Red Nose Day 2018: Fighting Child Poverty

The annual event known as Red Nose Day will be held for the fourth time in the United States on Thursday, May 24th. The fundraising and awareness event seeks to combat the effects of child poverty both in the U.S. and throughout the world.

The entire day features activities aimed at connecting people to both the cause and to others within their respective communities. The goal being to raise funds for trusted partner organizations that work within our neighborhoods to provide food, medical care, and educational services to children in need.

The Red Nose Day fundraising special night of programming will air once again on NBC (for the fourth straight year) which will feature special editions of primetime programs similar to their approach last year. Then, at 10 PM Eastern/ 9 PM Central the Red Nose Day Special will air with Chris Hardwick hosting for the second consecutive year. The 2017 event raised $40 million according to the press release.

In the last three years the event has raised $100 million and helped over 8 million American children living in poverty. The event sponsors from last year have all renewed their commitments for 2018: Mars Wrigley Confectionary Company (M&Ms brand is a main sponsor), Walgreens, NBC, and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Comic Relief USA is the non-profit organization behind the entire Red Nose Day operation, both in the United States, the United Kingdom, and throughout the world in 34 different countries.

This is the fourth straight year that this blog has dedicated a post for this event and that is because of the important group that it serves: children. The world is filled with disadvantaged, impoverished, and malnourished children. The streets are filled with homeless children with no means of supporting themselves.
The Red Nose campaign has provided 32 million meals to children in the United States, has provided care for 60,000 homeless children, and provided medical services to 6.7 million children globally.

The Red Nose campaign has been in existence since 1988 and continues to benefit programs in a focused and local level to reach children very effectively. The Walgreens partnership has been very strong in pushing the event to the American audience through signage in their retail pharmacy locations, their website, and through media buys in print, radio, as well as television.

Please check out home.rednoseday.org for more information about events in your local area on Thursday, May 24th. The NBC primetime special programs will air that evening culminating with the special celebrity-filled event hosted by Chris Hardwick.

Please consider donating either through the Red Nose Day website, at your local Walgreens, or during the live fundraising event on Thursday night on your local NBC affiliate.

Your donation will go toward helping the most vulnerable within our population: children. Thank you for your support of this wonderful fundraising effort.

Follow Up: Larian Ditches Bid To Buy Toys R Us

In a follow up to earlier posts here on Frank’s Forum the news on Tuesday is that billionaire Isaac Larian has ditched his bid to buy Toys R Us. The bid would have saved some of the store locations in the once-iconic chain and would have saved some of the several thousands of jobs being lost in the liquidation.

The original offer was believed to be made for around $675 million and the negotiations broke down when the court refused the offer on the table. Larian also found out this week that his bid to purchase the mammoth toy maker, Mattel, has also failed.

The toy industry is bracing for a U.S. industry landscape that does not include Toys R Us, which averaged $11 billion in toy sales which is a 50% market share of the $22 billion domestic toy business. Mattel and Hasbro have both seen tremendous losses in value since the announcement of the liquidation of Toys R Us.

Hasbro spent money in recent days to purchase the Power Rangers brand name and retail rights. The other toy manufacturers are quickly adjusting their distribution patterns and working with brick and mortar retail giants such as Wal-Mart and Target, which are both increasing their toy orders.

The emergence of toys in other more obscure regional chains will increase as well to fill the void left by Toys R Us. The major players mentioned earlier and Amazon will also be working together to grab larger pieces of the pie in the industry space.

Meanwhile, the last of the Toys R Us store locations are winding down their operations to close in the next few weeks. The future for the Toys R Us brand is completely unknown at this point, if there is a future at all. The bid from Larian was the only major bid for the business that is even known to be out there and that has fallen apart. The entry of another group of investors is certainly plausible but the amount of capital it will take to reinvent the brand and create a significantly better customer experience are two big mitigating factors in my view which could doom the brick and mortar presence of the brand.

The one viable potential opportunity for Toys R Us to get a reboot is if it is purchased by one of the major toy brands, such as Hasbro. The major toy makers have a great deal to lose in the reality of Toys R Us leaving the U.S. toy industry space. Mr. Larian, as I previously wrote about believes that the toy industry will collapse without Toys R Us. These toy makers have a big stake in the situation and could decide to try their hand at rebuilding the brand.

The other alternative is that Toys R Us will be purchased by another entity to be used as an online only retail presence. In my perspective, I have felt since this news broke on the liquidation of the once-dominant chain, that this route was the most likely scenario for the future of the brand. The shifts in the retail space toward the online shopping experience could make a lot of sense to an investment group or private equity group.

The Toys R Us name still has a value and a consumer visibility that would translate well into a strictly online presence. The potential investors would be far more likely to go that direction than to take on the significant costs of rebuilding a brick and mortar chain. The sad reality is the loss of jobs, and that is why I was rooting for Mr. Larian to be successful in his bid.

The next five to six weeks will be critical to the future of the Toys R Us brand, in that time period another bid could emerge, or the business may be sold off in pieces until there is nothing left but the memories most of us have from our childhood. It is a sad narrative that those memories could not be passed on to future generations.

Follow Up: CBS, Viacom, A Lawsuit, & Verizon

In a follow up to the earlier coverage on this merger, the drama around CBS and National Amusements (parent company of both CBS and Viacom) took a disastrous turn on Monday. The board at CBS took a harsh tactic in the negotiations by suing National Amusements in a Delaware court to block the potential merger with Viacom.

The suit seeks to dilute the authority that National Amusements has in CBS by reducing their voting stock percentages and other high level business machinations which are involved in certain situations when a company is going into a defensive mode to avoid consolidation.

The lawsuit also involves CBS seeking the protection of the CBS Board of Directors from being altered by National Amusements at any point now or in the future. This is a maneuver intended on preventing Shari Redstone from removing certain board members at CBS who have indicated that they are against the Viacom merger, and having her “stack the deck” with people aligned with her in pushing through the merger.

Furthermore, the suit also seeks protection for CBS so that they essentially do not have to accept a “bad merger” deal. This news on the lawsuit comes from Forbes, CNBC, and USA Today. Redstone, has stated that she had no intention of making changes to the CBS board, and both sides are pointing fingers.

This situation is getting ugly, to say the least, and it is unusual too because National Amusements has a hand in both entities already. The normal circumstances of other mergers or acquisitions are between two sides that have no prior affiliation. The ruling of the court in this situation will provide some insight into the potential path that this merger will take in the months ahead.
The court ruling will also provide a legal precedent for the future for M&A activity of this type. In my earlier feature length piece on this merger, the variables were presented regarding the differences of strategic vision that Ms. Redstone and Les Moonves (who runs CBS) had regarding the future of the company.

The merger makes some degree of sense because the assets of Viacom, particularly the cable television outlets, would provide CBS with more content to control and also a wider footprint in cable TV. The recent industry report that was published yesterday touts that cable television revenues have increased by about 10% nationally would seem to indicate that this potential merger is timely for CBS.

However, in my experience covering M&A activity, I kept returning to the rationale behind why CBS would take the option on Monday to sue National Amusements (which some in the media call “the nuclear option”). The only scenario that made sense to me was that CBS had another deal forthcoming or another potential partner for a deal they were trying to work out in back channels.

The one potentially fit in my mind was Verizon, because it had been rumored before, and I wrote about that possibility in an M&A “roundup” type piece I did on media companies. The synergy between Verizon and CBS makes sense for both parties given the other acquisitions and consolidations surrounding both of those entities.

Verizon is under pressure from AT&T, who is attempting to merge with Time Warner, and the federal government has a lawsuit in place currently to block that merger. Comcast is in the process of a bidding war with Disney over the assets of 21st Century Fox as well.

In fact, some within the financial news media suggested that Verizon may have backed off from making a formal proposal to CBS because of the federal government response to the AT&T deal with Time Warner.

The news broke about three hours ago today that Verizon has had contact with CBS and that there is some renewed interest in a potentially deal. That makes sense given the steps that CBS has taken with the lawsuit here against National Amusements. They may not want to take the Viacom deal if they have a better deal with Verizon.

The rather limited cable presence of CBS (Showtime and a couple of smaller channels) would be enhanced by a partnership with Verizon. The network shows on CBS are tremendous ratings drivers, which along with the NFL and other sports content, makes CBS a desirable commodity for Verizon as they seek to keep up with their competitors in the marketplace.

The Verizon potential involvement could be the “wrench” that gets thrown in the CBS – Viacom negotiations that causes a rift that cannot be repaired. The decision of the court will loom over this merger and will be pivotal to which direction it takes in the months ahead.

In the meantime, if the AT&T lawsuit with the government gets resolved that will determine the strategic direction that Comcast will take in the bidding war with Disney over Fox and will provide guidance to Verizon as they determine their commitment to acquire CBS. It is similar to a giant game of dominoes, except that billions of dollars are at stake as well as the careers of many seasoned industry executives, and the fate of consumer choice hangs in the balance.

Follow Up: All Cash Or All Stock – The Battle Between Disney & Comcast For 21st Century Fox Assets

In a follow up to an earlier full-length piece on this same subject, the bidding war between two media titans: Comcast and Disney have intensified with the assets of 21st Century FOX clearly in the crosshairs.

The business news media outlets were all buzzing on Tuesday morning with the news that Comcast is looking to attempt a move in mergers & acquisitions known as “crashing the gate”. This maneuver involves putting together, through a variety of ways, a huge amount of cash to put a premium level bid on the table which will change the valuation of the assets involved (in this case FOX assets) to sway those involved to go with that bid over a competitive bid.

The Disney bid which has been known to the public for a while now involves an all stock proposal for the FOX assets. The shareholders of FOX would get Disney stock shares at a level commensurate with their level of involvement in FOX stock ownership. There is a formula for all stock bids of this type which I will not go into further detail, plenty of other writers have covered that component of this deal and have done amazing work in that area.

My focus is two-fold: the bids for this deal as it relates to other media acquisitions and the impact on the media industry which also relates back to the consumers. This method of “crashing the gate” that Comcast is now seeking to employ in this merger is somewhat risky. In past M&A activity it has either worked very well, or failed in spectacular fashion.

The contrasting strategy by Disney, the all stock bid, is a more traditional approach; it is an “old school” method which has a more reliable historical track record. The bid by Disney is seen as a very important acquisition in terms of content ownership in an increasingly competitive landscape.

It should be noted that Fox prefers the Disney bid because the all stock approach would be more favorable for their shareholders. The Comcast bid being all cash would create a scenario where Fox shareholders would have to pay taxes on that in the short term, which is not a desirable position for a corporation to have to pass along a tax increase to shareholders.

The backdrop to this is the impending launch of the Disney streaming app service where the company spent an immense amount of money developing the app which will be a subscription based streaming service. Disney needs the consumers to enroll in their subscription- based app in massive numbers to “break even” on the outlay of dollars they sunk into the project.

The best way to ensure the enrollment of that scale and magnitude is to have a very broad based and extensive content collection. Disney plans to pull their content off of Netflix, with whom they had a partnership to exclusively stream Disney content prior to their own app being developed. The potential acquisition of the 21st Century Fox assets would provide a huge assortment of content for Disney to feature on their new streaming service.

Comcast is trying to also stay in prime position in the race for control of content in the new landscape of the television medium today. The efforts by Comcast to pull together a reported bid of $60 billion for the FOX assets is proof of their strategic importance to the media and cable TV giant.

However, according to Reuters and other outlets, the Comcast “crash the gate” strategy has one caveat that many find curious. Comcast will only pursue the full process of acquiring the FOX assets with an all cash bid if the banking and government entities involved in the AT&T bid for Time Warner allow that merger to take place.

Some found it strange that Comcast would make this request and would be that interested in the outcome of another merger within the industry. I thought about it and realized that Comcast is adding this caveat to the proposal because they want some legal precedent for a large scale merger of this type before they go “all in” on investing time and resources into taking it through the process.

The legal team for Comcast can use the decision in the AT&T / Time Warner merger to alleviate hurdles and a protracted legal suit with government ant-trust regulators if they have a precedent to utilize in their defense. The AT&T proposed merger with Time Warner has been tied up in courts for several months with significant costs to AT&T. Comcast does not want to fall victim to the same fate.

The case for Disney could be made because of the benefits of the all stock transaction but anti-trust oversight will be certainly a factor in either transaction whether it is Comcast or Disney with the winning bid.

However, in order to relieve some of that anti-trust scrutiny, Fox announced that they will take Fox News, Fox Business, and their cable sports division comprised of channels known as FS1 and FS2 ; and they will form a separate company that will be not part of this deal with either Disney or Comcast. The new company will be a spin-off of Fox and will have shares divided up among current Fox stockholders.

In my view, I was concerned about the cable news and cable sports divisions of the company being owned by either Disney (which owns ABC and ESPN) or Comcast (which owns NBC and NBC Sports). The major sports and news divisions would be run by one single entity if that spin-off company was not created. The impact on the viewer would have been significant and created concerns about the control of news and the cost of those cable subscriptions for both news and sports programming.

It remains to be seen what Comcast would plan to do with the content it could potentially wrestle control of from Disney that would represent the assets of the former 21st Century Fox properties. Comcast does not have a streaming app, but it could bolster the VOD (video on demand) offerings for their customers with such an acquisition.

The other industry rumor is that Comcast would seek to create a platform of channels that it could package out at lower rates to their subscribers as well as put together some sort of streaming package of channels like Hulu and YouTube have released recently.

Conversely, this brings about another potential issue with the Comcast bid, that it would benefit only the subscribers to Comcast cable services and not to the rest of the public. The same could be stated for Disney with their streaming app, but the argument could be made that everyone has the opportunity to join the app, but not everyone has the ability to become Comcast customers.

The precursor to the Disney app is the ESPN+ streaming app which just launched about a month ago. I was “grandfathered” into the ESPN+ membership because I held a subscription to MLS Live to watch all the soccer games from my days of covering the New York Red Bulls and the league.

The ESPN+ app is $4.99 per month and it is a tremendous value for a sports fan in my opinion. The amount of content on the app is robust and truly impressive. The ability to live stream games, watch archived games from earlier in a season, and the access to exclusive new programming is worth the cost. The average and the die hard sports fan would have several options and the addition of NHL hockey (which ESPN does not broadcast) streaming on the service is outstanding, especially with the Stanley Cup Playoff games currently ongoing.

A report from CNN later on Tuesday refuted some earlier reports saying that the Fox news and financial news assets would be spun off separately, but the sports division (FS1 and FS2) would go to the winning bid along with the other 21st Century Fox assets. That would be of interest to Disney to gain Fox Sports portfolio to bolster the ESPN+ app service even further.

The launch of the ESPN+ app was a smart business decision by Disney because if their streaming service is going to be on par or better than the ESPN+ service, then that could be a game changer for the industry, no pun intended.

The groundwork has been laid for a bidding war and it will be interesting to see what Disney will do and how they could counter this maneuver from Comcast. The viewers have a lot at stake as the cost that you pay for content could be impacted significantly but what transpires in the next several months.

Follow Up: Toys R Us Buyout Bid From Larian Revisited

The fallout from the liquidation of the iconic toy retailer, Toys R Us, is back in the news cycle. The news about a week ago was that billionaire toy retail brand owner, Isaac Larian, the man behind the Bratz franchise; placed a bid to purchase about 270 stores in the former Toys R Us chain plus their operation in Canada.

The bid was rejected by the courts that oversee the liquidation of the once premiere toy retailer because they deemed the valuation was too low. The court and the management of Toys R Us have an obligation to get the best value for their creditors in selling the business. They deemed that the offer from Larian was not the best value they could obtain at this point.

In the past couple of days, Larian is back in the news stating that he will put another bid into play for the U.S. stores that he has targeted that are viable for his new concept for the rebooted brand.

Larian was outbid for the Canadian operation of Toys R Us by another investment group. His new bid is focused on saving a portion of the U.S. stores, would involve retaining the U.S. corporate headquarters in New Jersey, and would save between 7,000 and 10,000 workers according to CNN Money.

Toys R Us originally had 735 stores and 31,000 workers in the United States and the potential liquidation of the chain is already showing signs of impacting the toy industry in a deleterious manner. Hasbro, according to CNN Money, has just reported a 16% drop in sales based on the absence of Toys R Us from the equation.

Mr. Larian has a theory that the job losses at other toy companies and vendors that marketed products with Toys R Us will be significant if the company is not rebooted in some form. He has a vision for the company where each location will be renovated to be a type of “mini-Disney World” in each neighborhood. The visits to the store will be very experiential for the children and their parents and family members.

This plan may sound great on paper especially because it addresses some of the core issues behind the precipitous decline of Toys R Us; customer feedback in recent years centered on the shopping environment being cold, sterile, and not inviting. The renovation of the stores and the focus shifting to one of experiences and interactivity is necessary to breathe new life into a once prominent brand.

However, that plan will have to overcome some barriers, namely a brand that has been tarnished by underperformance and a liquidation proceeding. It is similar to any brand that struggles or fails the public perception of that brand is very powerful. The public could have made a decision in their mind about Toys R Us based on past experiences which will be difficult for Mr. Larian and his group to overcome.

The perception of the consumer public has doomed many other brands throughout the course of history. In the case of Toys R Us the brand does have value because it is the only retailer which focused solely on toys. The Larian group or whomever gains the winning bid for the brand has to refocus their business around the core niche of toys.

The unfortunate reality is that it is going to take a great deal of time and money to bring back Toys R Us in a form that will be relevant and competitive in today’s consumer marketplace. The competition from Target, Amazon, Wal-Mart, and other online retailers is very fierce. Those are the barriers that any rebooted form of Toys R Us must be ready to contend with in the future.

The demise of Toys R Us was a very sad side effect of a much larger issue that faces retailers today: the consumer today has different expectations from a brick and mortar shopping experience than they did even five years ago. Toys R Us in their original form could not afford to change with the times due to the debt load they were carrying on loans from private equity investors.

The potential for Mr. Larian or the next group to submit a bid to reinvent the brand should have one central theme: they can be the niche “go-to” place for toys. This is an important attribute in an increasing focus on specialization. They can be the experts on toys and the showcase area for people to experience toys. It can still be a place where children can go to dream.

The next few weeks will be critical in the future of the Toys R Us brand in the U.S. and the decisions made will then take several months to determine the progress or the chances of success for the revamped concept. In my own personal view, if the reboot of the store experience fails, I still stand behind the idea that the brand has definite value as an online only presence. This is substantiated by the visibility and nostalgia components of the brand and the connectedness with a variety of age demographics.

This is just another chapter in what could be a long story: whether it will be one of redemption is what time will reveal.

Follow Up: CBS Merger With Viacom Gets Contentious

The back and forth nature of the proposed CBS merger with Viacom has taken a turn that is very contentious. The discord centers around Shari Redstone, who controls National Amusements which owns Viacom, and Les Moonves the current top guy at CBS.

Redstone and Moonves had initially discussed, according to CNBC that Moonves would run the combined new entity for a period of two years. The reports widely distributed point to the source of the contention being control over the top management team selections. Moonves wants the authority to assemble his own team of people to run the newly combined company.

In addition, Moonves wants his longtime colleague, Joe Ianniello , to be his second-in-command at the combined venture. However, Redstone wants Bob Bakish (the current Viacom CEO) as the second-in-command to Moonves at the newly merged CBS-Viacom.

This comes down to relationships, which frequently is the lowest common denominator in these situations but also the most important one. Shari Redstone holds a great deal of authority here in this situation and she obviously feels strongly that Bakish deserves a “seat at the table” in the new entity.

The view and position of Les Moonves is also understandable, he and Bakish do not work together every day. Moonves and Ianniello work together daily at CBS and have a loyalty to each other that would most definitely serve the combined company well.

Furthermore, the rumor mill is swirling with media reports of Shari Redstone being prepared to let Moonves go and create a whole new CBS board. These developments make an already turbulent situation even that much worse. The executives at CBS have thought from the onset of the negotiations that the Viacom offer for CBS is undervalued.

Therefore, in addition to feeling “low balled” on the offer, they also feel like they are under attack by Redstone, and they are getting defensive in their posture of response. These are natural human emotions that are taking place with a mega-merger hanging in the balance.

The sticking point, from a business perspective and a public relations/investor relations perspective is to have an experienced executive at the helm of such a large and complex operation as the proposed entity of CBS-Viacom would represent. The analysts on Wall Street have confidence in Les Moonves in that spot, with Bob Bakish in that position or someone else with less experience, that would not produce a favorable response from Wall Street.

The other scenario at play here behind the scenes is the sentiment that Viacom needs this merger more than CBS does at this point. This notion has degrees of truth because Viacom has the need for a partner for their basic cable networks in order to gain better leverage in negotiations with cable and satellite providers. Viacom also has the Paramount movie studio which is losing money seemingly by the minute.

Conversely, CBS needs to position itself to compete within an ever-changing climate in the television industry. The merger would provide CBS with more content to drive on their CBS All Access streaming platform. It would also provide CBS with more “pull” with advertisers that are looking to gain exposure for their brands across multiple cable networks as well as national broadcast programing.

The faster they realize that they need each other, the faster this deal will come together. They need to solve this acrimony which exists around the selection of key appointments to the management team of the new entity. The two sides should consider some type of compromise because the experienced leadership Moonves could provide to the new combined company is not easily replaced. I would think they could find some type of important role for Bakish to play in the combined new company.

These connections, the loyalty, and the relationships that these key people have with each other could serve to make this merger be one of great success. It can also have the reverse effect and create a massive mess for a merger deal of this type and carry over through the initial years of the new entity. It remains to be seen which direction that this situation will head down in the weeks ahead.

Monsanto Invests in Partnership with Pairwise Plants

In a follow up to another article done on genetic editing and CRISPR technology in modifying food products, Monsanto made an investment on Wednesday that made headlines.

The agricultural products giant, Monsanto, released a statement that it has made a $125 million investment in Pairwise Plants, a startup company specializing in genetic editing. Monsanto is banking on the technology, especially the method known as CRISPR, to produce fruit that lasts longer on store shelves and tastes sweeter.

The initial testing, according to published reports, in this Monsanto – Pairwise Plants venture will be on the strawberry. The process of genetic editing of food is different than that of genetically modifying (GMO) because it acts as one scientist explained, like a pair of “molecular scissors” which will cut out certain parts of the DNA strand to enhance other attributes.

The method allows for manipulation of the DNA of apples or strawberries, or soybeans to make them either taste better or stay fresh for a longer duration of time. The ethical implications are significant with many questioning whether science should be changing something that God created.

Furthermore, the boundaries of the gene-editing process are also in question in the context of what they could look to use the CRISPR method with in the future. The questions surrounding the use of the method on livestock to prolong or change the shelf life of meat or fish is a huge potential dilemma.

Some fine journalists have compiled some excellent content on the topic of gene-editing. I am more concerned with the implications this presents from the perspective of man playing God with our food supply.

The research shows that GMO is a dirty word, associated with all sorts of problems and issues. I have written several pieces on the GMO debate and the negative impact that genetic modification has had relative to certain health problems and disease states.

The process of genetic editing is one that Monsanto and the other agriculture products manufacturers are pinning their hopes on being more acceptable to the general public. They have pinned those hopes to the messaging around the process of genetic editing being more of a subtle procedure than the GMO scenario.

They also hope to confuse the customer with the science involved and talk about how the process is “more natural” than the GMO process. The whole situation is one of twisted logic. The core of the process still involves altering the way the fruit or vegetable is currently constituted.

The farmers and grocery industry will be whole heartedly behind this new process because it will yield them better profits. However, our society has to ask itself: at what expense?

This is also not the first strategic business move that Monsanto has made with regard to genetic editing, about a week ago they entered into an agreement with a firm called TargetGene to explore what are known as multiple gene edits. They also plan to use this partnership to expand the gene editing process into more potential product categories.

The fact that this activity has gone mostly unnoticed by the public and mostly unchecked by the federal government is also an issue which compelled me to put this piece out. The process changes the genomes of certain crops in our food supply. The results of which have potentially serious consequences.

The proponents will point to the assumption that genetic editing will reduce the amount of GMO seeds being produced (see my previous post to this one) especially in the case of certain crops. The detractors will bring up that the seeds and the process of CRISPR will not happen overnight and may not have that widespread impact on the GMO seed issue.

In a world where autoimmune disease rates are increasingly on the rise as are rates of autism and Parkinson’s disease all being linked to the food we eat, we do not need any more altered food products.

The potential for Monsanto to merge with Bayer to become an even larger entity could provide even further potential investment into genetic editing. The potential for use of genome editing in animals and in humans also hangs in the balance.

The question remains: should scientists have the ability to play God? Should this process be used in human embryos to alter what God created?

My answer to both of those questions is a resounding: No.
It is my hope and prayer that your answer is the same.

Tip Of The Iceberg: Syngenta Settlement With Corn Farmers

The settlement that was announced last week and awaits the approval of the court system involving a class action lawsuit by corn farmers against the agricultural chemical juggernaut, Syngenta, is just the tip of the iceberg involving international concerns over genetically modified crops.

The suit dealt with a strain of modified corn that Syngenta sold to the farmers under the guise that it was going to be grown for export to China. However, the big issue was that China had not approved that strain of GMO corn and Syngenta did not get approval prior to negotiating the deal with the farmers.

Ultimately, China rejected the import of millions of tons of the genetically modified strain of corn called Agrisure Viptera. This tremendous amount is what caused the settlement numbers in this case to multiply significantly.

The settlement is over $1.5 billion and, according to Reuters, would be the largest class action settlement for an agriculture case in American history. This whole case represents a larger problem with the conglomerates running the seed industry, with GMO containing products, and with the import and export of certain staple crops within the food supply.

Syngenta is now owned by ChemChina, in a merger that was well publicized recently and heavily debated because of the implications of Chinese ownership of a company which supplies products which are integral to the American food supply.

It should be noted that ninety percent of the U.S. corn crop supply is genetically modified.

This sadly, is one piece of a giant patchwork of international export deals involving GMO staple food sources, not only corn. It includes wheat, soybean, and sugar beet crops as well. It is nearly impossible to find a mainstream food product without the “made with genetic engineering” disclaimer on the label.

The international laws around GMO food products make for even more unknown variables. There are certain countries that do not require the disclosure of ingredients that are GMO containing and do not label crop sources that are genetically engineered.

The push for organic foods and organic staple crops is making a resurgence in some parts of the world but the main issue is that the farmland is already tainted from GMO seeds that it is very difficult to impossible to use that land for organic crops.

The seeds are already genetically altered for so many crops that even if a farmer used organic products to preserve and sustain the crops they would inherently contain GMOs. The most effective way to deal with GMOs is at the seed level and growing less crops of corn for ethanol use.

However, this also is easier stated than put into tangible action. The agricultural seed industry is dominated by a few conglomerates: Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta. Monsanto controls over one quarter of the entire seed industry globally, and those three companies account for almost half of the entire global seed industry, which is a staggering figure.

That level of control into the hands of so few companies is a setback to any substantive progress being made with non-GM seeds. Then, consider further that all three of those enormous companies are in transition: Monsanto is in merger talks with Bayer, DuPont has merged with Dow, and Syngenta was merged with ChemChina in a $43 billion deal.

Some companies have taken the “Safe Seed Pledge” promising to not use GMO ingredients in their seeds, but they are used in smaller scale amounts for gardening and not for mass production. The scale up for the demands of the food supply make the reductions in GMO crops problematic.

The genetically modified trend is growing to impact fish and other livestock as well. It is presenting some moral and ethical questions along the way.

In a time period where social media and the internet has made for increased transparency, the international trade deals and ambiguous labeling laws for genetically engineered or modified foods make it incredibly difficult for people to know what they are eating.

The import of genetically modified ingredients is a whole other avenue where food products could become infiltrated with GMOs. The link between certain ingredients and genetic modification has been well established and internationally it is difficult to find alternate sources.

The United States got into the GMO crop scenario so deeply it is going to be hard to reverse course at this point. The European Union, by contrast, does not allow the sale of GMO food and produces it on a small percentage of their farmland for export purposes only.

The settlement by Syngenta over the failed exports to China is just one trade deal gone wrong. It is just one piece to the puzzle, it is the tip of the iceberg in a maze of deals centered on GMO products. The rest of those pieces will fall in future and the public questions about GMOs will continue and sadly the answers are not very promising.

Mergers & Acquisitions Roundup

In recent months on this blog I have updated and followed up on a variety of mergers and acquisitions in a variety of different industries. The past week has seen some movement on some of those proposed mergers or attempted hostile bids or whatever the case may be; the best way to update them is to provide a summary of each situation.

The M&A market is expected to gain traction in the coming months after a slower than normal start to the year, especially in certain industry types.

CVS – Aetna
This proposed mega-deal made the news on Wednesday because the $40 billion debt deal that CVS is undertaking as part of the nearly $70 billion dollar merger is going to lower their credit rating.

It is no secret that certain lending institutions would consider CVS a credit risk with taking on such a significant amount of debt at one time. It was a component of the deal that nobody discussed when it was initially announced.

Then, on top of that debt load issue, are the rather legitimate conflict of interest and consumer protections aspects of this deal which are still being reviewed. The general consensus is that a foundational problem with this merger is the combination of a major health insurer with a major retail pharmacy chain which has a parent company involved in healthcare services.

It will be interesting to watch this merger, if approved, it could be a situation where CVS Caremark wins the battle but loses the war.
Broadcom vs. Qualcomm
This attempted hostile takeover by Broadcom of their U.S. based competitor, Qualcomm has been a very strange scenario from the beginning.

The whole backstory is very complicated, and some great reporters and financial news services have provided insightful reporting on this convoluted mess. Broadcom is a tech company based in Singapore and they have attempted to buy Qualcomm multiple times at different valuations.

The problem for Qualcomm is that they do not have another willing investor or potential suitor that they could join forces with in a more amicable way to stave off Broadcom.

Then, to top it all off, the U.S. government got involved in the past week to temporarily halt the potential merger over concerns that a foreign held company was acquiring a U.S. based company with certain proprietary technologies in telecommunications. They have certain regulatory concerns over the deal.

Broadcom has now pledged to the U.S. government on Wednesday that they will invest in the training of American engineers and others in the workforce to keep high-paying, “good” jobs in the United States.

The whole situation is a disaster and it has been from the beginning. I am not sure if the federal government is going to sign off on this proposal. That creates uncertainty for the future of Qualcomm as well.

Smuckers & ConAgra

What struck me about this proposed deal (which is now dead) is that in my time in the food industry ConAgra was always usually in the role of the buyer. In this case, they were looking to sell their Wesson brand cooking oil business to JM Smucker Company.

The federal government shutdown the deal over anti-trust concerns citing that Smucker would then control about 70% of the entire cooking oil market. The government felt that this would be unfair to the consumers and could create price hikes that would limit consumer choice.

The Smucker side of the story is, in short, that the government used inflated numbers and did not take into account the impact of private label brands and smaller regional brands in the cooking oil market. I must add in the defense of the government, that not too many smaller brand labels of cooking oil jump to my mind.

I could understand the rationale behind Smucker (who generally make smart decisions in M&A activity) would want the Wesson brand. I can only predict that ConAgra wanted to sell the brand because they are moving away from holdings in that segment of the industry and they would have used the cash from the deal to invest into more core strategic areas of new business development.

Comcast versus Disney/FOX Over Sky TV

The latest bidding war is just heating up between Comcast and Disney/FOX over the rights to SKY. A major investment bank downgraded Comcast stock after they put that offer on the table for SKY.

I understand Comcast trying to bolster their core business in this play for SKY, but it does make you wonder if the deal is done whether or not they will have overextended.

Bayer & Monsanto
A major mega-merger which I have covered since it was announced. The European Union issued a statement saying they will have a vote on the proposal soon after multiple postponements in recent months.

This merger proposal will have an impact on the farmers, the consumers, and the price of food supplies. The introduction of more potential GMO containing seeds is another concerning aspect of this deal that merits the attention of the public.

Rite Aid and Albertson’s

The debacle that was the failed attempt of Walgreens and Rite Aid to merge, left Rite Aid in a precarious situation when stacked against larger competitors.

The list of suitors for Rite Aid within the retail pharmacy landscape was slim to none, so they went outside the box a bit and found a partner in Albertson’s to bail them out.

Albertson’s is a large retail grocery chain for those who do not know, and they used to own pharmacies that were operated within their grocery stores primarily. So they understand the aspects of the retail business and some of the dynamics of the retail pharmacy channel.

This merger actually makes some sense and will allow Rite Aid to stay alive in an increasingly competitive market.

That is the roundup on mergers for now. I am sure that one or all of these proposals will have some developments as we move forward in the coming weeks. Stay tuned.

The Battle Over Sky News: Front Lines In The Media Battle Between Comcast and Disney

The financial news had some buzz around the potential for a bidding war between Disney/FOX and Comcast for Sky News/Networks on Tuesday. This activity signals what could be the opening salvo in a protracted battle between the major players in the television/visual media to play out across the next several months.

In this case, the asset is Sky News/Networks which has a viewership reach in Europe that is valuable for media companies seeking to expand their capacity and content distribution. In the current situation, FOX owns part of Sky and presented a bid recently to purchase the remaining stake it did not own.

Comcast jumped into the mix on Tuesday with an offer to purchase a controlling interest in Sky which represents a 16% higher valuation than the offer made by FOX. This situation is further complicated by the pending merger of Disney and FOX which essentially puts Disney into the driver’s seat on this deal because Disney would ultimately own Sky upon completion of the merger.

This means that Disney would have to evaluate the offer made by Comcast and decide whether they will propose a counter proposal for Sky. Many financial and merger experts with knowledge of the situation believe that a counter offer will take place and that Sky Networks will end up selling at a premium after a bidding war between Disney and Comcast.

Furthermore, the sentiment in the industry on Tuesday was that Disney might, in essence, lose the battle for Sky Networks, but “win the war” by securing some type of legal assurances from Comcast regarding the bidding for other FOX assets. Disney wants to avoid having bidding wars with Comcast over several different pieces of the now almost former 21st Century Fox properties.

It remains to be seen whether Disney can wrangle that type of agreement out of Comcast which would be unusual but not unprecedented. The general sentiment about the future of Sky is that they would be best suited with Comcast because it meshes better with their core business.

Many consumers visualize Sky as a news company, especially in America where we may have the channel as part of a cable or satellite TV package. The parent company, Sky PLC, which is what is at stake here in this potential bidding war between Comcast and Disney/FOX is much larger than just a news service.

Sky has a satellite television service, broadband service, on-demand internet streaming services, and telecommunications service offerings in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Austria, Germany, and Italy. This asset would increase the service offering capabilities for Disney with their new streaming application or for Comcast who is in the business of optimizing home entertainment, broadband, and telecommunications services.

Moreover, the much larger battle will revolve around the future of Hulu. The Hulu streaming service is owned partially by ABC/Disney, FOX, and Comcast (NBC). The proposed merger of the Disney and FOX assets would include their respective stakes in Hulu.

In fact, the potential to control streaming content through Hulu was one of the significant factors in the Disney bid for FOX according to a report from CNBC and Comcast could create some trouble in giving up their piece in Hulu in the future.

The total sum of this consolidation activity, amid the backdrop of Disney preparing for launch of their own streaming application service, will affect the consumer. The rights to content and the distribution of content will be the main driver in the way the consumer accesses all types of media. The control of that content into the hands of the few, is going to set the table for conditions where pricing can become prohibitive.

Disney, should the pending merger meet approval, would retain their 30% share in Hulu plus gain the 30% share held by FOX and would be the majority stakeholder in the streaming service which reaches over 30 million subscribers and has revenues from ad sales and subscription fees. It is also a significant asset that Comcast has invested money into as well and they may not be willing to just part ways with their stake. They could put Disney “over the barrel” for that last big piece of the Hulu business unit.

The overall health of Sky as a provider is solid, it is my understanding that the business growth in Italy was stagnant for a long period of time but that it has since rebounded. It remains to be seen if the change in ownership causes any noticeable alterations to the way that the customers in Europe will be serviced. Most merger and acquisition type of scenarios feature the potential suitors touting the benefits they would bring to the table.

This case is no different with Comcast essentially stating that they would improve the services offered currently by Sky and use their technology and service delivery expertise to help provide a better customer experience.

Disney has also made similar overtures in their bid stating how desirable Sky would be for them to reach European audiences in a new way, and that they would fully complete the consolidation of an asset that was held in part by FOX for a long period of time. They would look to build upon that tradition and reputation that FOX has built into the programming and content there, but the management of the other portions of that business are outside the scope of the core business for Disney.

The proposals for Sky News and the parent company, Sky PLC, are almost certainly going to create a bidding war between two media heavyweights: Disney and Comcast. This bid could very well represent the opening round of a war between the two entities for other assets contained both within the FOX/21st Century Fox business and outside of those businesses.

The stakes for the consumer are high because the control of content and distribution will both be up for grabs, and the costs for access to that content will have a definitive impact on the consumer in the future. It remains to be seen which side will ultimately emerge, but what is clear is that either Disney or Comcast will be growing even larger and more influential than they are today.

(Background information courtesy of Fortune, BBC.com, CNBC, Recode)