KFT) seeks the best strategy to present the healthiest image for its snack lines, it is adjusting its plans to reduce the portion size of some of its products.

In the midst of rabid news coverage of America's obesity epidemic last year, Kraft rolled out an initiative to improve the health profile of its offerings by, among other things, capping portions for single-serve packaged snacks. Now, however, rather than limiting servings per package, the company will keep larger bags and boxes in circulation and provide nutritional information for the entire package rather than just for an individual serving. In addition, Kraft will offer a variety of portion-controlled snacks.

Kraft's change in tactics is not surprising. Many consumers would probably be surprised by how little they would eat if all of their munchies were limited to a single serving. In addition, the labeling change lends some credibility to the company's claims that it is working to help folks make informed choices.

Still, such nutritional data likely will continue to confuse most consumers. For the time being, it is probably best for the company to focus more on improving formulations and adding healthier items to its portfolio. Kraft has already made progress in this area, purchasing Veryfine juices and reducing fat content in 200 products in North America. But, over the long run, it may pay to be even bolder.

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