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Trying To Fix Ford


With low-mileage pickups and SUVs sitting forlornly in dealers' lots, Ford (F) announced on Aug. 18 that it would slash fourth-quarter output by 20% -- and it seems Chairman and CEO William Ford Jr. is weighing even more radical options. The Wall Street Journal says he has contacted Renault-Nissan (NSANY) CEO Carlos Ghosn about a possible tieup should his ongoing chat with General Motors (GM) yield no results. Ford already hired an investment banker to look at selling off assets such as Jaguar and Land Rover.

Ford also aims to ratchet up its restructuring. It will reveal plans in late September that will likely add to the 30,000 job cuts it announced in January. It could also add to the list of 14 plants set for closure and may offer all its employees a buyout. Those moves, plus the production cuts, will make for some heavy losses.

See "Ford: Deeper Cuts and Diesel Trucks"

The world's biggest computer maker said on Aug. 17 that second-quarter profits sagged 51% and that the SEC was asking accounting questions -- the latest signs of Dell (DELL) having severe technical difficulties.

In an Aug. 17 ruling, a federal judge slammed cigarette makers for causing a "staggering number of deaths" and ordered a halt to the use of the terms "light" and "low tar." Big loss for Big Tobacco? Nope, said most observers, since the judge ruled she had no authority to order financial remedies. When the Justice Dept. filed the racketeering case in 1999, it had sought up to $280 billion. The defendants, including Philip Morris (MO) parent Altria (MO) and Reynolds American (RAI), will likely appeal the marketing curbs. Since this was the last major lawsuit the industry faced, Altria may soon see its way clear to split into three companies.

More signs of a housing smackdown: On Aug. 15, Home Depot (HD) reported a sluggish 5.3% profit hike. Home improvement rival Lowe's (LOW) on Aug. 21 said profits rose 11% but lowered its sales and earnings outlook for the year. On Aug. 22 builder Toll Brothers (TOL) reported a 19% drop in fiscal third-quarter profits as fewer buyers seemed ready to cough up $600,000-plus for its fancy pads. The drumbeat continued on Aug. 23: The National Association of Realtors noted tumbling sales and fast-rising inventory of previously owned homes in July.

See "Big Box Battle: Home Depot vs. Lowe's" and "Where the Housing Boom Lives On"

Shareholders may not be happy about Microsoft (MSFT) stock, but they aren't ready to bail out yet either. On Aug. 18 the software colossus revamped plans to buy back shares, slumbrous for much of the last four years, after investors tendered far fewer than anticipated. In July, Microsoft announced plans to buy $20 billion in stock in a special offer, but investors tendered only $3.8 billion worth in the price range offered. Now the company will add $16.2 billion to its long-term buyback program, bringing the total to $36.2 billion to be spent over five years.

Back in March, Andrew Young, onetime right-hand man of Martin Luther King Jr., accepted a job as chairman of advocacy group Working Families for Wal-Mart. His prickly task: praising Wal-Mart's beneficence to low-income Americans via low prices and plentiful jobs. But after he was quoted by the Los Angeles Sentinel on Aug. 17 saying that Jewish, Korean, and Arab store owners had "ripped off" poor black communities for many years, even Wal-Mart (WMT) turned its back on him. The company said it was "appalled" by the remarks. Young, a former mayor of Atlanta, quickly resigned and apologized.

Just when Merck (MRK) thought it might be coming out of the legal intensive-care unit, having recently won two favorable results in lawsuits involving the painkiller Vioxx, it suffered twin setbacks on Aug. 17. A federal jury in New Orleans ordered that the pharma giant pay $51 million to a man who had a heart attack while taking the drug. And a New Jersey judge overturned an earlier pro-Merck verdict. The tally in Vioxx cases tried so far? Four for Merck, four against. Only about 14,000 to go.

That's what they're saying around punch-drunk America Online (TWX), which fired two employees and accepted its chief technology officer's resignation after the online service's release of Web search records of 658,000 subscribers. CEO Jonathan Miller, telling employees in an e-mail that the Time Warner (TWX) unit was taking steps "to help ensure this type of incident never happens again," set up a panel to fortify its privacy policy. Now, about those 1 million folks who drop the service every quarter....

Former stratosphere-dwelling investment banker Frank Quattrone may be ready to soar again. After two trials on charges growing out of IPO allocation practices -- one ending in a mistrial, the other in a conviction overturned on appeal -- federal prosecutors threw in the towel. On Aug. 22 they inked a deal with Quattrone that allows him to avoid a third trial and resume his career. As a Silicon Valley player in the 1990s, Quattrone earned as much as $120 million a year while at Credit Suisse First Boston (CSR). Under the current accord, all charges will be dropped in 12 months if he keeps his nose clean.

See "Quattrone's Questionable Comeback"

He was named as a contender to run Boeing (BA) but instead will be top gun at the company that owns Billboard magazine. David Calhoun, 49, left GE's (GE) $47 billion infrastructure unit on Aug. 23 to become CEO of VNU Group, a private Dutch media company that owns such properties as Nielsen Media Research and The Hollywood Reporter. So what does a man steeped in power turbines bring to the world of media? Strategic prowess, people skills, and, of course, cost-cutting chops.

Hey, Tom, sit down! No doubt that's what Viacom (VIA) Chairman Sumner Redstone was thinking as he watched TV clips of his Mission: Impossible III star Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah Winfrey's couch while professing his love for Katie Holmes. Cruise's antics -- he pushed his Scientology beliefs in a tense Today Show interview instead of promoting the flick -- led Viacom's Paramount Pictures (VIA) to dump him and the up to $10 million annually it pays his production company. "His recent conduct has not been acceptable to Paramount," Redstone told The Wall Street Journal. In fact, Paramount had been haggling to trim the price of Cruise's 14-year-old "overhead deal," and the star was seeking funds from private-equity investors. So was Redstone negotiating in the press or just reading the tea leaves? M:I III earned more for its star than it did for the studio. Even in Hollywood, that kind of conduct really isn't acceptable.


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