April 30, 2011

Has Amazon Lost The South In The Internet Tax War? [News Report]

by Avinash Saxena

It’s one thing when Illinois’ lame-duck Democratic legislature votes to impose an Internet sales tax modeled on New York’s so-called “Amazon” tax and a Democratic governor signs the bill. Or when Connecticut Democrats agree on a similar bill as part of a raise-every-tax-in-sight package.  Or even when Arkansas’ Democratic governor signs an Amazon tax, as he did earlier this month.  Arkansas is, after all, home to Wal-Mart, which collects sales taxes on its Internet sales and wants Amazon.com to be forced to do the same.

But Amazon suffered defeats this week in two of the most anti-tax, red states in the nation. On Tuesday, Texas House members voted  122-23 to pass H.B. 2403 (legislative analysis here) which bolsters Texas Comptroller Susan Combs’ battle to collect $269 million in back sales taxes from Amazon, based on a warehouse the giant Internet retailer has been operating in the state.

And on Wednesday, South Carolina’s House voted 71 to 47 to reject a special sales tax collection exemption for a partially-built Amazon warehouse that would have brought 1,250 jobs to the state.  In a post-vote analysisThe State newspaper in Columbia attributed Amazon’s defeat to “pressure from small merchants, other national retailers and Tea Party activists.”  The Tea Party? Wow.

Make no mistake. As comments on my blog demonstrate, many anti-tax activists oppose the collection of tax on Internet sales. But Tea Party types don’t necessarily cotton to special breaks for big companies, which is how the South Carolina legislation came to be viewed.

Back in 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Quill v. North Dakota, that only sellers with a physical presence (“nexus” in taxspeak) in a state are required to collect that state’s sales taxes. Just shipping into a state by say, FedEx or UPS, isn’t enough to establish nexus. Consumers still owe “use” (meaning sales) tax to their states, but few bother to pay. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has brilliantly exploited Quill,  for example basing his business in Seattle, instead of the Silicon Valley, to avoid having to charge California customers sales tax. Currently, Amazon collects sales tax on shipments to residents of only five states.  But as I suggested in February,  the states’ hunger for revenues, ramped up pressure from traditional retailers, and Amazon’s own need for physical distribution facilities could mean that Amazon’s days of tax free selling are numbered.

In the South Carolina case, the administration of former Republican Governor Mark Sanford had promised to push through legislation that would exempt Amazon from having to collect sales taxes from state residents despite the warehouse.  Sanford’s successor, Republican Nikki Haley, said she didn’t favor the exemption, but wouldn’t veto it. After the vote, however, she delivered a rebuke to Amazon, in which she suggested it had demanded too many breaks for its low paying jobs. Said Haley (video here) : “They got free property, they got tax incentives, they got plenty of things. Don’t ask us to give you sales tax relief when we’re not giving it to the book store down the street…It’s just not a level playing field.”

Billy Hamilton, an Austin public finance consultant and former Texas deputy comptroller,  points out that red states politicians, having “drawn a firm line in the sand that says we’re not going to raise taxes, no matter what” are desperate for any revenue they can get by enforcing current laws or  in the name of  fairness.

“I think one of the important shifts here that you’ve seen just in the last six months to a year has been it’s not just one party. It’s a bipartisan governor approach,’’ observed Joe Rinzel,  Vice President of State Government Affairs for the Retail Industry Leaders Association, during a conference call hosted earlier this month by Janney Montgomery Scott retail analyst David Strasser.

Amazon is hardly waiving the white flag in either red states or blue ones.  The new Illinois and Arkansas laws assert that Internet sellers must collect state sales taxes if  they get business from Web marketing affiliates based within the state. So Amazon has terminated its Illinois and Arkansas marketing affiliates, as has Overstock.com. It has also threatened to end deals with affiliates in Connecticut, California or any other state that passes legislation modeled on the 2008 New York Amazon law. (Amazon didn’t cut off New York affiliates. Instead, it is collecting New York sales tax while it challenges the constitutionality of that law in court.)

Even more dramatically, Amazon says it has canceled $52 million in contracts to finish the partly built South Carolina project and is “in the process” of closing its Texas warehouse, throwing 110 employees there out of work. (Amazon is fighting the $269 million Texas back tax bill on the grounds that its warehouse is run by an “affiliate, but not subsidiary, of the Amazon retailing entity” and so doesn’t give it sufficient nexus to have to collect Texas sales taxes. The bill passed by the Texas House is designed to make it clear that such an affiliate gives a retailer nexus. Amazon disclosed this week that the SEC is looking into its tax dispute with Texas.)

Meanwhile, Amazon is beginning to hire for two warehouses it started building in Tennessee after the administration of former Democratic Governor Phil Bredesen promised Amazon wouldn’t have to collect sales tax based on the facilities. Current Republican Governor Bill Haslam  has said he will honor his predecessor’s commitment, which was based on an interpretation of the state’s current law and apparently won’t require new legislation.   But Tennessee Republicans are continuing to question —if not directly threaten—the Amazon deal and Haslam is now calling for Congress to pass legislation that would force Internet retailers to collect sales taxes. (Senator Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, is preparing to introduce such a bill, but it has little chance of clearing the Republican controlled House.)

So Amazon will be able to avoid collecting sales tax from most Americans for some time to come. Still,  retail analyst Strasser points out that Amazon has built its competitive edge not only on charging no tax, but also on its efficient distribution. If Amazon locates warehouse/fulfillment centers only in states that agree to give it a pass on sales taxes,  it could end up losing that distribution edge, particularly when it comes to large items, like televisions, Strasser argues.  “Ultimately, they’re going to have to compete with Best Buy, and Target and Wal-Mart and Office Depot andStaples for efficiency,’’ he says.


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April 29, 2011

What’s The Matter With Google TV?

by Avinash Saxena

Google and its partners made a major bet on Google TV, an ambitious attempt to bridge the gap between the web and TV worlds. But so far it has failed to pay dividends — quite literally, in the case of Google partner Logitech.

On Thursday, Logitech released its fourth quarter fiscal report, and the results were a mixed bag. Operating income was a mere $3.6 million, a far cry from the $24.5 million it made a year ago. But sales were up 4% compared to last year.

Logitech’s income missed the mark largely due to its investment in Google TV, which was revealed in dramatic fashion at last year’s Google I/O developer conference. Logitech developed the Revue, a $299 Google TV-powered set-top box.

As GigaOm points out, Logitech expected to sell $18 million in Google TV-related products in Q4. But in its earnings report, the company revealed that it only sold $5 million in Google TV devices. Logitech also revealed that its inventory is up 28% in Q4 — thanks to all those unsold Google TV devices.


A Series of Setbacks


When we first saw Google TV, we gave Google credit for its ambition. However, we also had a warning for the search giant: get the user experience right at launch. Otherwise, it risked alienating potential users.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened. Reviews were lackluster. Users complained about a complicated user experience and an array of bugs. Google delivered an update last month to fix some of these problems.

In December, we heard a rumor that Google would use Android 3.0 to fix Google TV. What we’re hearing now isGoogle TV will merge with Android Honeycomb and Gingerbread to create one multifaceted OS. This should make system updates and Android app development a simpler process. It could also be the start of the development of Android apps for Google TV, a major potential selling point.


Google’s Options


Google and its partners are far from giving up on their TV project. For one thing, there isn’t one major rival dominating the space. Connected TVs were a hot ticket at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES), but the market is young and there isn’t a clear winner yet.

The search giant will have a second chance to breath new life into Google TV at its Google I/O conference in May, the same place it first introduced the product and the company’s best shot at sparking new interest in the platform.

So what might Google be able to do to lift Google TV sales and save it from Google Wave’s fate?

First of all, it can go all-in with Android, rallying developers to create amazing apps for the TV screen. Being able to use your favorite Android apps on the big screen — especially games — could be the selling point the search giant needs to get people interested.

Secondly, it can work with its partners to reduce the price. Apple TV costs $100, the Boxee Box retails for $190 on Amazon, and the Roku costs only $59 at Best Buy. The Logitech Revue, which originally retailed for $299, still costs $230 on Amazon. While Google TV is definitely a different product than Apple TV or the Roku, consumers are bound to shy away when they see the price difference.

To distance itself from the negative sentiments that linger around Google TV, the company may feel the need for some kind of public relaunch, with a fresh look and feel to the device. Call it Google TV 2.0. After all, it took multiple releases of Android before the Google phone OS began to gain traction.

Regardless of the strategy, if Google can’t get its TV engine roaring soon, partners and developers may start abandoning the platform — and there is no recovering from that.

April 29, 2011

YOUNG HOLLYWOOD 2011 – EMMA ROBERTS [Video-Today]

by Avinash Saxena
April 29, 2011

Is The Gates-Buffett Pledge Really Spurring New Giving? [News Report]

by Avinash Saxena

Today 10 new tycoons signed on to the Gates-Buffett Giving Pledge, the promise that 69 super wealthy folks have made to give away at least half their wealth to charitable causes. But a recent discussion among some of the Giving Pledge members raised some questions. Are Bill Gates and Warren Buffett mostly signing up folks who’ve already given away huge chunks of their fortune –or made plans to do that?

When Warren Buffett called Business Wire founder Lorry Lokey and asked him to join signed the Giving Pledge, Lokey says he told Buffett, “Warren, you’re late. I already gave it.” Buffett didn’t mind, according to Lokey, whom I met at a conference called the Global Philanthropy Forum. “Buffett said, ‘That’s why we want you aboard,’” Lokey recalled. Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway bought Lokey’s Business Wire for an undisclosed price in the hundreds of millions of dollars in 2006.  Lokey told me he’s given away $670 million, primarily to universities and high schools in California, Oregon and Israel. All of that was given or pledged before Buffett called Lokey last year.

John and Tashia Morgridge similarly were big into philanthropy long before the Giving Pledge. John Morgridge, a billionaire, became chief executive of Cisco Systems in 1988, took it public in 1990, and later served as the company’s chairman. He and his wife Tashia have been giving away bits of their wealth for 25 years, as this Cap Times articlepoints out. During a panel discussion about the Giving Pledge at the Global Philanthropy Forum on April 14, Tashia Morgridge explained, “We’d already been giving away a lot of our wealth and intended to give away a lot of it.” Much of the Morgridges’ giving has gone to educational institutions in Wisconsin and to environmental conservation.

Other billionaires on the list who were giving in a big way before they joined the Pledge include AOL founder Steve Case, who created the Case Foundation with his wife Jean in 1997; and CNN founder Ted Turner, who famously pledged in 1997 to give the United Nations $1 billion over 10 years.

Meanwhile, some members of the audience listening to the panel grumbled about the fact that these big givers tend to give to the same sorts of causes, like putting their names on buildings at universities (Lokey contributed $75 million toward a new $200 million stem cell research building at Stanford), which don’t do much for solving issues of poverty or feeding the hungriest.

When asked why Giving Pledge members give more to universities than social service organizations, John Morgridge replied that “You can’t give large sums to those social service organizations … Most of us give small sums to those social service [groups].”

John Morgridge and Lokey both expressed dismay at the number of superrich who don’t see the need to share their fortunes. “This Valley has a lot of wealth. For my case, the disproportionate amount is spent on homes that they live in for two weeks a year,” Morgridge said during the panel.

Added Lokey: “We’ve got all kinds of billionaires sitting on their rear ends doing nothing.”

April 28, 2011

PlayStation Network users fear identity theft after major data leak [Gaming]

by Avinash Saxena
Playstation Network userUp to 3 million Britons are believed to be among the 77 million users ofSony‘s PlayStation Network, which has been hacked into by criminals who have stolen users’ personal information, possibly including credit card details.

Reeling from one of the worst such security breaches in history, Sony warned all users of the PSN network – used to play games online and download content including films – that they should be alert for fraudulent activity on their credit cards. Users have been warned to be wary of “phishing” emails pretending to be updates or security information, and to urgently change the passwords on any sites or services that use the same password as their PSN username.

The firm conducted a “forensic security” examination and discovered a hacker, or hackers, had accessed the internal corporate computer systems that hold the details. The UK’s information commissioner said he would ask Sony to explain the circumstances of the data leak, which might constitute a breach of the Data Protection Act.

The details of the users of the worldwide PlayStation Network – used by owners of Sony Playstation 3s and PlayStation Portables – include names, addresses, dates of birth, email addresses, and passwords to the network. They are a treasure trove potentially worth more than £100m to those who have stolen them if sold through online black markets, where the data required for an individual identity theft can cost up to $10, and a million unverified email addresses cost just $8.

Sony confirmed late on Tuesday that it had suffered an “intrusion” into its system on Wednesday 20 April, and that it had shut down the PSN and its Qriocity music streaming services as soon as the incident was discovered.

The PSN system was still down late on Wednesday. As well as costing Sony money the closure will be affecting a new generation of games companies that had hoped to use the system as a new means of selling games solely through downloads.

The admission will be a huge blow to Sony, which has been struggling to regain its once iconic status after years of missteps, and will increase pressure on its chief executive, Sir Howard Stringer.

Sony has not said how the hackers broke in. But Rik Ferguson, a computer security consultant at Trend Micro, said: “This has all the hallmarks of commercial criminal activity going for a saleable commodity. It doesn’t look as though they would have broken in directly through the PlayStation Network. Far more likely is that they breached the corporate systems and then moved through them to access this valuable data.”

The breach is one of the biggest ever, and in terms of the value of the data contained may be the most valuable to the hackers. In January 2009 a US payment card processor, Heartland Payment Systems, was hacked, affecting up to 100m cards; in March 2007 the systems of the store chain TK Maxx were hacked, leading to the theft of 46m credit card details.

However the PSN break-in is potentially more valuable because of the quality and breadth of data involved, as it could be used to construct an entire identity.

Security experts are wondering whether Microsoft’s rival XBox Live service, which provides a similar function to Sony’s PSN, could be targeted, though experts said it was a more closed system.

Dave Whitelegg, a data security blogger, said: “Microsoft’s approach to [running a gaming network] is a bit more guarded than Sony’s. The PSN is a much more open system. It’s a whole different philosophy. A classic example is, on Xbox Live you do not get a web browser – the reason for that is security; it’s a possible attack vector and could get you into their network. But the PlayStation 3 has one.”

Ferguson said highly targeted commercial hacking attacks had increased recently, with large online repositories of information being targeted. The activism group Anonymous took the unusual step of insisting it was not behind the breach. It had previously attacked Sony over the company’s legal complaints about gamers who tried to hack software that would let PS3s play any game.

“For once we didn’t do it,” the organisation, which describes itself as fighting for internet freedom, wrote on its blog. “AnonOps was not related to this incident and does not take responsibility for whatever has happened.”

Sony has been criticised for the fact that the hackers have apparently been able to copy the data directly, implying it was not encrypted.

Almost every commercial site scrambles a user’s password before storing it; when the user tries to log in, the password they provide is scrambled in the same way and then compared with the stored one, meaning the “plaintext” password is not available. It does not appear that Sony has done this.

Ian Shepherd, chief executive of video-games retailer Game Group, told Reuters: “The issue, the experience that Sony are having … is a really serious one. It’s one we’re staying very close to. I think there are lessons for the whole industry from the experience that Sony are having.”

Many gamers expressed anger. On the PS3news.com online forum, PSN member Jarvis wrote: “Stop purchasing anything remotely related to Sony. Let companies who deal with Sony know that you can’t support them if they continue to work with Sony.”

But Ferguson said such threats were unlikely to amount to anything. “That’s just frustration. There would be a real hardware cost in doing that. In fact, it’s likely to be more like what happens after a terrorist attack: security is stepped up and everyone is much safer for some time afterwards.”

Since Stinger’s appointment in March 2005 he has struggled to break the company out of its “silo” organisation that has prevented co-ordination between different divisions.

But revenue and profits have both remained flat, while the company has struggled to make an impact in new areas. The PlayStation 3, launched in 2006 in Japan and 2007 elsewhere, is widely seen as third-placed behind Microsoft’s Xbox and Nintendo’s Wii, and has dragged down profits.

A series of other problems such as battery fires and spyware embedded on music CDs have not helped its reputation either, and Stringer is now widely seen as being vulnerable if the company’s performance does not improve.

Meanwhile the first lawsuit resulting from the security breach has been filed.

It was filed on behalf of Kristopher Johns, 36, of Alabama. Johns accuses Sony of not taking “reasonable care to protect, encrypt, and secure the private and sensitive data of its users.”

April 28, 2011

Mortal Kombat: Legacy – Ep. 3 – Johnny Cage [Video-Today]

by Avinash Saxena
April 28, 2011

Michael Lauer’s Acquittal Is A Good Sign For Rajaratnam [Video-Today]

by Avinash Saxena

Eight years after the SEC dubbed Michael Lauer’s business”one of the largest hedge fund frauds in the history of the United States” a jury acquitted him of criminal charges.

Lauer who founded New York-based Lancer Group was accused by prosecutors in Miami of swindling investors out of $200 million beginning in 1999, but was acquitted of charges today including wire fraud and conspiracy to commit securities fraud.

He was facing 25 years in jail so it’s no surprise that he “raised his clenched fists in the air when the verdict was read and tightly hugged his attorney” as the AP reported.

For Lancer investors, who included Alfred Taubman and Britney Spears, the verdict may not be so thrilling.

Lauer’s alleged scheme: Buy large quantities of restricted stock in worthless shell companies, then buy a smaller amount of shares in the same companies at higher prices in the open market in order to show big gains. Lauer would report these inflated valuations to a third party administrator, Citco (which is also facing accusations of gross negligence), to show investors.

Read more about Citco and the hedge fund administration industry’s shoddy efforts to protect investors.

The inflated valuations generated larger fees for Lauer and his associates at Lancer, the government alleged. In other words, Lauer made false and fraudulent representations about his hedge fund in order to make more money from investors.

But the jury didn’t find anything criminal about Lauer’s behavior. In fact, one juror told the AP that the only thing Lauer was guilty of was “surrounding himself with a bunch of jerks.”

At first, I was shocked by the acquittal. The evidence regarding the shell companies Lancer was invested in was pretty incriminating. For instance, in the case against Citco (the company that was responsible for OK’ing Lancer’s books and records before it sent monthly statements out to Lancer’s investors) e-mails show an executives’ concerns about Lancer’s valuation practices and calls them “absurd.”

But that’s neither here nor there. Today, Lauer walked away a free man (though he was already fined $62 million by the SEC in a civil case) and announced on the courtroom steps that he would return to the hedge fund business.

What I can’t help but wonder is if tomorrow or the next day Raj Rajaratnam will step onto Foley Square in downtown Manhattan after his own acquittal has been announced and let the world know he is getting back to work in the hedge fund business ASAP.

Yes, Rajaratnam and Lauer were accused of two different crimes at two different times and in different jurisdictions. But whether Rajaratnam is guilty or not is not what concerns me.  I’m more troubled about the government’s ability to successfully try Wall Street on criminal charges.

As Forbes contributor and veteran Wall Street lawyer Bill Singer points out the defense lawyers on such cases are usually much more experienced than the prosecutors who tend to be younger and have, in many cases, the more difficult job of proving the defendant guilty beyondreasonable doubt.

“It’s easy to raise a doubt, but it’s much more difficult to make it go away,” Singer says.

That’s probably most true when it comes to financial cases that involve complicated issues like insider trading, valuations, derivatives, hedge funds, etc.

“Defense lawyers in these cases know that these jurors are human beings and human beings have a short attention span,” Singer adds.

That doesn’t bode well for prosecutors who are charged with explaining not just what insider trading means but explaining “the bowels of the financial industry like how trades are entered, how they are executed, who is involved and so on,” Singer says.

Those are explanations even a Wall Street journalist might be guilty of zoning out on.

And one more thing to keep in mind as the Rajaratnam jury continues its deliberation for the third day tomorrow is how long it’s taking them to decide.

“If this was an open and shut case, they should have come back within an hour or two,” Singer tells me.

Also of note, jurors announced their verdict on the Lauer case in a little more than 3 days.

April 27, 2011

Mobile application management without the heavy hand [Infographic]

by Avinash Saxena

Mobile application management without the heavy hand

IT concerns are fast moving from mobile device management (MDM) to mobile application management (MAM) as part of a shift in thinking from whether to allow mobile devices in to how to best take advantage of them. At IT conferences, I hear more and more questions about how to manage those applications. For organizations used to controlling the software on a user’s PC via tools such as IBM’s Tivoli and Microsoft’s SMS, the iPhones, iPads, and Androids now becoming commonplace herald a Wild West environment.

The heterogeneity of those devices is daunting enough — most desktop application management tools can’t even do a decent job of handling Mac OS X applications, so no one expects them to go near the mobile devices. But mobile OSes veer even more dramatically from the desktop, making app management less suitable for IT’s traditional approach. The use of app stores means IT isn’t the central distributor of apps in mobile, while the mix of HTML and native apps raises another level of complexity. Sure, IT can put together its own mobile app “store,” but it’s often a glorified website or intranet site with links to approved or recommended apps, both internal and external.

[ Learn how to manage iPhones, Androids, BlackBerrys, and other smartphones in InfoWorld’s 20-page Mobile Management Deep Dive PDF special report. | Keep up on key mobile developments and insights via Twitter and with the Mobile Edge blog and Mobilize newsletter. ]

Even as IT has given up the notion of ruling over mobile devices and instead has come to view them as a device jointly “owned” with the user, IT rightfully wants to manage the business-oriented apps on those devices. That way, when an employee leaves the company or a device is lost, the application and its data can be removed from the device. IT also rightfully wants to be able to manage updates and licenses, as well as track usage — especially in the messy context of apps used by employees, contractors, and business partners, in which even a control-oriented organization simply can’t seize the traditional control over all the devices.

The first wave: Managing HTML app containers via policies
What’s evolved in the device management space is a policy-oriented approach. In this scenario, a tool such as BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES), Microsoft Exchange (via Exchange ActiveSync protocol), or a third-party MDM utility, such as those from Good Technology, MobileIron, and Trellia, manages the data it provisions, including mail, contacts, and so on. It can also impose devicewide access policies, such as password requirements, remote lock, and more. Some of these tools can even manage applications they provision, essentially allowing or disallowing access, as well as pushing updates.

The same is beginning to happen in mobile application management. A few weeks back, I profiled the approach used by Antenna Software, whose MAM essentially puts HTML apps in a virtual box on the iPhone or Android device. IT can then control and monitor the apps in that box. The approach is very similar to how many MDM tools work, providing their own clients, managing the email, and so on, apart from the rest of the device; it’s akin to the VDI approach used in Citrix Systems’ Receiver app for mobile devices.

That box approach provides a clear separation between work and personal apps and data, but it’s a bit heavy-handed, forcing users (in the case of Antenna’s Volt) to open a container app to access business-provisioned HTML apps. That’s acceptable for HTML apps, as users typically first launch a browser before running a Web app, and you can think of the Volt client as a browser for enterprise apps. Plus, IT directly controls those apps because they run on IT’s servers just like a desktop Web app.

April 27, 2011

Obama 2012 Strategy Briefing [Video-Today]

by Avinash Saxena
Tags: , ,
April 27, 2011

The Real Reason Stocks Keep Rising [News Report]

by Avinash Saxena

“It’s earnings, Stupid” a bullish investor is currently shouting from his rooftop. Ever so right he is. But what really is the driving force behind this latest surge in equity prices?

Last I checked, a madman despot is holding oil prices hostage (not to mention hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians). Those oil prices, along with an ever-higher grocery bill, are now taking up 22% of the average American’s spending budget. For good measure, over one-fourth of Americans’ homes are “underwater” (the mortgage is larger than the home is actually worth). Not surprisingly, roughly 15% of Americans are now on food stamps, and over 15% remain “underemployed” (unemployed, involuntarily working only part-time, or so despondent that they are out of the labor force).

My stock portfolio, on the other hand, is doing just fine, thank you. Who cares about the fiscal debauchery of the PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain)? Who cares about the out-of-control level of U.S. Debt? Who cares about the rampant level of inflation in emerging markets and the fact that many central banks are raising interest rates and imposing capital controls which will slow down their economic growth rates? Who cares about the social unrest throughout the Middle East and North Africa?

Well, with gold trading at over $1,500 per ounce (and the price of silver and some soft commodities moving up even faster), apparently the traders in the Chicago pits have taken notice. But not the U.S equity market, with the VIX (the Volatility Index, a measure gauging future anticipated stock market volatility) trading at an astonishingly low level. Truly eye-opening.

The answer, my friends, is not blowing in the wind. It’s earnings. Plain and simple. Albeit early in this latest array of quarterly earnings reports, 81% of the 124 companies so far to report earnings from the S&P 500 Index and 71% of the 188 companies in the MCSI World Index have reported earnings per share figures that have beaten the consensus analysts’ estimates. Indeed, profits of those 188 companies reporting to-date in the MSCI World Index have beaten forecasts by nearly 9%! What gives?

Oddly enough, bad news is actually good news. You see, U.S. productivity, which is a measure of employee output per hour, is now increasing at an unusually high rate of 4%, the fastest pace since leaving the depressed recession of 2002. And what causes this thrust in productivity? Better technology? A more streamlined approach to organizational management? Highly efficient, just-in-time inventories clicking along? Perhaps a bit of each of these elements helps to answer this quandary, but there is one overriding factor to the corporate earnings momentum: the lack of wage pressures on businesses.

That is, what’s really driving productivity growth, and hence earnings growth, and hence stock market appreciation, is the fact that wages as a percentage of revenues keep falling!

That’s right. America’s pain is also the stock market’s gain. Labor costs fell 1.5% in 2010 (they also dropped 1.6% in 2009). No wonder corporate profits have meaningfully beaten consensus analyst estimates for 8 consecutive quarters. Corporations haven’t experienced this much good fortune (at the expense of the average American’s poor fortune) since 1962-1963.

So while the headlines bombard us with depressing news, stocks are “climbing a wall of worry” ever so steadily higher. In this case, climbing on the back of America’s employees who are shouldering the burden to graciously accept a day’s wage, thankful that they aren’t out of work like one of their friends, neighbors or relatives. Go figure.

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