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United CEO Smisek undone by N.J. corruption investigation

Under Jeff Smisek’s stewardship, the merger of United Airlines and Continental was marred by mediocre stock performance, computer  glitches, and low grades from consumers. But Smisek’s sudden ouster as the airline’s CEO likely had more to do with inquiries pegged to alleged corruption at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey than his turbulent tenure at the carrier's helm.
“It certainly doesn’t’ help that the company has had such a rocky merger integration,''  says Jim Corridore, an analyst with S&P Capital IQ, "but . .. it seems that the main issue is this investigation,’’
United announced Tuesday that Smisek had resigned from his roles as CEO, president and chairman of the board, effective immediately. The airline said that his departure, along with those of two other airline officials, was connected to a federal investigation and internal company inquiry into dealings with the Port Authority, which oversees United’s hub in Newark, as well as New York’s other major airports.
Oscar Munoz, 56, a United board member who was COO and president of the rail company CSX Corporation, was named as Smisek’s replacement.
In a conference call with investors Tuesday, Munoz noted that he was taking over leadership of a company that had endured difficulties since United and Continental joined forces in 2010.
“It’s been a rough integration,’’ Munoz said, “and there’s lots of complex matters to work through.’’
Still, it appears that the corruption allegations surrounding the Port Authority, which have sparked investigations, two indictments, and hobbled the presidential ambitions of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, may have been Smisek’s undoing, industry watchers say.
“This strikes me as an attempt by United to say ‘Look, we did an internal investigation, (and) we removed the responsible  officials when we learned of this activity,’’ says David Primo, a professor at the University of Rochester’s Simon Business School, who has written about the airline industry. “This could be an attempt by the airline to  insulate itself from potential legal action.’’
Primo added that if United wanted to remove Smisek because of the airline’s spotty performance, it could have been done at any time. “Given the timing, and the public statement that United made, and the fact that they hired an outside law firm to investigate the allegations about improper dealing with the Port Authority . . .it’s almost certain that their internal investigation revealed evidence that was so clear cut, that they had no choice but to let the CEO go.’’
Earlier this year, federal prosecutors subpoenaed records of interactions between United officials and David Samson, former chairman of the Port Authority and a confidante of New Jersey’s Gov. Christie. In April, Bloomberg News recounted a dinner in September, 2011, attended by Samson and Smisek, where Samson allegedly asked that United resume service between Newark, where it is the biggest carrier, and Columbia, S.C., which had an airport  closer to Samson’s weekend home.
United launched service from Newark to Columbia Metropolitan Airport on Sept. 6, 2012, according to Lynne Douglas, Columbia airport’s air service development and customer service manager. The flights, which operated only on Thursdays and Mondays, ended on April 1, 2014. The previous month, Samson had resigned from his position at the Port Authority in the midst of allegations that officials at his agency, along with staffers working for Gov. Christie, cut off lanes to the George Washington Bridge, triggering massive traffic jams, in Sept. 2013.
According to a filing by United with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Smisek has said that he will cooperate regarding claims or inquiries stemming from incidents that happened at United during his tenure.
Smisek will receive a severance payment of $4,875,000 in cash, according to the filing, and will still qualify for a pro-rated annual cash incentive award for the current fiscal year. He will also receive nearly 61,000 shares of the company’s common stock, flight benefits and be able to keep his company car.
But Smisek could also be made to repay some severance monies or benefits if he pleads guilty or is convicted of a felony or crime “involving moral turpitude’’ connected to his service at United, the filing says.
Though the ongoing investigations appear to be at the root of Smisek's departure, Vicki Bryan, an analyst at Gimme Credit, says that Smisek's leadership should also have contributed to his dismissal.
“I hope that it was also because of his poor performance,’’ Bryan said. “United’s record is terrible . . .(The  board is) still remiss in waiting so long and waiting for so much destruction to the network and United’s credibility.’’
Now, Bryan says, investors will be watching to see if Munoz can do a better job. “I don’t know what took them so long,’’ Bryan said of Smisek’s removal, “but it’s done.’’

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Job openings hit record high in July

Job openings surged to a record high in July even as hiring fell, signaling a tighter labor market that's expected to soon push up wage growth.
Employers advertised 5.8 million jobs, up from 5.3 million in June and the highest on records dating to 2000, the Labor Department said Wednesday. The previous high was 5.4 million in May.
The report doused a market rally as investors took it as a sign the Federal Reserve could raise interest rates as soon as next week to prepare for an eventual pickup in currently low inflation.
The number of hires, though, slipped to 5 million from 5.2 million, according to the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey. As the unemployment rate falls to near-normal levels, many employers are struggling to find workers —  a dilemma some economists attribute to  mismatches  between the skills of unemployed workers and employers' needs.The jobless rate was 5.3% in July and dropped to 5.1% last month.
Many laid off mid-level managers in human resources, marketing and accounting lack the skills in big data analysis and digital marketing, for example, that are required in the modern workplace, says Tom Gimbel, CEO of LaSalle network, a Chicago staffing firm.
The limited pool of job candidates who have those skills are being snapped up more quickly, reducing the average duration of job openings among his clients over the past year to about five weeks from two months.
Chicago-based StratEx, which makes human resources software, has struggled since early June to hire 10 project managers, software developers and customer service representatives, says CEO Adam Ochstein. The company, which typically requires job candidates to undergo five interviews, has lost many to other employers that are pouncing more quickly in the more competitive market.
“It’s biting us in the butt as we go through our due diligence,” he says. He says the firm, with 70 employees, likely could have increased revenue by additional 15% to 20% if it had filled the positions.
Guidant Financial of Bellevue, Wash., which helps small businesses obtain loans, similarly has struggled as long as six months to fill 10 to 15 openings for account executives, technology support representatives and Web designers, says CEO David Nilssen. In response, he says, the company has raised wages by 5% the past 12 months, up from 3.5% the previous year. And it’s now willing to train job candidates who don’t have all the skills it’s seeking.
A big reason hiring has lagged openings is that many employers just recently began ramping up staffing as the economy has picked up, and have been unwilling to raise salaries, says Paul McDonald, senior executive director of staffing firm Robert Half.
“We have to coach them,” he says.
That’s starting to change, he says. The firm predicts overall starting salaries for professionals will rise 4.1% next year, compared to 3.8% in 2015. Growth in average hourly earnings across the economy has remained modest, though it ticked up to 2.2% annually in August from 2% in June, perhaps signaling a coming acceleration.
Labor reported Friday that employers added a solid 245,000 jobs in July, revising up its previous estimate by 30,000.

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Macy's to open Best Buy shops inside stores

CINCINNATI — After a month of market volatility and an announcement it will close dozens of underperforming stores, Macy’s will soon open Best Buy shops within some of its department stores as a way to test selling consumer electronics.
The companies announced the arrangement earlier this week, which will begin in 10 Macy’s stores across the country in November. The 10 locations weren’t identified.
The 300-square-foot space will be staffed by Best Buy employees and featureSamsung smartphones, tablets and smart watches, as well as audio devices and accessories from Samsung and other brands.
Macy’s Inc. President Jeff Gennette said that the companies will test the stores through the holidays and into 2016 before deciding on the next steps.
“We are delighted that consumer electronics will be returning to selected Macy’s stores … Our customers have expressed interest in electronics for self-purchase and gift-giving,” Gennette said in a news release.
The association with Best Buy was announced on Tuesday, the same day Macy's said it will close 35 to 40 underperforming stores, around 5% of its total locations.
Best Buy, the nation’s largest consumer electronics chain, has been able to successfully navigate a tough consumer electronics market as it wrestles with price pressures and increased competition from online stores, notably Amazon.com.
In August, it posted fiscal second-quarter results that handily beat analysts' estimates as shoppers picked up major appliances, large screen televisions and mobile phones.
Best Buy's results are benefiting from an overall shift in consumer spending toward big-ticket items in the home amid improving home values. Business is also being helped by an explosion of new gadgets such as Apple watch, which will be rolled out to all of Best Buy's big-box stores by the end of September. The trend in spending for the home is also playing into the hands of home improvement players such as Home Depot.
Macy's stock has been hit hard after a month of market volatility, with shares down a bruising 20% from the all-time high it hit in mid-July. The tumble snaps an almost seven-year winning streak as the retailer deftly navigated the Great Recession and its lingering aftermath that dragged down so many competitors.

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Fiat Chrysler recalls nearly 1.7 million Ram pickup trucks

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles said today it is recalling nearly 1.7 million recent-model Ram pickups to check or repair wiring harnesses, airbags and steering components that may be faulty.
The automaker issued three separate recalls that affect its popular Ram 1500 or larger heavy-duty trucks, potentially impacting efforts to increase market share and boost its reputation for quality. The automaker already is in the middle of one of its most difficult years in terms of recalls and its relationship with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
In July, Fiat Chrysler agreed to a consent order and civil penalties of $105 million after NHTSA found that the automakers's record of fixing vehicles was spotty: actions on 23 previous recalls were either too slow or inadequate. The company was also required to offer to buy back nearly 200,000 Dodge SUVs and Ram pickups.
The largest of the three recalls announced today involves an estimated 1.1 million pickups sold in North America that may have steering-wheel wiring harnesses that wear because of contact with a spring and could inadvertently set off the truck's airbag. The wear could cause a short-circuit that may lead to inadvertent driver-side air-bag deployment.
The wiring harness issues affect model-year 2012-2014 Ram 1500, 2500 and 3500 pickups and 3500, 4500 and 5500 Chassis Cabs. The company said it is aware of two injuries, but no accidents.
Fiat Chrysler also said it will recall about 190,337 Ram heavy-duty trucks in North America to inspect and repair bracket welds that could affect steering. Some of the welds for the steering components could separate. That recall affects certain 2013 Ram 3500 pickups, 2014 Ram 2500/3500 pickups and 3500 Chassis Cabs.
The company is aware of one accident involving the bracket weld problem. There were no injuries.
The third recall involves 188,000 model-year 2014 and 2015 Ram 1500 Quad Cab pickups to make the side-curtain air-bags compliant with a federal regulation to reduce the risk of a rear occupant being ejected during a rollover.
The company said it isn't aware of any injuries or accidents related to that recall.
Fiat Chrysler is in the process of notifying Ram owners and repairs will be performed at no cost.

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New Chevrolet Malibu gets a lower starting price

Chevrolet's 2016 Malibu, which has been overhauled with a new sleek look, will have a new, lower base price.
The new version of the midsize sedan carry starting prices ranging from $22,500, including shipping charges, for the base L model to $31,795 for the up-level Premier package. The current lowest priced Malibu is $23,290.
"We've continued our focus on delivering on the highest levels of quality, as evidenced by recent recognition from J.D. Power," said Steve Majoros, director of Chevrolet cars and crossovers marketing. "The 2016 Malibu is engineered and priced to give customers impressive value and technology."
Comparing these prices to the 2015 is difficult. There are fewer trim levels on the outgoing model. The base engine is a different size -- 2.5 liters. But the three 2015 trim levels -- LS, LT and LTZ -- range in starting prices from $23,290 to $29,145.
Starting, or base prices, don't include the price of optional equipment that is not standard.
The redesigned midsize sedan will come in five trim levels: L, LS, LT, Hybrid and Premier. Standard equipment includes 10 air bags, cruise control, push-button start with passive entry and fuel-saving stop/start technology on the base 1.5-liter, four-cylinder engine. The Malibu will go on sale before the end of the year.
The LS will start at $23,995 with standard features such as MyLink radio, Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, subject to Apple and Google privacy statements, and a rear-vision camera.
The LT starts at $25,895, including the same standard equipment as the LS plus LED daytime running lamps and 8-way power driving seats.
The LT and Premier start at $29,495 and $31,795 respectively, and have the option of a 2-liter turbo ending that GM estimates will get 22 miles per gallon in the city and 32 on the highway. Official EPA estimates are not yet available.
All prices include a $875 shipping charge.
Pricing for the Malibu hybrid will be announced closer to its start of production in spring 2016. Workers at GM's Fairfax, Kan., plant will build the Malibu.

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Star Wars is going to take over holiday shopping

Sorry Elsa, but Chewie, Yoda and the gang are back and taking over the holiday shopping season.
With the Dec. 18 movie release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, some retailers stand to gain a fourth-quarter sales uptick as they make a major marketing investment and dedicate significant floor space to new toys, apparel, games and even home decor tied to the movie.
In a knock to the children's holiday favorite of recent years, Walmart is "planning it bigger than Frozen," says Anne Marie Kehoe, the company's vice president of toys.
Last week's Force Friday events, where new Star Wars products were revealed to much fanfare at midnight store openings, were only round one. With more toys expected to come out in the next few months, retailers are gearing up for a holiday season fueled in part by the rebirth of one of the most popular franchises in history.
"This is going to be a blockbuster merchandise event," says Joel Bines, managing director in the retail practice at consulting firm AlixPartners. "You will not be able to avoid Star Wars merchandise. It will be impossible this holiday season."
And compared with the Star Wars merchandise of years past, technology and increased competition among toymakers have upped the game. There are customizable lightsabers, an interactive talking Yoda doll, a BB-8 toy droid and bigger action figures that have lights, sound and movement.
For the toy industry, which does 70% of its sales in the last two months of the year, the new Star Wars movie is a big deal, says Jim Silver, CEO and Editor-in-Chief of TTPM, a website that reviews kids' products.
Starting with Force Friday, Toys R Us has indefinitely dedicated twice as much floor space as normal to Star Wars merchandise, anticipating additional product rollouts as more movies make their way to theaters in the coming years. Walmart has another round of events planned for the weekend of Nov. 15, driving customers into stores for potential holiday shopping two weeks before Black Friday.
"When you look at the next five years and all of the different products, this is a multibillion-dollar proposition," Silver says. "So it’s extremely important. The amount of room given to Star Wars at retailers is much greater than ever before."
Target has life-size Chewbacca cardboard cutouts in stores that growl when you walk past and a dedicated display that compiles everything Star Wars in one place. That will be up at least through this week."We feel the Star Wars film will be the big pop culture moment of 2015. It is definitely a strong, strong component of holiday," spokesperson Lee Henderson said.

Meanwhile, the Disney Store plans to keep interactive in-store "theaters" — 90-inch TV screens where customers can watch a range of music videos, movie trailers and film clips — set to the new Star Wars movie through December and will keep introducing new products even after the movie comes out, says Elissa Margolis, senior vice president of Disney Store North America.
Retailers such as Toys R Us and Disney Store have a lot on the line. Toys R Us has been working on launching the new line of products for several years, says Richard Barry, global chief executive of merchandising. Kehoe says that given the late-December movie release, Walmart hopes to see continued momentum through January, a typically slow sales month, when kids will be armed with gift cards and still excited about the film.
Retailers are also in a position to capitalize on the broader appeal of the latest Star Wars installment as it brings a new generation into its fandom, Kehoe says. Disney has helped with that by going beyond Star Wars nerd culture, striking licensing deals with companies including Pottery Barn, J. Crew and Cover Girl to sell merchandise such as a children's bed in the shape of the Millennium Falcon cockpit, hipster T-shirts and a makeup line inspired by the movie.
Sales of Star Wars merchandise are expected to generate $3 billion in 2015, according to a Piper Jaffray research note. An estimate by Macquarie Research puts that number at $5 billion over the next 12 months. But for a $3.5 trillion annual retail industry, Star Wars isn't a make-it or break-it deal, Bines says.
"You love this if you’re the toy buyer," Bines says. "But if you’re the CEO, you’re not building your entire holiday plan around this launch."

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New Justice Dept. policy aims to get tough on Wall Street fraud

WASHINGTON  — The Justice Department issued a new policy Wednesday that made the prosecution of Wall Street executives involved in financial fraud a major priority, all but acknowledging nagging criticism that powerful corporate figures have escaped criminal charges in favor of giant monetary penalties.
"Effective immediately, we have revised our policy guidance to require that if a company wants any credit for cooperation, any credit at all, it must identify all individuals involved in the wrongdoing, regardless of their position, status or seniority in the company, and provide all relevant facts about their misconduct,’’ according to Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates’ prepared remarks for a Thursday speech at New York University Law School.
“It’s all or nothing. No more picking and choosing what gets disclosed. No more partial credit for cooperation that doesn’t include information about individuals,’’ Yates said.
The New York Times first reported the policy change Wednesday night.
Yates’ prepared remarks elaborate on policy issued to federal prosecutors nationwide Wednesday, calling for federal authorities not to provide individuals “protection from criminal or civil liability,’’ absent extraordinary circumstances.
“The rules have just changed,’’ Yates said. “Effective today, if a company wants any consideration for its voluntary disclosure or cooperation, it must give up the individuals, no matter where they sit within the company.’’
In the aftermath of the financial crisis and housing market collapse, Justice has long been criticized for failing to target executives who presided over the rampant fraud that facilitated the crises.
“Corporate matters cannot be resolved without clear plan to resolve cases against individuals and all decisions declining to prosecute potential culpable individuals must be approved by the U.S. attorney of the head of the division handling the case,’’ according to the new Justice guidelines.
“Civil attorneys will consistently focus on individuals as well as the company and evaluate whether to bring suit against an individual based on considerations beyond that individual’s ability to pay.’’
Some of the changes, according to the memo distributed to all 93 U.S. attorneys’ offices across the country, “represent a departure from the department’s long-standing approach to corporate prosecutions.’’
“The policy will apply to all future investigations of corporate wrongdoing,’’ the memo states.
Yates, in remarks to the NYU law school, said the “mission here is not to recover the largest amount of money from the greatest number of corporations.
“Our job is to seek accountability from those who break our laws and victimize our citizens.  It’s the only way to truly deter corporate wrongdoing.’’

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