Icahn Climbs Down on eBay; Schultz Raises the Bar for Starbucks

Yesterday's conclusion to the Federal Reserve's March monetary policy meeting, which was more hawkish than expected, appears to have sent a mini-tremor through global equity markets that came full circle back to the U.S., albeit with diminished intensity. The benchmark S&P 500 and the narrower Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES: ^DJI  )  both started the day down, but reversed course and as of 10:15 a.m. EDT were respectively up 0.33% and 0.29%. This morning, two classic growth names are in focus: eBay (NASDAQ: EBAY  ) and Starbucks (NASDAQ: SBUX  ) .

Is Carl Icahn losing his bite? After a series of blistering attacks on eBay, the legendary activist investor is climbing down from his demand that the e-commerce site spin off its PayPal payments unit. In a statement posted on his website yesterday, Icahn instead called for a partial flotation of 20% of PayPal.

In arguing for the new plan, Icahn recognized the importance of synergies between PayPal and eBay (a point former PayPal executive vice president and board member and now LinkedIn CEO Reid Hoffman made in a blog post at the beginning of the month). The nature of his demand may have changed, but it would be a mistake to underestimate the extent of Icahn's determination. At stake are two seats on eBay's board in a highly visible proxy contest.

I believe that a spinoff of PayPal would be advantageous to the payments company, as the scope of its business lies well beyond eBay's perimeter. Furthermore, as Icahn pointed out: "PayPal is a tremendous company, but it is on the verge of going to war against strong adversaries, and only with the benefits of being an independent company, as described above, will PayPal be capable of winning that war."

I assume that the "strong adversaries" are payments giants Visa and MasterCard, but if Bitcoin has taught us anything, it is that there is also the potential for a disruptive technology to emerge. The payments industry would appear to be begging for just this type of change.

Speaking of disruptive technologies, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz wants to be sure he isn't caught unaware by the shift toward mobile commerce. At the company's annual meeting yesterday, Schultz outlined to investors the efforts being devoted to the digital business at the coffee chain, where mobile transactions now represent 14% of stores sales. He also referred to the "seismic shift" in retail toward e-commerce and the impact this has on Starbucks' store business -- all other things being equal, less mall traffic equals fewer visits to Starbucks locations.

Starbucks sees great prospects for growth in emerging markets and in the development of its tea business. Schultz postulated an ambitious goal to become a $100 billion market value company (from $57 billion today), though it's worth noting that he did not put a time frame on that figure. At 27 times next 12 months' earnings-per-share estimate, the stock doesn't look particularly cheap, but the long-term upside of this business could yet surprise investors.


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