Food for thought: the restaurant industry is hungry for customers. The overall economy may be picking up, but major chains are hurting.
And it's the casual, or family-style restaurants – such as Red Lobster, Applebee's, and Bob Evans – that are feeling the most pain. According to the Knapp-Track Index, a key measure of monthly restaurant sales has dropped for three straight months (December, January and February). It's the first time that's happened in about three years.
Malcolm Knapp, who founded the index and is an advisor to the food service industry, says these restaurants are particularly sensitive to changes in our disposable income, and that's been the problem over the past few months.
The main factor is the end of the tax holiday, which cut the payroll tax by two percent in 2011 and 2012. But that ended on January 1st – and for most of us, it felt like a tax increase, sine our disposable income went down. Less take-home pay means fewer trips for nice dinners out.
There were other factors, too. The big spike in gasoline prices back in January and February had a direct impact on restaurant spending. And the weather packed a wallop as well. You probably recall that last winter was very mild, while there have been a number of big storms this year. As Knapp tells us, casual-dining restaurants never make up for a lost week or weekend of sales.
He also says the casual restaurant category is the most sensitive to all of these factors. Fast-food restaurants often benefit when we feel poorer, and high-end restaurants are somewhat immune to things like the payroll tax or changes in the price at the pump.
Here are the biggest players in the casual dining industry:
Brinker International (EAT) owns Chili's and Maggiano's.
Darden (DRI) owns Red Lobster, Olive Garden and Longhorn Steakhouse.
And Bloomin' Brands (BLMN) has Outback Steakhouse and Carrabba's Italian Grill.
But it's not all bad news for these chains. Knapp says sales are trending up this month. What's helping? Consumer confidence is up as more and more people find jobs.
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Satellite radio has never been more popular. There are now 23.9 million subscribers after the parent company of Sirius and XM closed out 2012 with 2 million more accounts than it had when the year began.
However, Sirius XM lost its longstanding CEO late last year, and a media conglomerate has acquired a controlling stake in the satellite radio provider -- events that have triggered uncertainty.
Still, Sirius XM is a company that has been consistently profitable and generating growing amounts of revenue and free cash flow on its own. And, auto sales also remain strong: Those represent the largest source of new subscribers for Sirius XM, as most of its users tune in through car factory-installed receivers.
A few years ago, Nokia was the undisputed top dog in mobile phone handsets. The Finnish company was a global juggernaut at a time when consumers were swapping beepers -- remember those? -- for wireless phones.
But the market has evolved repeatedly since then. Cheaper feature phones have been replaced by smartphones that run apps and surf the Web, and Nokia has been slow to embrace the platforms that matter. Obviously it couldn't put out an iPhone, but it also wasn't able to match Samsung's early push into Android devices that are now globally popular.
Nokia is accepting billions to back Microsoft's fledgling Windows Phone mobile operating system, but the stock has been stuck in the single digits for more than two years.
It isn't easy being a regional telco, offering up landlines, Internet, and cable TV to rural markets.
A big draw for investors in Frontier Communications is its meaty dividend payout. Even after slashing its quarterly rate from $0.1875 a share to $0.10 a share last year, the stock's still yielding 10 percent. The large dividend is significant, since shorts actually have to cover that when it gets paid out.
Analysts see revenue and profitability continuing to decline here, and pessimists are holding out for more dividend cuts in the future.
The old "Intel inside" ads came out at a time when PC sales were booming. Manufacturers were hopping on Intel microprocessors to power desktops and laptops, only turning to smaller rival Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) when they wanted to show Intel that they weren't entirely dependent on the chip giant.
But the tech world have taken an "Intel outside" approach in recent years. PC shipments have fallen for two years, and Intel's efforts to get its chips into the smartphones and tablets that people are actually buying haven't been effective enough to offset its declines on the PC side.
The poster child for the "too big to fail" banking giants is starting to bounce back.
Bank of America stock hit a fresh 52-week high this month, and regulators finally eased up on the bank after it cleared its stress test. That freed Bank of America to return more of its money to shareholders beyond its token quarterly dividend of $0.01 a share, and the financial services giant's first move was to declare a huge share repurchase program.
As long as the housing market holds up and the general state of corporate America makes lending money to companies a smart bet, Bank of America will do just fine. Shorts, naturally, don't see it that way at all.